By Bill Henk – It’s risky business any time an academic dean takes a stand on a sensitive, controversial, or politically charged issue. There’s usually no shortage of potential stakeholders to annoy, upset, offend, or infuriate. Let’s just say that the fallout can be epic, and the consequences can threaten or end an administrative career.
The position I’m about to take publicly here on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) shouldn’t rise to a level of high stakes for me, although I suppose it could. But even if it did, speaking out on this matter is something I must do, as someone who has devoted his career to education. Why? … because the stakes ARE high for Wisconsin school children.
Let me be clear at the outset that this is my position, not Marquette’s. For that matter, I don’t even know for sure that I speak on behalf of faculty members in my own College of Education, although I think so. The point is that I can no longer personally or professionally abide bystander status in the debate over the Standards. There’s a part of me that just wants to scream, “Please stop the political posturing; can we just get on with it for the sake of the kids?” But unfortunately, the issue keeps rising from the ashes, and my guess is that it will continue to do so.
A Quick History
In recent years I’ve watched the standards come to fruition primarily through the work of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. I’ve seen the CCSS’s be adopted by Wisconsin and 44 other states, and witnessed educators from Kenosha to Superior — and everywhere in-between — work in earnest to try to create the means by which our schools can help students meet these challenging, diversified academic targets. Enormous amounts of time, energy, and dollars have been devoted to this enterprise. And now, some among our state legislators and our Wisconsin citizenry want to scrap it all, and literally start all over again. Wouldn’t that reboot amount to a colossal case of squandering precious human and material resources?
Much has been written on both sides of the argument, and I’ve not only read what both staunch advocates*** and critics have said, but have taken the time to read the standards themselves quite exhaustively. At any rate, both the testimonials and the refutations are all richer than the crisp treatment the topic will receive here.
Fact is, it would take MUCH more than a single blog post to even begin to capture the full range of points and counterpoints. So I’m going to cut to the chase in bullet form.
Doing so feels right to me because: (1) so much of the opposition to the standards is rooted in information that is decidedly incomplete or grossly misinterpreted, (2) the faulty facts are shared widely nonetheless, and (3) the situation is largely THAT matter of fact in my estimation.
Look, I don’t want to dismiss the CCSS critics outright, because they’re certainly entitled to have a point of view about government intervention versus local control. That argument is not lost on me. But when the rhetoric drifts incredulously to interjecting fears about sex education and retinal eye scans, then enough is enough.
An Equally Quick Personal Take
Without further adieu, here’s my view:
- More than anything else, the Common Core State Standards set the bar higher for students’ academic achievement, not lower as some critics wrongly allege. These aspirations are commendable, and frankly, my major concern about them is that we’re not even meeting the existing lower standards, so we’re going to have to up our game considerably to help kids attain them. As Valerie Strauss noted in the Wall Street Journal, “If anybody is expecting these standards all by themselves to make much of a difference in schools they will be sorely disappointed. No set of standards has much meaning without equitable resources to ensure that teachers are trained well enough to reach kids who live in widely different circumstances.”
- The standards fall short of perfect, but they are notably better than what we have in Wisconsin now. Not only are they more specific, but they will also encourage students to use reading and mathematics as tools to succeed across other areas of the curriculum.
- If we attempt once again to create our own state standards, they are unlikely to be better (as some legislators have claimed) than the CCSS’s, and probably would be worse.
- National tests will be aligned with these standards. Wisconsin cannot afford to be out of alignment and risk losing further ground academically on these assessments. Not only would it be further embarrassing for the state, but more importantly, it would be worse for our school children.
- The Common Core State Standards will allow useful comparisons to be made between states that would benefit Wisconsin in benchmarking.
- The standards are NOT a specific prescription for curriculum or teaching. They are goals. Schools and teachers can use essentially whatever materials or methods they want as long as they scaffold students to meet the standards.
- The CCSS’s were developed objectively, without a subjective political agenda, let alone to strip the rights of states or local comminities around education. Nor are they an attempt to usurp religious freedoms.
- With all due respect, legislators are not professional educators.
Honestly, at this point, I’ve got to ask, “Why did critics wait until now to voice such strenuous objections, founded or not?” And, “What truly constructive purpose could that tactic serve relative to the welfare of our Wisconsin school children?”
In fairness, the Common Core State Standards are not the panacea for American education. Far from it. But they are a definite step in the right direction, which just makes common sense to this academic dean.
***If you don’t read anything else, please see the recent article by Erin Richards of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Her account is clear, sufficiently thorough, on point and accurate. And eloquent letters by Catholic leaders such as President Michael Garranzini of Loyola University Chicago, Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, and Father Joseph Shimek are out there, as are articles and a video from State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dr. Tony Evers. And believe me, there is much, much more.