Little Johnny likes to jump over stuff—the cat, the footstool, his baby sister. At school, he goes out for track, sure that jumping over hurdles will be fun. His short stature makes every leap a challenge, though, and he fails miserably. After a bunch of banged shins and disappointments, Johnny's coach announces the solution: Raise the height of the hurdles.
Sounds crazy, right? No coach would raise the bar to 3 feet on a kid who can't get over one set at 2 feet. And yet, that's exactly what's happening in public schools. Kids haven't met No Child Left Behind standards, so they are now subject to the tougher Common Core State Standards. What could possibly go wrong?
Ask yourself: Who wins? It seems unlikely that it's our children, at least not for a long time. Test scores—the metrics that will eventually measure CCSS' success—will drop precipitously. Will teachers win? Not if performance-based compensation goes into effect. How about public schools in general? Won't the standards force the system to improve? That's a bit like expecting Johnny's legs to get longer with higher hurdles.
It's critically important that schools ensure students' success, and CCSS has the potential to meet that challenge. It also has the potential to be a continuation of test-driven, top-down pedagogy that undermines rather than improves learning. And failure is fodder to those who would funnel more public funds into private hands.
Too alarmist? Maybe.
We get what we measure. And when we measure, fund and promote via test scores, we systemically teach how to do well on tests—regardless of the standard. CCSS advocates claim the new standards focus less on right answers and more on process, honing critical-thinking skills. But where is the empirical research proving that premise?
Ultimately, it's the kids who will show whether the standards work and bear the consequences if they fail, not the group of 135—mostly consultants and bureaucrats—who wrote them or the companies peddling new tests.
What standards don't do is focus on the underlying reasons for why Johnny and Susie drop out: generational poverty, for example, and our failure to promote foods that build healthy brains. They can't see drug-war-ravaged communities or counter crass consumerism and domestic violence. They won't measure the value of teachers who engage and inspire students.
We can't expect public schools to cure all the ills confronting our children. Neither should we glom on to CCSS to fix education. We have to ask the hard questions and deal with the complexities of tough, long-term solutions.
Success in school starts long before a child opens a schoolhouse door. It still takes a village—and that's more than just schools.