The purported benefit of the Common Core State Standards over previous sets of standards is the development of critical thinking skills across all subjects, seen as a key lever for increasing American students’ international competitiveness and ameliorating the country’s lethargic economy and persistently high unemployment rates. This perception is clear in statements made by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and in articles about the standards (Duncan, 2013; Garland, 2013). Billed as “reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers” (NGA and CCSSO, 2010a). Will a set of standards actually prepare students for life and career?
John Dewey’s vision of reform was a bottom-up approach that focused on the needs of the child and the expertise of the teacher. He warned against a system that relied on a lack of connection between the people in charge of planning for education and the people in charge of actually educating. What would John Dewey think of the Common Core?
In order to draw a fair conclusion about his potential response, it is worth more closely examining the design process of the Common Core. Explicit documentation of the process that lead to the Common Core State Standards is quite difficult to find. Information from National Governors Association (NGA) press releases indicates that the writing process occurred in two phases. In the first phase, math and language arts “development work groups” worked with respective “feedback groups” to research and write the standards. In the second phase, a “validation committee” reviewed and eventually certified a final product. Members of all groups were nominated by governors and chief state school officers (NGA, 2009a; NGA, 2009b).
Who was in those respective groups?
All practicing teachers and school leaders of course…errrrr….
A press release explaining the roles of the groups makes very clear that the feedback group played “an advisory role, not a decision-making role in the process” (NGA, 2009a). Decision-making powers rested with the development work groups. These groups were made up almost entirely of employees of the non-profit organizations Student Achievement Partners and Achieve, and leaders at The College Board and ACT. Among the twenty-nine total members of the teams are three higher education faculty members and one principal (NGA, 2009a).
The feedback group “[provided] information backed by research to inform the standards development process by offering expert input on draft documents” (NGA, 2009a). Members of that group were mainly university faculty from various departments along with one teacher, one charter school instructional coach, and one president of an education non-profit. The “validation committee,” that reviewed and certified the final product. Here in this final step was where teachers, administrators, and many teacher educators could be found. Their role was to verify that each standard was indeed supported by enough research – research on college and career readiness – to warrant inclusion. This group also had the opportunity to add standards provided that they could prove that they were sufficiently research-based. Or to
The lower-level groups represent some experts in academic fields and some knowledge of the classroom, but these people were not leaders in the process. A look into the organizations represented by the development work group – those in control of the process – will give a better sense of the priorities driving the standards. Pearson, The College Board and ACT are probably known to the reader as companies that design standardized tests and test-preparation materials. Student Achievement Partners and Achieve are likely less familiar even though both played central roles in the development of the Common Core State Standards. In fact, their involvement continues in the ongoing implementation process.
Achieve bills itself as a coordinator of sorts and was “founded at the National Education Summit by leading governors and business leaders” (Achieve, Inc., n.d.a) in 1996. Their work is to bring legislators, policy makers, governors, and education and business leaders in the states together to work on solutions to perceived problems. Achieve was part of the leadership in creating the Common Core State Standards and is currently leading one of two efforts to design assessments aligned to the standards. Achieve’s main donors are corporate foundations and private industry companies including many companies rumored to be contributors to the American Legislative Exchange Council (See more Smart ALEC: Education, Privatization, and the Pursuit of Profit and Update on Smart ALEC: Education, Privatization, and the Pursuit of Profit). This is important because it perhaps indicates that Achieve represents the interests of politicians and the private sector, not necessarily students. (Achieve, Inc., n.d.b; Center for Media and Democracy, 2013)
Student Achievement Partners was founded by David Coleman, Jason Zimba, and Susan Pimentel – often named in the media as architects or lead writers of the Common Core. Student Achievement Partners is dedicated solely to implementation of the standards. They have created instructional materials that are offered to educators free of charge through their website and are participating in the design of teacher evaluation tools. Some of their staff members conduct professional development sessions in schools around the country. We do acknowledge that some of these staff members may have had past classroom teaching experience and participated in the creation of the standards through their roles at Student Achievement Partners (Student Achievement Partners, n.d.).
Despite the presence of current educators in some phases of the development of the Common Core, it seems clear that the develop of the standards was external to current classroom educators and school leaders. Testing companies and their affiliates clearly had an outsized role in their development. John Dewey advocated for bottom-up school and school system design grounded in classroom and what was known about the development and interests of children. However, based on the affiliations and interests of the primary developers of Common Core, its development was a top-down approach that clearly reflects the priorities of people in power – testing companies, governors, policy makers, corporations and foundations of great means— but is being sold as Deweyan critical thinking. But is the opposite of Deweyan student and teacher emancipation. So it appears that the Common Core standard development process was not reform, just business as usual. See also Common Core: Same Exclusion, Different Century and Taylor v. Dewey: The 100-year Trickle-Down vs. Pedagogical Debate/Fight in Education Reform
This post is primarily the work and analysis conducted by R. D’Angelo and R. Sanchez
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