Michigan Portfolios


As director of the Michigan Portfolios website, my special interest in the Common Core is the assessments that will travel with it.  This is the part that is quite up in the air and may not be resolved until 2012-2013 in terms of implementation.  However, if we can consider together both the Core Standards as written and the early descriptions of what kinds of tests may accompany them, I have three basic concerns about the new Common Core.

First, let me acknowledge, I view standards and testing to be a failed method of improving U. S. education.  Standards and standardized tests have been around for quite awhile now, well before the establishment of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002.  However, NCLB directly represented itself to be about standards, the tests by which standards would be measured, and the prescribed consequences for schools that did not “achieve” under these guidelines.  Many people who write and think about this date mark it as a remarkable heightening of “pressure” related to testing and so-called achievement.

CONCERN # 1:  Why Don’t We Do What Smart Countries are Doing?

Linda Darling-Hammond in her recent book, The Flat World of Education, explains what one smart country has done.

“Finland dismantled the rigid tracking system that had allocated differential access to knowledge to its young people and dismantled the state-mandated testing system that was used for this purpose, replacing them with highly trained teachers and curriculum and assessments focused on problem-solving, creativity, independent learning, and student reflection.  These changes have propelled achievement to the top of international rankings and closed what was once a large, intractable achievement gap.”

The focuses of the Common Core are on the writing of argumentative, informational, and narrative texts and upon close reading, especially of academic texts in social studies and science.  As with the stated goals of NCLB, there is nothing inherently wrong with planning for students to become quality writers and close readers.  But, clarifying the areas that must be “covered” at each grade level has always led, in our standards projects, to prescriptive curriculum and heavy amounts of time spent on test-prep.  The same could be predicted for the new but similar Common Core.

CONCERN # 2:  Why Don’t We Do What Students Need?

“Dropping out,” when combined with low achievement (on tests) of great numbers of students who stay in school, has reached a crisis level in our country.  Gary Orfield’s recent book, Dropouts in America, asserts that, “The dropout problem is far worse than statistics indicate.  Only half our nation’s minority students graduate from high school, and for many groups graduation rates are even lower.”

One promising strand of research, cited in Orfield’s book, for helping more students stay in school suggests these factors can make a powerful positive difference:

  • a nonthreatening learning environment
  • a caring and committed staff who accept personal responsibility for student success
  • a school culture that encourages staff risk-taking, self-governance, and professional collegiality
  • a school structure that provides for a low student-teacher ratio and a small class size to promote student engagement

I believe our nation’s educational expenses and teaching staff time could be better spent clarifying how we are going to achieve these learning conditions for our students rather than developing a new pressurizing set of soon-to-be-tested standards.

CONCERN # 3:  What About In-Depth Learning?

There is a strong body of research on behalf of Project-Based Learning—learning that would allow for extended projects that could be assessed by professional “observation records” made by teachers during the process and by the student presenting of final exhibitions of what they have learned—exhibitions that would also demonstrate and clarify the significance for real-life of what has been learned.  Theodore Sizer based his book, Horace’s School, and his work with the Coalition of Essential Schools on commitment to such projects.  Recently, Darling-Hammond cited research support for the value of this approach, as well as giving many examples, in Powerful Learning.

I believe powerful and passionate learning—the kind of learning that inspires a person to want to learn more—is often obsessive.  I want to differentiate obsessive from addictive here.  Obsessions can be most fruitful, as they were for Albert Einstein, for example.  Addictions are fixations that prevent us from wholeness.  A child in writing class, I would argue, might benefit mightily by being helped to be somewhat obsessed, even over time, by a certain topic and genre—“the value of my big brother,” for example, or even, “horses.”

The child could write multiple pieces, perhaps of different genres, but perhaps not.  The child would be working mightily from prior knowledge, most likely—which is, by the way, what actual successful adult writers do often in the real world.  Once the child learns how to go in-depth with one topic, they can be pretty well prepared, with help, to cover other topics and genres.  They can address the new topic or genre and base their learning steps on how they went in-depth in their previous work.  But, if we start out with coverage as our key goal, we can easily lose both engagement and the important lessons of going deep.

Martin Luther King believed exclusively in nonviolence to achieve social change for several reasons, one of which was, “The means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”  Anyone who has watched first graders deliver their power point presentation utilizing both research study they have done and also photographs they have taken of stages of development of the butterfly, and then who has watched them release the butterflies into a carefully chosen field of flowers can surmise the lifelong impact of this type of learning.  Such experience motivates a student to want to read and to want to read carefully.

Our children are a sacred trust.  We can use methods that will love them toward becoming fully capable, creative, caring human beings.


  • Comment by Shaun Moore — August 15, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

    I like the idea of looking at positive, working examples like what Finland is doing. This is a great method of solving a problem. Instead of looking at what is wrong, it looks at what works. If we have solid examples of what has worked for other districts or countries, we can use that as a model of what we could do to move forward in the right direction.

  • Comment by Jason — August 15, 2011 @ 10:23 pm

    In regards to the concern about standards leading to prescriptive teaching and test prep, I feel it has more to do with fear of penalties and a lack of faith in the power of good teaching. There have been several studies showing that the best “test prep” is quality instruction. Good readers and writers often do well on tests, and poor readers and writers do poorly. It is when teachers feel pressured from above to show that they are preparing students for a test, and they aren’t confident enough to argue for the power of quality instruction, that we find “test prep” activities begin to run rampant.
    As for providing what students need, too often those needs lie in the affective domain and are beyond the scope of what is traditionally done in most schools. But fixing a broken society is deemed too difficult and costly, leaving blame on the footsteps of the schools. Those schools become overwhelmed by the enormity of the needs and the task at hand, and resort to more of a cookie-cutter instruction instead.

    As for the solution….? I think the starting point is that we need to focus our best and brightest teachers into the most struggling environments, which unfortunately won’t occur when those in “failing schools” are often disrespected professionally and compensated worse than teachers in other districts.

  • Comment by Debbi Meister — August 16, 2011 @ 8:00 am

    I totally agree with comment #3 which promotes project-based learning. While I was disappointed that the differentiation between obsession and addiction was not clearly stated, – only addiction was defined – I believe that in-depth learning is the key to student engagement. Project-based research, coupled with multimodal writing, creates long-term memory retention – the retention leads to educational growth.
    I did wonder why the writer chose an example of a first grader with a camera,the opportunity to observe a butterfly’s stages of development, and the equipment and training necessary to create a powerpoint. The example is obviously from an upper middle-class suburban school. Urban first graders do not have the camera or opportunity, and rural first graders do not have access to the computer education or software, generally speaking. A text that hopes to speak to all teachers could, perhaps, describe a more realistic example to inspire us.

  • Comment by Bill Tucker — October 22, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

    As someone charged with preparing pre-service teachers to address the Core Standards, I have searched the document for constructive guidelines for teaching writing. It is worth noting that the only standard for writing that is consistent and reinforced from grades 3-12 are the few standards that address writing as a process. We can take some comfort in this. (See below)

    4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization,and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

    5. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience.

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