Blog Post

The Un-Common Core: What Are the Fundamentals? #FuturesEd

I.  Some Preliminary Thoughts on the Common Core:  Feedback Solicited!


The single most common question I receive when I now address audiences, whether CEO's or parents, is about the Common Core.   The politics have become so intense that I now call the Common Core the "ObamaCare of 2014."  By that I mean that, given that the numbers so far on the Affordable Care Act surpassed even optimistic predictions,  it becomes harder to blame everything terrible about American healthcare on the ACA. So now the Common Core is both a real issue--and irrational political hyperbole.  As a friend recently said, opposing the ACA does not mean you have a more equitable idea for healthcare in America. By extension, what do we really think about the Common Core given that there are many different people invested in denouncing the Common Core who seemed to have had very little prior investment in the quality of public education--and yet there are others who are deeply invested in the quality of  public education who also have concerns? How do we separate the hype and hysteria from the genuine issues?  How do you have a sane conversation about the Common Core against the din of the political ranting that "Obama" is ruining American education via the Common Core? How do we separate out concern with education with complaint about anything and everything this President does?  President Obama will be leaving office soon.  Let's look longer term, please.


And longer term, how do we sift through the praise and the critique of the Common Core:  What is the (always shifting) boundary between thoughtful critique of a new curriculum---and un-thoughtful resistance to anything that forces us to change our current practices? 


Over the next coming months, I am hoping to do a deeper dive into the Common Core than I have so far and hope to offer some further blog thoughts about the Common Core and what we mean by "connected learning."  What I write next may well change radically over the next weeks as I really study the fine points, so take this with a grain of salt.  Still, for now:


My quick take is that (1) many of  the Common Core principles about critical thinking, deep understanding of the digital literacies, and process over product are, in fact, profoundly interesting and important.   And it is a good thing even for the hardest working of teachers to rethink the best of what they do for a new paradigm ... but only (2) if (and that is a huge "if") they are given the proper development time and training to make the transition in an already stressed and busy life.  And (3) all this only works if we radically change the high stakes assessment tools that carry over from the previous regime and (4) if we un-couple the diabolical (I mean that word) pitching of the survival of schools and the reward systems for teachers from scores on high-stakes end-of-grade multiple item standardized testing.  Since (5) we have the data on income inequality and test score inequality, we have to be uncoupling "high standards" from "standardized test scores."   It's a false equivalence.


I'm still thinking about and through all of the above.  I'm happy to have conversation that might influence my thinking as I really spend the rest of the year diving into those details.  The Common Core drum is being beaten so loudly by so many people who, at heart, don't give a darn about kids' education (and who have never yapped about K-12 education before it became a weapon in a political debate) that I'm making it a project for myself to read deeply.  Send me references of the best work to read, everyone!   Thank you in advance.




II.   The Role of Higher Education in K-12


Okay, having written all that, I now want to move to a much bigger topic that is the real purpose of this blog.  I want to talk about the role of higher education and its influence and impact on K-12.   This connection is rarely acknowledged or discussed.  Although I have been beating this drum for over a decade, it is still a head-turning "click" moment for most people when I repeat my mantra:  "K-12 cannot change until higher ed changes its standards, because no responsible parent wants to experiment with a child's education in a way that will jeopardize that child's chances of getting into college."  Period. 



III.   The Structure of our First Course ("Mapping the Futures of Higher Education") in The Futures Initiative


That principle of impact pervades the first course we will be offering as part of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center, CUNY, in Spring 2015.   Former GC President Bill Kelly and I will be teaching this together with 12-15 graduate students at the GC. We hope to select graduate students who are each teaching, that semester, in one of the colleges and who are willing to take some of what they are learning in our graduate course and "actualize" it in something they are doing in their undergraduate class.   Their undergraduates will be giving feedback to them and that feedback will be coming back to our graduate class and informing what we do.  How cool is that?  Can you imagine being an eighteen-year-old at a public urban community college and learning that you have the ear of the absolutely legendary and transformative former President of the Graduate Center and Interim Chancellor of the CUNY system?


Part of the Graduate Fellowships for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year GC students  is that they teach one course per semester in one of the 24 CUNY colleges or community colleges.   I think this is incredibly brilliant--wonderful that President Kelly was able to have the load reduced from two courses a semester to one, and equally brilliant that graduate students are teaching while they are being students.  It is a formative connection.  It is one of the reasons why (as I have said and as has been quoted so many times), the GC is my "crush school."  GC students are learning what is foundational to your whole career as an academic:  that you have to juggle teaching and research and find ways that they inform one another, even when you are not teaching in your specific field of research.   Our course is partly addressed to that conjunction of teaching and research.


Below is an excerpt from an evolving syllabus for "Mapping the Futures of Higher Education." 



IV.  Excerpted from Our Ongoing Syllabus: Some First Principles in "Mapping the Futures of Higher Education"


The Un-Common Core Principle of this Course:  

What we do as college teachers has impact on every aspect of our society.  What we do pertains to everything that leads to higher education (K-12 and extracurricular learning) and sets the stage for everything that comes after. 


    Far too much higher education discussion within departments at colleges and universities focuses on (and ends with) content, requirements, and “coverage.”  Such battles are often acrimonious (basically the Cultural Wars and canon debates of the 1980s and recurring in the 2010s (including with the forced closing of African American studies, ethnic studies, media studies, and gender departments at several universities).   Yet as fundamental as the content battle are, they may not be determinative of what you actually do on the level of your individual classroom.   Sometimes we think of content as the "core"--is it idiosyncratic and individual, is it common? Is it better for there to be variety or better for there to be a set of texts or skills or competencies that all students have in common, are "required."  There are many different kinds and permutations ("distribution requirements") of answers.  All of that debate is important.   Different institutions decide the answer differently. What we are saying in this course is that there are more fundamental questions, still, beneath this debate.


In this course, we are making the assumption that, no matter what kind of department you find yourself in, no matter what is or is not required from you in the classroom, you have a tremendous responsibility in determining not only how you teach that content, but in determining how you serve as the conduit between the student and that content.  As a teacher, you are representing principles and pedagogies that operate at a more foundational level than “content” and “coverage.”  Even in the most restrictive circumstances, you have tremendous impact on how you teach the content.  


  •     Everything about this course addresses “pedagogy” on that level and refers back to fundamental questions--how is what we are doing in the classroom a model, a reinforcement, an enactment, a theorizing, an implementation, or an operationalizing of the crucial role of higher education in every aspect of society?  How is what we do in our singular classrooms a model of the university we strive for and choose (individually and collectively): higher education can be pathway or gatekeeper, as inspiration or a regulator,  an opportunity or an obstacle.  

  • A classroom can offer every student (even the worst, even the best) insight into who they aspire to be (their very best self) and how they can get from “here” to “there” or it can be systematic instruction in all the ways they fail to contribute to the person expected by the teacher/institution/society.   (I recently shared a seat on a long train ride with a colleague who pronounced all the students in the PhD program of a certain Ivy League university as “subpar” and not deserving of a PhD.  Think about that!)

    Some principles:  K-12 cannot change until higher education changes.   You cannot tell parents and teachers they have to be creative and open when the goal is college.  If college does not change its requirements, entrance standards (testing again), then you are asking parents and teachers to work towards a new goal but the goal posts are the same.  

   The status quo is broken.  You are urgently needed.:  Right now we have a system that is broken.  We know that achievement on tests correlates with wealth, not intelligence or even aptitude.  By one report of a headmaster at one of NY’s most prestigious private college-prep secondary schools, 90% of the students at her school and other schools of this calibre (tuition at this one hovers around $60,000 a year) pay extra to, outside of school hours, take Kaplan-style cram courses to ensure they earn perfect scores on the SATs so they can sail into elite colleges.  If that school isn’t preparing its students for high stakes testing (and if it sees that as a waste of time, something extra-curricular) then what in the world is high stakes testing measuring?   And how can we, as a society and as educators, wring our hands over poor test scores rather than over unfair distribution of education?  How can we be making the case that test scores equal high standards—not high income?

That conversation will not change until we change it.  


The purpose of this course and the Futures Initiative is not to rearrange the chairs on the Titanic--it is to redesign the educational Titanic so it will sail through the icebergs (or navigate around them).  Here's to some smooth sailing everyone!



As usual, this is brilliant insight from Professor Davidson.  I'd like to highlight a bit of that insight and add to the conversation.

I think it's very important to understand the common core debate as driven by economic interests on all sides.  Students and parents want standards that support a prosperous economic future in the form of a higher education.  Economic inequalities limit access for many and success for some.  The economic realities of limited public revenue streams prevent governments from addressing the unfortunate consequences of inequality.  And this creates the kind of debate and deadlock that surrounds the discourse of "Obamacore."

My biggest concern from a policy perspective is that budget constraints are real.  Public revenue streams are limited now and for the foreseeable future.  The United States is in the midst of an economic slowdown relative to its 20th century past.  We must also remind ourselves that many important determinants of inequality are geographical in nature.  As the United States and Europe struggle to maintain expensive education systems, China, India, and others are opening thousands of new schools to millions. 

So if we want to implement Common Core or expand access to higher education or pay CUNY graduate students and adjuncts a decent wage for their respectable work... we either have to be willing to raise the public revenue we need or we have to be willing to reallocate resources.  Raising taxes has become increasingly difficult.  In most states, it's not politically possible.  And any time I mention reallocating higher education resources in the company of administrators or policymakers, I get a big ol' frowny face.  I'm working hard to turn that frown upside down, because I just don't see significant changes in the future of public revenue.

Most of the things we want will cost money.  The rest of the things we want will require political will.  And I think most states are short on both.  Instead of adding to bills or soliciting wills, we might think more about what we can cut and then what we can afford.  



Here's a great article on how getting rid of Common Core in NC could cost the state millions of dollars:

Hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent and/or allocated for standards implementation.  The article nicely highlights all the different economic constituencies involved.