Home > Essays > Jay Matthews’ Remorseless Obituary for the Common Core Overlooks its Biggest Problem and the Biggest Problem of ALL Reform: An Insistence on Retaining Age-Based Cohorts

Jay Matthews’ Remorseless Obituary for the Common Core Overlooks its Biggest Problem and the Biggest Problem of ALL Reform: An Insistence on Retaining Age-Based Cohorts

April 20, 2021

In his most recent Washington Post column, education pundit Jay Matthews writes about a recent book by Tom Loveless that sounds the death knell for the Common Core, and he isn’t disappointed to see it abandoned:

Those of us who put our faith in bottom-up reforms, with individual teachers raising standards for each child, can find some hope here. “It could be that standards that take place organically — essentially, that evolve between parent and child in the home or between teacher and student in the classroom — produce good outcomes, but standards that occur through exogenous force or pressure — in this case policy-induced expectations — have no effect,” Loveless wrote.

Apart from Bill Gates and other well intentioned efficiency minded businessmen and neoliberal superintendents like Arne Duncan with no classroom experience and a belief that standardized tests were valid metrics for learning no one really supported the Common Core on the ground. As Mr. Matthews wrote:

Conservatives fought the plan in 40 states and the District because it replaced local initiatives. Progressives opposed it because it put so much emphasis on tests.

Yet despite the obituary for the Common Core, it’s evil enabling twin, the standardized test, continues to be popular with politicians and it’s foundational construct, the notion that all children master skills at a uniform rate and in a uniform time frame, persists. This in the face of the conclusions both Tom Loveless and Jay Matthews endorse going forward:

Loveless takes a speculative journey at the end. What if, he asked, all that money spent on Common Core had been devoted to “discovering new, more powerful ways of teaching and creating new, more effective curricula?”

“Fractions are like a gigantic wall that kids hit in fourth, fifth and sixth grades; some crawl over, but many do not,” he wrote. What if that Common Core money had instead funded “dozens of experiments to discover new curricular materials and new ways of teaching fractions, field tested new programs in randomized trials, and then disseminated the findings broadly?”

Makes sense to me. Too much sense. Will we ever support a plan as modest as getting our kids safely through fractions?That doesn’t sound like us, particularly with our schools in such a mess because of the pandemic.

My speculative journey would have been different from Mr. Loveless: what if all the money spent on the Common Core had been spent devising a means of using technology to individualize instruction in hierarchical skill-based content and focussed whole group instruction on the development of interpersonal skills and self-reflection that matter most in getting along with each other, in understanding oneself and adapting to change, and in developing the motivation to continue learning. Schooling designed to accomplish THESE ends would look very different from the schooling designed in the 1920s to sort and select students into those who qualify for college from those who would work in factories. That schooling accomplished its ultimate endgame: the economically divided world we live in today. If we want a different world in the future, we need to develop a different method of schooling.

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