Willingham: What’s missing from Common Core standards (Part 3)
By Daniel Willingham
The discussions regarding whether or not adopting the Common Core standards will improve education is, to me, emblematic of a larger issue.
When we adopt education policies at the state or federal level, the belief that they will improve things is not based on anything much more solid than faith or hope.
Two weeks ago I argued that it will be difficult to evaluate whether adopting the Common Core standards is, overall, a good move, because so many factors go into student outcomes (and interact with one another) that a positive change in one factor might yield no difference in student performance.
In other words, if we don’t have a good understanding of the system, what reason is there to think that we can accurately predict what will happen when we make changes to the system?
Last week I described two broad research strategies that might help us analyze our complex education system so that we could predict how education policy changes ought to affect student outcomes, and thereby select optimal policy changes.
One strategy would be to work towards quantitative, system-wide models (likely at the state level). The other would be to conduct much larger scale epidemiological studies of classroom, school, and district practices. (Here’s an example of the sort of thing I’m talking about.)
If I’m right, the political implications are twofold.
First, we don’t really know what we’re doing in education policy, beyond a very rough cut.
We can feel confident only in making bland statements like “good standards are better than bad standards.”
Presumably, we would assign priorities to different policies based on their costs and benefits. We have some idea of likely financial costs, but because we can’t accurately predict how policies will affect the system, we can make only very poor estimates of opportunity costs or of benefits.
Therefore, prioritizing education policies based on costs and benefits is a crap shoot.
Second, acquiring better information of the likely benefits of education policies will take a long time. With a big push in this direction (adopting either or both of the strategies I described last week) I can’t imagine that we’d know much any sooner than a decade after we start.
First, it’s difficult research to conduct.
Second, it probably takes several years for the system to accommodate to significant changes and settle into a relatively stable state. (Of course, it’s a dynamic system, so how often it’s really stable is an open question.)
Third, the effects of some changes would likely take years. For example, I’ve argued elsewhere that some changes to the early elementary curriculum would have no impact on reading in those years, but would give a big boost to reading comprehension scores in junior high and beyond.
In short, I’m arguing that we don’t know much about the system we’re tinkering with, and better knowledge will be a long time coming.
The only way we’re going to gain that information is if granting agencies--the ones with deep pockets--make it a priority.
For any governmental granting agency to make it a priority, an elected official or appointee is going to have to admit to the problem. This seems unlikely.
But we may be at a crossroads. We can take the problem seriously and invest in the educational equivalent of the moon shot, which, like the problem I’ve described, had some basic scientific problems to be solved but was also a massive engineering challenge.
Or we can continue doing what we’ve done for the last 50 years: quibble about theories of systems that we don’t understand, without taking seriously the challenge of understanding them. That’s the path that has cost countless kids a good education along the way, and has led us to the place we are today--a place that very few argue we should stay.
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| August 9, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, National Standards | Tags: common core standards, daniel willingham
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