Common Core won't fix education system

I really enjoy watching Peyton Manning work, and not just as a guy who likes it when the Broncos win. He is an artist on the football field; he is to opposing defenses what Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf was to the Iraqi National Guard; he is to defensive backs what Chuck Norris is to lameness; he is . . . Well, okay, so you get the idea.

The thing I admire the most about Manning is that he doesn’t just beat teams with his physical gifts—-he picks them apart with his mind, like a chess grand master playing against novices. He is uniquely adept at seeing the system that a defense is employing, and adapting his own system to overcome it.

I love good systems. I try to think in terms of systems and patterns, because I think that’s how the world works. There is no such thing as a good idea until a system has been put on place to support it and see it come to fruition, and systems have the ability to replicate successful results. Sadly, there are also bad systems, systems whose very design inhibit whatever good is intended, and often work at odds with the people tasked with implementing it. Like too much of the public schools.

No, I’m not saying the public schools are as bad as, say, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ secondary, though there are certainly places like that. But for 40 years now every politician in the world-—followed closely by education bureaucrats and outside snipers-—has been peddling “reform,” and nobody blinks an eye at it. That’s because, over time, it’s become the received wisdom that the system we have is no longer capable of accomplishing what we have tasked it to do.

So, what should we make of the Common Core State Standards, the newest Washington, D.C.-based system of school reform? Many people think there are unrecoverable flaws in the design of the Standards. Indeed, recently we’ve seen some of the more ridiculous fruits of the Common Core: 4th graders being asked to predict and write about what happens after mommy finds a hair clip under her bed that doesn’t belong to her; 6th graders being asked to rewrite the “outdated” Bill of Rights; a teacher training video which tells teachers that if a student says 3 x 4 = 11, but can explain how they got that answer, that it would be okay; or a high school assignment which instructs teachers to study the Gettysburg Address while refraining from providing any historical background or context. But even if these flaws all get fixed in the district-level implementation, there is a greater underlying flaw behind the whole of Common Core.

The greatest flaw of Common Core, one which Marion Brady recently wrote about in the Washington Post, is that it ossifies the very system that we’ve been looking to “fix” for decades. We tend to get distracted by the obvious, politically controversial aspects of reforms like these, but those arguments are usually just the trees in a large, petrified forest.

In the next column, I will delve further into that forest, and talk a little about efforts to better care for that forest. Stay tuned . . .

Michael Alcorn is in his 23rd year teaching music in Jefferson County Schools. His columns appear regularly in The Arvada Press, and peridocally in The Denver Post.


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