Reading a series of articles trying to explain the controversy over Common Core leaves me feeling like a math-challenged second-grader trying to understand an opaque lesson on long division. This shouldn't be a complicated question: does a national standard for achievement give schools an accurate benchmark from which to judge the progress of each grade level and, if so, is that helpful? But then one reads the articles and falls immediately into a pit of murk. The whole concept of testing is flawed because it ignores the wonder of the educational accomplishments of each special snowflake. All academic standards are tools of the patriarchy. A rigid, uniform federal standard squelches individual state innovation and improvement. Tests are unfair, because teachers of poorly testing students are penalized for the crimes of parents or society. Curricula imposed from on high invariably lose sight of their educational purpose in favor of institutionalizing propaganda. Teachers will "teach to the test" instead of developing critical thinking skills in their students. The only way to develop critical thinking skills is to switch from a traditional set of standards or tests to Common Core. Common Core is a benign set of national standards based on an enlightened preference for critical thinking over rote memorization. Common Core is a cookie-cutter set of lesson plans that stifle creativity and prevent teachers from focussing on the needs of real students. Common Core saves money; Common Core imposes unfair costs on cash-strapped budgets. Only a Tea Partier would hate Common Core. Only a corrupt teacher's union would hate it. Parents hate Common Core because it removes control over their children's education to a more and more remote central authority. Parents hate Common Core because it exposes their children's so-called educational attainments to the harsh light of reality.
I recently finished reading Amanda Ripley's "The Smartest Kids in the World, and How They Got That Way." She examines schools in the U.S., South Korea, Finland, and Poland, as judged by the standards imposed by the International Baccalaureate Program, and concludes that a few straightforward reforms can make a huge difference in a nation's schools over a surprisingly short period. First, choose your teachers from the top 1/3 or 1/4 of their graduating classes, then give them the pay that's required to attract such a cohort. Second, combine rigorous standards for achievement with a wide latitude in methods. These two approaches are intimately linked, in that academically excellent teachers can be afforded the professional courtesy of autonomy, as long as you check frequently to ensure that the kids really are learning the curriculum. Finland converted itself from an educational backwater to the world's highest-performing system in just a few years with these limited techniques.
Common Core apparently is a bundled deal; if you want the rigorous, uniform standards, you have to accept a loss of autonomy and innovation, not to mention a hefty dose of propaganda and unintelligible nattering about "critical thinking skills" (however those are defined, they seem to be completely absent from Common Core's promotional materials as well as from most of the debate). We already have a pretty good set of tests in the International Baccalaureate system--why not use those, let teachers make up their own lesson plans, and let principals hire or fire them according to whether they make any useful progress with the kids?