Common Core or Common Corpse?


Common Core or Common Corpse?

“In a time of dramatic change it is the learners who
Inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves
equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”

Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition (1973)

My earliest recollection of education reform dates from the fall of 1957 when the Soviet Union placed a man-made satellite (Sputnik) into earth orbit. I was thirteen years old. In addition to igniting the spark that lit the candle for the space race, the event also stirred public opinion in the United States into a froth of national anxiety. The colossus of the Russian Bear cast an ominous shadow over the American Eagle. Russian scientists (actually, German scientists who in the longer run turned out to be not as smart as our German scientists) seemed to have been touched by divine fire and made privy to the secrets of the universe. Meanwhile, our rockets were blowing up on their launch pads.

I was pretty much oblivious to all of this. Most of my attention was focused on a growing interest in girls, watching favorite television programs, savoring the occasional illicit thrill of a sneaked cigarette or a secretive sip of beer, and counting the days until I was sixteen and would be able to get my driver’s license. During the school year, weekends were looked upon as oases of bliss devoted to relaxation, time with friends, and the pursuit of innocent pleasures, interrupted only by the parentally-enforced necessity of going to church on Sunday.

Then Sputnik happened. Before I knew it, yet another disaster loomed when, in 1958, the Eisenhower administration passed the National Defense Education Act in response to the imminent threat posed by our educational weaknesses in science, math, engineering, and foreign languages. (Sound familiar?) I was not happy because the real world result of these developments—made perfectly clear with almost rapturous glee by my teachers—was that school was going to get a lot harder, whereas I was of the opinion that it was quite hard enough as it was. Thank you very much.

With a national emphasis on forging high academic standards came a concomitant emphasis on testing to measure results. Hello SAT. What this effectively meant for me and my high school friends was that a significant portion of a precious Saturday was to be spent in our school’s cafeteria taking a test. On the occasion of the first infliction, I assuaged my generally gloomy mood with occasional thoughts of my upcoming date, a few hours hence, with Betty Jo Bobbysocks. I bombed the test. And I’ve never done particularly well on any standardized test I’ve taken since then, which I’ve discovered actually puts me in pretty good company.

Now, almost sixty years later, testing of all sorts is ubiquitous. Waves of educational initiatives and reform movements have come and gone, many of them stillborn on delivery. (Remember the New Math movement of the sixties? The result was a large number of frustrated teachers whose students not only could not grasp the new math but couldn’t do basic arithmetic, either.)

Our nation’s two most recent efforts to implement substantive educational reform are the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind (2001) and the Common Core initiative that is being promoted by the Obama administration. The former program’s espoused goals were to place qualified teachers in every public school classroom and to have students performing successfully at grade level in core academic subjects by 2014. That year is now upon us and the patient is pretty much DOA.

Will the Common Core, promoting a set of national standards in English language arts and math, meet the same stillborn fate as other reform efforts? (For anyone interested in the official position, I strongly recommend visiting the Common Core web site at Then dive into the pro and con screeds that are now a part of the national conversation.) You will see that there is actually a lot to like. At its inception, the Common Core State Standards was the 2009 creation of the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, not the federal government. Its purpose is framed by a commitment to college and career readiness, giving students the skills necessary “to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce-training programs.”

Common Core standards specify what students are expected to learn at each grade level, K-12. Selection of texts, methods of instruction, and curriculum are to be controlled at the local level. Further, it is explicitly stated that the initiative will “remain a state-led effort….Federal funds have never and will never be used to support the development or governance of the Common Core or any future revision of the standards.” As I said, there are many things to like about the Common Core; but there are some valid reservations to consider, beginning with the matter of advocacy.

According to a June 7, 2014, Washington Post article by Lindsey Layton, two predominant influencers of Common Core advocacy and implementation are private philanthropy (primarily the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and the federal Department of Education. The Gates Foundation has awarded grants totaling $230,000,000 to organizations supporting Common Core. These funds have been used for such things as “mock legislative hearings for classroom teachers, training educators on how to respond to questions from lawmakers.” This and other forms of advocacy have taken precedence over any field testing of the model, which seems to be putting the cart before the horse.

For its part, the Department of Education has provided over $4,000,000,000 in “Race to the Top” grants for states that adopted high standards, and Common Core was deemed to meet those standards. “It was,” writes Layton, “a clever way around federal laws that prohibit Washington from interfering in what takes place in classrooms. It was also a tantalizing incentive for cash-strapped states.” The Department of Education also granted, for states adopting the Common Core, waivers of exemption for non-compliance with the No Child Left Behind. Though the Common Core is avowedly structured as an independent governing body, it would appear that the nose of the federal camel is already inside the tent, and once that happens it will be difficult to keep the rest of the dromedary outside.

How free are methods of instruction from outside influence, Common Core assurances notwithstanding? Here again, there is room for some skepticism. Carol Burris, New York’s High School Principal of the Year in 2013 and an initial supporter of Common Core, offers the following contrast. A pre-Common Core kindergarten math standard from Massachusetts promulgates a simple broad directive to “Use objects and models to solve related addition and subtraction models to ten.” Under Common Core the standard reads:

Compose and decompose numbers from 11 to 19 into
tens and ones and some further ones, e.g., by using objects
or drawings, and record each composition or decomposition
by a drawing or equation (e.g., 18=10+8); understanding
that these numbers are composed of ten ones and one, two,
three, four, five, six, seven, eight, or nine ones.

Aside from the fact that the prose has the turgid consistency of pluff mud, does this not sound just a bit directive in terms of instructional methodology?

Critique of Common Core has risen considerably beyond the level of the liberal/conservative partisan debate which has clouded some of the most salient issues. A May 14, 2014 Washington Post blog by Valerie Straus rightly observes that “people on all ends of the political spectrum are thinking through the core.” And scholar Diane Ravitch, a prolific education researcher and author—and fierce advocate of all things great and small in the sphere of public education—maintains that “the rushed implementation of the standards doomed them….Buying the support of education interest groups in D.C. is not the same as winning the support of the American public.”

And yet there remains something to be said for the articulation of a broad set of high standards for our schools, and some broad meaningful common assessment mechanisms leavened by a healthy measure of local autonomy and accountability. But let there also be internal pressure from the citizenry that, in a very healthy way, poses hard questions to state and district professionals and governing boards. And the thrust of that questioning should focus, in the spirit of Eric Hoffer’s observation, on whether we are giving our students the good tools they need to think independently and critically, work cooperatively and imaginatively, and adapt flexibly to rapidly changing conditions; in other words, to steer a deliberate course from the acquisition of information, to knowledge, to wisdom.

In this regard, it does no good to further politicize the product or the process more than it already has been. The Common Core is the work neither of devils nor angels. All will eventually devolve to the local level. If it is not actively embraced in its implementation by principals and teachers, the initiative will wither be stillborn, inconsequential, or severely vitiated in impact.

Here is a brief example of what I mean. In a conversation with a middle school principal whose state has adopted the Core, I asked what she thought. “I think it’s fine,” she said. ‘In what way,” I asked. Her answer clarified what she meant by the word “fine.” She meant that her school would continue to do exactly as it had been doing, that its curriculum and standards were strong, and could easily be presented in a way that would satisfy Common Core without departing from business as usual. With strong schools this may work fine. The same tactics, however, can be employed by weaker schools and let’s not kid ourselves that thinking that the system can’t be gamed.

It should be clear that the hard lifting will not be accomplished by standards, curriculum design, or testing. Many professional educators challenge the assertion that there is any correlation between standards and student achievement. Sustainable results will most likely hinge on how students are encouraged in individual homes and classrooms. After all, a good teacher can indeed make chicken salad from a certain less appetizing poultry by-product. The same cannot be said of a set of standards or a curriculum, irrespective of how ingeniously and nobly it is conceived.

Common Core is the work neither of devils nor angels. All will eventually devolve to the local level. If it is not actively embraced in its implementation by principals and teachers, the initiative will either be stillborn, inconsequential, or severely vitiated in impact.

The Impact of Trust

Trust ImageWhich is easier, to like someone you don’t trust or to trust someone you don’t like? This is not a mere parsing of words but rather drives at the heart of both personal relationships and organizational effectiveness. If an organization is floundering, leaders (and the governing boards they work for) will look for root causes. If things are going well, the motivation to analyze performance—especially something as abstract as trust—is not as intense and may not exist at all. Yet in both cases, flourishing or flailing, the key causative factors may relate directly to the presence or absence of trust and the need for it to be nourished or mended, which brings us back to the original question.

If I am convinced of someone’s integrity, which wells up from the individual’s most fundamental beliefs, values, and character, as it is shown in daily life and interactions, I am very likely to give that person my trust. This is not dependent upon any feelings of liking. There might be any number of traits or flaws that would prevent my becoming friends with a person but would not necessarily keep me from trusting him. What I would need to know is that the person was dependable (especially under pressure), that his word was as good as his bond, and that he subscribed to principles or reciprocal loyalty.

However, even if someone is extremely competent, smart, productive, affable, witty, etc., and even a small degree of trust is lacking, then the chances of  anything beyond the most casual friendship developing is, at best, remote. Simply put: I can trust a jerk (have done so) but I’m not going to trust you because you have a great personality and like the same books and movies I do.

Why is this important to the leadership of a school or non-profit organization? Three reasons come immediately to mind: first, a trusting organization is more likely to be an effective mission-centered organization; second, since relationships in organizational leadership cross personal as well as well professional boundaries, a sense of trust enables the leadership to look beyond personal differences for the greater good; and third, without trust, there can be no cohesion around a principle of high quality teamwork which will always be found at the heart of those organizations standing nearest the top of the mountain. Trust is the single best “immunity pill” against dysfunction within a leadership team. Dysfunction fears trust.

It’s a real irony, then, that trust is so seldom overtly discussed inside organizational structures (leadership teams, e.g.). It should be, because trust is not just an admirable abstract quality but rather an asset that needs to be nurtured. It is a vitally important component of human capital. Organizations and institutions that merely assume its presence or lament its lack in shoulder-shrug fashion do so at their peril.

So, when is the last time you discussed trust issues “inside the tent” of your leadership team meetings? (Don’t’ be discouraged if the answer is “never” or “seldom.”) Irrespective of what your answer is, here are some suggestions for building trust capital within your team.

  1. As a team, identify key qualities you associate with trustworthiness (e.g., character, authenticity, sincerity, competence, reliability, etc.) as they relate to discharging the mission of the organization. Don’t rush this exercise; take time to reach consensus on no more than five to seven qualities
  2. Create a graphic trust matrix (like the one at the top of this blog) to serve as a graphic reminder of the team’s commitment to trust and how trust indicators interrelate
  3. Applying these qualities (how you execute them and live them out within the organization), rate your own trustworthiness on either a numerical or alphabetical scale
  4. On the same scale, how is your trustworthiness perceived by other members of the team? (May or may not be applicable depending on the size of the team)
  5. Rate your assessment of the overall trustworthiness of the team
  6. Rate the willingness of the team to address issues of trust (a) as a team and (b) as they are exhibited by individual members of the team

Using these results, create an action plan for nurturing, sustaining, or improving levels of trust within the team and review it periodically at team meetings. (This is not a stand-alone measure but should be used as part of a comprehensive annual team self-evaluation.) I strongly advise using an outside facilitator in the initial phases of building a trust plan and tailoring it to the particular needs of your team.

Here it is in a nutshell, succinctly stated by Patrick Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: “When people don’t unload their opinions and feel like they’ve been listened to, they won’t get on board.” And without trust, nobody is getting on that train.

Note: Trust plans can also be used to good effect by governing boards (as part of a board annual self-evaluation and at board retreats) and by other departments/divisions within an organization.

Suggested sources for furthering your team’s appreciation of trust and teamwork:

  1. Stephen M.R. Covey, The Speed of Trust
  2. Charles Feltman, The Thin Book of Trust
  3. Katherine Hawley, Trust: A Very Short Introduction
  4. Frances Fukuyama, Trust (this is a weightier tome, looking at policy and geo-political ramifications of trust, but containing much profitable material)
  5. Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
  6. Apollo 13 (a great film to watch together as a team and to discuss its myriad implications for trust and teamwork)


Exponential Change: Unintended Consequences



What’s wrong with this picture? The Boeing 737 is cruising on an easterly course at 39,000 feet. The ride is glassy smooth; there is a strong tail wind thanks to the jet stream; flight conditions are clear with visibility unlimited. Both pilots are awake, the passengers are happy, and the flight attendants are unstressed and friendly. What’s wrong with this picture is that the airplane is about to fly into the side of a mountain. Moreover, this is a mountain that doesn’t appear on the plane’s ground proximity warning system because it doesn’t yet exist.

A highly improbable scenario, given that the world’s tallest peak measures 29,028 feet above sea level. It is, however, an appropriate metaphor for the serial waves of exponential change that may well prove to be the hallmark phenomenon of the 21st century. We are a species that likes predictability; indeed, it is the bedrock for all scientific hypotheses. As the unsettling and increasing speed of change makes it more and more difficult to form sound judgments on the basis of past, or even present, experience, enormous pressures will be exerted on individuals, families, businesses, the social and political fabric of our institutions, and especially our schools.

Those who have studied and written about the phenomenon of rapid change cover a wide variety of disciplines. An August 11 2009 editorial in The Wall Street Journal by John Hayes and Michael Malone (also authors of separate books on the economic effects of dynamic change) was entitled “The Ten-Year Century.” Dramatically, the authors point out that “changes that used to take generations—economic cycles, cultural shifts, mass migrations, changes in the structures of families and institutions—now unfurl in a span of years.” Hence, “the ten-year century” and, by implication, “the one-year decade.” No one writing on this topic posits any likelihood of a “leveling off,” much less abatement, and thus the five-year century and the six-month decade may not be far away. Hayes and Malone point to three powerful, inexorable drivers of radical change: faster computation as the result of Moore’s Law, the doubling of semiconductor performance every eighteen to twenty-four months; quicker access resulting from the exponential growth of networks with each new user (Metcalfe’s Law); and ever shorter decision cycles, requiring in the world of business and economics, “bold, impetuous moves, all the while betting that the information is not just complete, but accurate.” We are, then, riding a whirlwind, carried along on a steepening curve of change that will only grow steeper.

Significant metrics are not difficult to find. Futurist Raymond Kurzweil points to ever smaller time windows between the appearance of an invention and its use by the average person, defined as the point at which an invention appears on the market and is being used by at least 25 percent of the U.S. population. Consider these common-use data points presented by Kurtzweil: electrification of American homes, 46 years; general telephone access, 35 years; home radio usage, 31 years; televisions in homes, 26 years; use of personal computers, 16 years; 13 years for the widespread use of cell phones; and only seven years for the development of web-based communications to penetrate 25 percent of the American population.

On a global scale, Tom Hayes, in Jump Point, points out that it took some 100,000 years for mankind to move from the domestication of animals through social, political, and technological changes to arrive at a globally integrated market of one billion people in 2001. Then, he writes: “Only six years later, in 2007, the second billion arrived. And, at an astounding rate of acceleration—about 70,000 more people linking every day—the third billionth person will join in just a few years from now.” This will represent a “jump point” that “will signal the end of business, markets, work…and life, as we know it. At that point, one-half of the world’s population—its entire productive work force—will be united in a truly global marketplace of products, capital, and ideas: the largest economic engine in the history of the human adventure.”

Accelerated change, however, is not just about business and economics—as dramatic as that is—and its impact on our social, professional, political, and educational institutions. Joel Garreau, in Radical Evolution, names four phenomena of change that have the potential to alter what it means to be human. They are identified by the acronym of GRIN—genetics, robotics, information/artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. Conceivably the combination of these forces will effectively erase the line between techno-fantasy and what we like to think of as reality. Human culture and institutions have always lagged behind paradigm shifts. Thus, writes Garreau, “The cultural revolution in which we are immersed is no more a tale of bits and bytes than the story of Galileo is about paired lenses….Today the story is…about the defining cultural, social, and political issue of our age. It is about human transformation.” In Our Posthuman Future, Francis Fukuyama follows a more policy oriented, globally interconnected, how-are-we-going-to-manage approach to the phenomenon of change. Regarding medicine and technology, he posits, “The natural tendency of one generation to get out of the way of the up-and-coming one will be replaced by the simultaneous existence of three, four, even five generations.” For the first time in human history we may well have societies whose median ages are measured in the 60s, 70s, or higher. Moreover, the potential for science and medicine to alter what it means to be human will also impact how we discuss and formulate policies regarding, “rights, justice, and morality.”

What is at work in this stormy sea of change can be likened to a Darwinian process; i.e., it is not the biggest, strongest, or even the smartest institutions that will survive and thrive, but those that can adapt, that are the quickest, nimblest, and most agile in surfing a lightning-speed tidal wave of change. What does this mean, then, when we look at our educational institutions, especially in the pre-collegiate years? There is a certain litany (almost a mantra) proclaiming the urgent importance of preparing our students for life and work in the 21st century. What precisely that means, aside from having the pacific effect of a well-intentioned bromide is not clear. As Fukuyama writes, “The idea that one can acquire skills and education that will remain useful for the next forty years is implausible enough at present, given the pace of technological change. The idea that those skills would remain relevant over working lives of fifty, sixty, or seventy years become even more preposterous.”

What is needed is something dramatically different from the test-driven (often multiple choice) teach-to-the-standards approach common in today’s public schools. Tony Wagner (The Global Achievement Gap) argues that all of our schools (public and non-public) should be teaching seven different survival skills characterized by: critical thinking and problem solving; collaboration across networks and leading by influence; agility and adaptability; initiative and entrepreneurialism; effective oral and written communication; accessing and analyzing information; and curiosity and imagination. One might quibble over the number of skills or come up with a different set of rubrics, but the essential rightness of Wagner’s analysis is, I think, irrefutable.

To adopt such an approach to curriculum and instruction requires energy, boldness, courage, and the moderating influence of wisdom. Who will be able to do this? When we ask the question as to what institutions (in any area) are least able to change and transform themselves, the answer seems obvious. They are the institutions that are the most rigid, most top-down in decision making, most bureaucratic, and more committed to following programmatic rules and guidelines than in achieving meaningful, relevant, and measurable results. There is no convincing evidence leading us to think that our public education system is capable of this kind of transformation. Despite the presence of many dedicated classroom teachers, the system lacks not only the necessary nimbleness, agility, and flexibility but even the motivation for moving contra to the status quo. Where then are we to find hope for significant and meaningful change? I believe that hope lies among those schools that can make decisions at the local level and do not have to overcome the leaden inertia of layered bureaucracy in order to implement new programs, continuously measure their results, and make changes when something isn’t working without having to negotiate with a teachers’ union or an intractable, politically motivated superintendent. Where we find this potential is among our nation’s independent, charter, and home schools; and it is intriguing indeed to contemplate what these institutions, aided by the imaginative and purposeful use of technology, might achieve.

Wagner identifies at least one educational system that has articulated an aggressive, ambitious mission statement aimed toward creating schools that are focused on thinking and learning:

“Thinking schools will be learning organizations in every sense, constantly challenging assumptions, and seeking better ways of doing things through participation, creativity, and innovation. Thinking schools will be the cradle of thinking students as well as thinking adults and this spirit of learning should accompany our students even after they leave school.”

This mission statement comes not from an American or even a Western educational system but from the Singapore Ministry of Education. Yet we have schools in this country, already named, that are capable of crafting and executing this same kind of bold, ambitious vision to frame the manner in which we educate our children and could credibly be said to prepare them for the demands and challenges of the 21st century. The ability and potential are present; and with requisite will our independent, charter, and home schools can serve as a powerful, dynamic lever for positive educational change.

The Wisdom of Peter Drucker (What We Need to Teach)

Peter DruckerPeter Drucker has maintained that “Education will become the center of the knowledge society, and schooling its key institution.” In the 21st century a premium will be placed on the acquisition of knowledge from disparate sources through streaming technologies we can scarcely now imagine. Successful men and women will be multi-disciplined multi-taskers. Complex decisions will need to be made quickly and in fluid situations that are changing rapidly. Decisiveness and uncertainty will occupy the same sides of the coin. Managers and leaders, in all walks of life, will need to be adroit in their application of theoretical knowledge to “real-world” solutions. For all of these reasons, Drucker insists that students today must develop “a habit of continuous learning.”  And then he offers these powerful thoughts, throwing them at us like thunderbolts:

“What mix of knowledge is required for everybody? What is ‘quality’ in learning and teaching? All these will, of necessity, become central concerns of the knowledge society, and central political issues. In fact, it may not be too fanciful to anticipate that the acquisition and distribution of formal knowledge will come to occupy the place in the politics of the knowledge society that the acquisition of property and income have occupied in the two or three centuries that we have come to call the Age of Capitalism [my emphasis].”

Drucker wrote these words, not within the first decade of the century in which we now live, but in 1995. His prescience and foresight should cause us all to think deeply and analytically about what we teach, how we teach, why we teach the subjects we do, and how we best prepare our students not simply to get in to the colleges of their dreams but also how to become the lifelong learners they will need to be.