Dr. Yong Zhao has been a provocative voice in school reform as he challenges educators and public policy experts to refrain from panicking over our children’s consistently low international ranking on standardized tests:
“Although American schools have not been as effective and successful in transmitting knowledge as the test scores indicate, they have somehow produced more creative entrepreneurs, who have kept the country’s economy going. Moreover, it is possible that on the way to produce those high test scores, other education systems may have discouraged the cultivation of the creative and entrepreneurial spirit and capacity.”
As a product of the school system in mainland China, he is perfectly positioned to remind Americans that our advantage in the global economy is our innovation, our creativity, and our knack for entrepreneurialism.
So I was a little surprised by his recent post about the Common Core State Standards and all the misinformed commentors who piled on in the anonymity provided by a typical blog debate.
“I wanted to ask all of us to ask again,” he writes rhetorically, “if the new world of education ushered in by the Common Core will be better than the old one scheduled to end in a year.”
Then Zhao offers five more questions which he answers in support of his own position:
• What makes one globally competitive?
• Can you be ready for careers that do not exist yet?
• Are the Common Core Standards relevant?
• Does Common Core support global competence?
• What opportunities we may be missing?
His collective answers to these would suggest that he doesn’t think so. But I have actually read the Common Core State Standards and monitored the developments of the new assessments, and respectfully disagree.
In fact, Dr. Zhao asked the wrong 5 questions. Here are mine:
• Are the 21st Century skills—including the ability to be “creative and entrepreneurial”— essential for our students?
• Would you favor a return to the era of no standards… where educational quality and academic outcomes were solely left to the interests and whims of individual teachers and learning was optional?
• Is the ability to think deeply, read closely, invent, create, collaborate and apply their learning essential for educated citizens of our global society?
• Are these skills what you want for your own children?
• If this is not what is called for in the Common Core State Standards—what is?
In 1990, the SCANS (Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills) report captured the consensus of corporate America when it described the skill sets that were critical for young people as they entered the work force of the 1990’s. The report is called “What Work Requires of Schools” and consists of two main sections:
Three- Part Foundation: Basic Skills (Reading, writing, mathematics, speaking and listening, Thinking Skills (including creative and critical thinking, problem solving, decision making, and reasoning) Personal Qualities (responsibility, sociability, self management and honesty);
Five Workplace Competencies: Interpersonal (including teamwork and leadership), Managing Resources, Information, Systems, and Technology.
In a March 1992 article for ASCD’s Educational Leadership, Arnold Packer, the SCANS executive director wrote;
“Students won’t learn SCANS skills by osmosis nor will schools meet new standards without fundamental changes in teaching methods and materials. The most effective way to teach skills is in the context of real-world situations and real problems. Students should not be filled with abstract data to be recalled for a test and forgotten, but rather, they should begin by applying their knowledge.”
For more than a decade, many progressive school systems relied heavily on the recommendations from the SCANS report as they defined their own standards for students. Then NCLB began testing for only one component from SCANS (basic skills in reading and math) and the rest gradually disappeared.
Many of us who are actually leading in K-12 public schools remember the SCANS report and have been arguing that NCLB does not prepare children to compete in college or eventually become contributing citizens to our world—global or otherwise. We have warned that missing from the current basic skills pablum is an equal passion and reverence for creativity, invention, authentic thinking, teamwork, complexity, initiative, perseverance, LANGUAGE… and relevance. Not just “content” standards in basic skills… but “performance” standards that are authentic and empowering.
In the 21st Century we call these 21st Century skills and colleges and employers are still looking for them.
To counter the race to the bottom over the past decade, I have advocated that our teachers infuse 21st Century Skills into everything they do. With Common Core and the assessments currently being developed, this is exactly the curriculum we will shift to.
So all the drama around “common” state standards across the country is puzzling. Sort of.
It is apparent that many of the individuals who argue (at least in blog threads and twitter) against the Common Core state standards– haven’t read them! “Standards” do not equate to standardization. They don’t compromise local control of schools. But they do set a high bar which every student will have to eclipse no matter what else local schools want to do. To me, it’s an issue of equity.
Dr. Zhao is fully aware that Americans eschew standardization. But he fails to address that thorny little problem we have with differences and diversity.
We ought to excel at 21st Century skills! But America’s potential global advantage in education is also our greatest weakness. We have the most diverse student population on the planet, but have failed to develop a school system that simultaneously celebrates each child’s uniqueness while insuring that every student has fully developed the skills they need to compete at any level and any walk of life they choose.
The public school system has been designed to never change… and so it rarely does. Thus, the achievement gaps that reveal disparities in terms of race, ethnicity, native language, and in some areas, gender have not gone away.
This is where a profound difference between Common Core and the “accountability system” engendered by NCLB is apparent.
NCLB is a punitive system that is not focused on what children actually need to be successful in their lives. In many ways it was created to expose public schools as ineffective, and drive institutional change through unfunded mandates and threats. The result – for all the wrong reasons– was a hyper-focus on multiple choice testing and test prep in a narrow band of the curriculum (basic skills in reading and math).
No wonder the teachers in Chicago went on strike to protest the use of test data in their evaluations.
No wonder the teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle staged their own little Arab Spring and refused to administer the MAPS assessment.
No wonder parents are standing behind their classroom teachers.
No Child Left Behind targets educators.
The Common Core, on the other hand, re-focuses our schools on the needs of children. With the stated emphasis on college and career readiness—(What Workplace Requires of Schools)– it has “north star” potential in the quest for the uniquely American concept of equity. If implemented with integrity, it will assure that every child, in every community, has access to a highly trained teacher and a curriculum designed to promote 21st century skills.
Dr Zhao asks rhetorically: Do we want individuals who are good at taking tests, or individuals who are creative and entrepreneurial? As if we have to choose between the two.
If the vision of common core is realized, we will have both. Our students should excel at taking authentic tests that are as innovative as we expect American kids to be. And in the spirit of local control, that is exactly the vision of El Milagro.