Similarities between Communism and the Common Core

When I was on my high school debate team, we would discuss all kinds of philosophical principles “in theory.” I remember several discussions about Communism in which the common tagline was: “It was a good idea in theory, too bad it didn’t work in practice.” That phrase always bothered me. To me, a good idea was something that worked. If something couldn’t be put into practice, it just wasn’t a good idea, in theory or practice.

Understanding human nature is a vital component to an idea being good. If you have an idea for how people should interact with each other, but that idea doesn’t respect aspects of human nature and psychology, then it’s just a plain bad idea. And that was the problem with Communism to me, it didn’t respect how people work. It didn’t respect our intrinsic needs for agency, competency, and ownership. If you are designing a solution for people, it has to work for people, it can’t just be “good in theory,” in some abstract, idealistic sense of the word.

More recently, I’ve come to understand a similar sentiment in Silicon Valley entrepreneurial world. Venture capitalists aren’t just looking for a good idea. They are looking for someone who has a good team behind them and can lead them to success, someone who understands the market and how to reach users: in sum, they are looking for someone who understands people, both internally in building their team, and externally in getting users. Great ideas are a dime a dozen: great realizations of great ideas are rare gems worth funding. In other words, you can’t get funding with a great idea in theory: you need to have a great idea in practice.

Now, let’s shift to the Common Core. First a distinction- I want to distinguish between the Common Core framework, and the system of high stakes achievement tests used to determine whether students have passed the tests. Sidenote: by high stakes, I mean there are consequences for both students and for teachers based on the results of the tests- a low stakes test can evaluate how smart students are, but low and high scores have absolutely no consequences for students or teachers, they simply give feedback on how well the system is doing. When states “adopt” the Common Core, it typically means they adopt both of these things, they aren’t just giving their teachers a new set of standards to teach, they are also implementing a system of high risk testing.

The Common Core framework might be an “idea that’s good in theory,” but the series of high stakes achievement tests that accompany it are absolutely terrible in practice. We like to pretend that the way we test learning doesn’t have an effect on learning itself, but that simply isn’t true. High stakes learning environments stigmatize failure and emphasize right answers, which stifle grit, perserverance, creativity and curiosity, which are traits valuable in themselves and known to increase learning. When students have grit and perserverance, they learn better. When students have interest in their topic of study, they learn (and test) better. To put this simply, how you test learning affects learning. Both pieces need to be considered when determining whether an educational system works for human nature and psychology.

This is the problem- the Common Core framework might be a nice set of standards on its own, but words on paper don’t make change. The framework needs a realization to be implemented in schools and reach kids. And this is where a great idea results in a terrible realization. A high stakes testing environment carries no understanding of human nature and psychology, and is a solution that will fail and flounder, and seriously damage students and teachers along the way.

As an after-school educator in NY, I was floored by the effect I saw on students both last year and this year as a result of the testing. The first effect was a drop in our attendance rates for our Spring after-school programs like we hadn’t seen before, with the most common reason given that our children needed sleep and rest to do well on their testing. The few children that did show up were a mess- I’ve never seen a 4th grade student so exhausted and stressed as I did when they attended our program during testing.

I’m writing this article as a call to step back and think about Common Core as we roll into implementation. It’s easy to find articles criticizing the Common Core nowadays, but what strikes me most is quotes from Common Core supporters. The supporters’ claims seem to fall in the same buckets: that Common Core is necessary to improve education, that there’s no debate about whether we need higher standards for education, that Common Core is undoubtedly a good idea but we just rolled it out in the wrong way. In other words, they seem to be saying “Everyone agrees the Common Core is good in theory, we just haven’t gotten it to work in practice yet.” Well, will it ever work in practice? And is Common Core really such a good idea if it can’t work in practice?