Measures for measures

O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant. (
Measure for Measure, II.ii.133)

So…as of this writing more than half the states have been persuaded to sign on to the Common Core Standards. (Those states in the running for federal Race to the Top Phase 2 awards were required to adopt the standards by August 2.) Although there are several non-finalists that have also signed on to the standards, it’s clear that the driving force for adoption was the U.S. Department of Education push, which in turn has revived concerns about the top-down, central-planning role of the feds in school reform. These qualms aren’t likely to have been allayed by the insistence that the Common Core standards be adopted even by states (Massachusetts, California) that already had established standards regarded as superior to the new Common Core.

Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep. (II.ii.117)

Is ED an 800-pound gorilla? Is this a problem? Your mileage may vary depending on your core beliefs about what, why and how big problems best get solved. The manner in which the Common Core standards have been imposed and the intended effect of national educational standards, whether or not seen as heavy-handed and intrusive, are of a piece with the governing philosophy evidenced in other recent reforms. Maybe there’s a measure of futility in attempting to resist the assumptions that propel these initiatives, but there’s value in taking this occasion to examine the question of who (across the spectrum from the hearth to the White House) should decide what should be fixed in education and how.

We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror. (II.i.1)

One may wonder about the sincerity of ‘buy-in’ procured by quid pro quo. Signing onto the new standards was the easy part; those states will now be called upon to follow through with real work in ensuring that their curriculum tracks the standards, that the curriculum is taught effectively, and that there’s a way to demonstrate—via trustworthy assessments—that standards have been met. It’s little comfort that many of the self-same states that have redefined “proficiency” in ways that evoke the classic response of Inigo Montoya will now be, in consortium, engineering a new assessment system for the new standards.

When vice makes mercy, mercy's so extended
That for the fault's love is the offender friended. (III.ii.266)

Shakespeare has the “bed trick” and the “head trick”; think of faux “proficiency” as the “ed trick.” Perhaps the best sign of good faith and intentions to tell the truth to students (and their parents and their community) about whether or not they are keeping pace educationally would be for states who have been hiding the ball on proficiency standards to follow the lead of New York and just ‘fess up. This won’t be encouraged by gloating, derision or “I told you so”s targeted at the one state that’s (however unhappily) gone public. For now, the silence of other states with similar issues is unsettling, and may not bode well for the integrity of how new nationwide assessments will be established and implemented.

Our doubts are traitors
And makes us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.

I’m not worried about the new standards resulting in classrooms across the country marching in fantastically coordinated, rigid lockstep through the narrow straits of the new Common Core.  The relative vagueness of the standards and the unsettled nature of the curriculum that will be needed to embody the standards are far more likely to result in bureaucratic busywork from those states who already roll that way as their modus operandi, while the states that do a good job will find a way to continue to do so. Oddly enough, the common currency of national standards may provide an opportunity for educational settings outside conventional public schooling (e.g. homeschooling) to demonstrate that they meet these new officially sanctioned benchmarks, and I can also envision an opportunity for private sector development of disinterested assessments based on the new Common Core standards for parents who want to know where their students really stand.

(Thanks for the idea, and apologies for its execution, are due to this post by Steve Peha, and to The Bard.)

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