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More Questions about the Common Core: Response to Marc Tucker

17 January 2013 107,315 26 Comments

I have been waiting for a serious conversation about the sensibility of the Common Core State Standards Initiative with its staunch supporters. I am thus very pleased to read Marc Tucker’s response to my five questions about the Common Core. I am honored that Tucker considers my questions worth responding to. His response, while thoughtful and more nuanced than the usual slogan-shouting, emotion-arousing, and fear-mongering evidence-deprived commercials put forth by some instigators and supporters of the Common Core like this one, did not really answer my questions.  But it did give me the opportunity to come up with more questions. I hope Marc and or other Common Core proponents would find these new questions worth responding to again.

Before I raise more questions, let me restate my main point: it is impossible, unnecessary, and harmful for a small group of individuals to predetermine and impose upon all students the same set of knowledge and skills and expect all students progress at the same pace (if the students don’t, it is the teachers’ and schools’ fault). I am not against standards per se for good standards can serve as a useful guide. What I am against is Common and Core, that is, the same standards for all students and a few subjects (currently math and English language arts) as the core of all children’s education diet. I might even love the Common Core if they were not common or core.

Tucker disagrees. He argues it is both possible and necessary to predetermine and impose upon all students the same knowledge and skills and America is immune to the damages of such efforts that have been experienced in China and other similar East Asian countries.

Now response to Tucker’s arguments point by point.

Tucker: It is now more important than ever to figure out what all young people need to know and be able to do.

Zhao:  First, it is not true that “it is now more important than ever to figure out what all young people need to know and be able to do.” Over a hundred and fifty years ago, the British philosopher Herbert Spencer thought it was so important to decide what children should learn that he wrote the essay What Knowledge is of Most Worth and came up with the answer “science” and his criteria was the utilitarian value of knowledge. He did not think Latin, Greek, and the classics were of much value for a person to live in a society being transformed by industrialization and history , to Spencer was “mere tissue of names and dates and dead unmeaning events…it has not the remotest bearings on any our actions.”

In 1892, the National Education Association (NEA) thought it was so important that it appointed the Committee of Ten, chaired by Harvard president Charles Elliot, to figure out what schools should teach.

In early 1900s, The NEA had another commission to rethink the curriculum and came up with The Cardinal Principals of Secondary Education

Activities intended to determine what all students should know and be able to do never actually stopped. In recent years, the 1994 Goals 2000 Act under President Clinton provided funds to develop standards that “identify what all students should know and be able to do to live and work in the 21st century.” Under NCLB, states were mandated to develop both content and academic achievement standards in reading/language arts, mathematics, and science.

There has never been a lack of attempts to figure out what all young people should know and be able to do, consequently there is no shortage of standards around. The fact that there have been so many attempts suggests the difficulty of the task. People simply cannot seem to agree what all children should know and learn in general. People cannot even agree what to teach in math, the supposedly the most straightforward, and have fought many math wars over the last century. It is actually a good thing, in my mind, that people cannot come to agreement and the American federal government was not given the authority to impose its own version upon all children. But despite the lack of a consistently implemented nationalized curriculum and standards, America did just fine as a nation.

The Common Core initiative seems to suggest that either there are no standards in America or the existing standards are not good enough. But what evidence is there to show the Common Core is better than previous ones, including those from all 50 states? Granted that things change and what students learn should reflect the changes, but how frequently should that happen? The state standards developed under NCLB are merely a decade old. If we have to make massive changes every five or 10 years, does not it mean it is nearly impossible to come up with content that is valid long enough for the nation’s over 100,000 schools to implement before it becomes outdated? If so, would it be much more likely that individual schools and teachers have a better chance to make the adjustment faster than large bureaucracies?

An anecdote: For hundreds of years it was possible for the adults in my little village in China to figure out what all children should know and be able to do: handling the water buffalo was one for the boys and sewing for the girls. My village was small and isolated, with around 200 people. But that predication became invalid when China opened up to the outside world in the 1980s. The common standards in my village proved to be wrong later in at least two cases. First it did not work for me. I was pretty bad at what my village’s Common Core prescribed (handling the water buffalo) so I had to do something else (coming to America to debate with Marc Tucker, for example). Second, it did not work for the rest of the children in the village either, because working as a migrant worker in the city is different from handling a water buffalo.

Tucker: Truly creative people know a lot and they have worked hard at learning it.  They typically know a lot about unrelated things and their creativity comes from putting those unrelated things together in unusual ways.  Learning almost anything really well depends on mastering the conceptual structure of the underlying disciplines, because, without that scaffolding, we are not able to put new information and skills to work.

Zhao: Very true, truly creative people know a lot and they have worked hard at learning it, but do they know a lot about what they are passionate about, or what the government wants them to know? Do they work hard at learning something that is personally meaningful, or do they work hard at learning something prescribed by others?

Also true that learning anything really well depends on mastering the conceptual structure of the underlying disciplines, but what disciplines: math, science, the arts, music, languages, or politics? I am embarrassed to admit as a Chinese, I had horrible math scores in school, which is why I chose to study English, but somehow I am good at computer programming and developed large-scale software. I am also good at understanding statistics and empirical evidence.

Tucker: Zhao says that we will not be competitive simply by producing a nation of good test takers.  That is, of course, true.  Leading Asian educators are very much afraid that they have succeeded in producing good test takers who are not going to be very good at inventing the future.  But that does not absolve us of the responsibility for figuring out what all students will need to know to be competitive in a highly competitive global labor market, nor does it absolve us of the responsibility to figure out how to assess the skills we think are most important.

Zhao: Is it responsibility or arrogance? Almost all totalitarian governments and dictators claim that they have the responsibility to engineer a society so their people can live happily and that their people are not capable of knowing what is good for them and top-level design is necessary. For example, they claim that their people cannot defend themselves against bad information, thus the leaders have to impose censorship. The leaders should decide what their people should view, listen to, and read. This self-assigned responsibility comes from the assumption that the authority knows best. By the way, we adults (parents and teachers) often committee the same error of arrogance: we automatically assume we know better than our children.

Tucker: It is true that the future will be full of jobs that do not exist now and challenges we cannot even imagine yet, never mind anticipate accurately.  But, whatever those challenges turn out to be, I can guarantee you that they will not be met by people without strong quantitative skills, people who cannot construct a sound argument, people who know little of history or geography or economics, people who cannot write well.

Zhao: Almost true but strong quantitative skills are not the same as the skills to mark the right choice on a multiple choice exam, constructing a sound argument is different from repeating the “correct way” of arguing, and writing well certainly does not mean scoring high against a writing rubric. More importantly, as far as I can tell, the Common Core does not include what Tucker wants: history, geography, or economics. Where do the children learn these and other “unrelated things” when they are pushed aside by the Common Core?

Tucker: Zhao grew up in a country in which the aim was not learning but success on the test. There was wide agreement that the tests were deeply flawed, emphasizing what Mao called “stuffing the duck”— shoving facts and procedures into students—in lieu of analysis, synthesis and creativity.  But few wanted to change the system, because the tests were one of the few incorruptible parts of a deeply corrupt system.

Zhao: Very good observation but I cannot help but pointing out that Tucker just published a book entitled Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems.  If it is such a bad system, why does Tucker consider it one of the world’s leading systems and want to build American education on it? If it is so bad, what is it in Shanghai, a city of China, he wants America to surpass?
And by the way, it is not true that “few wanted to change the system, because the tests were one of the few incorruptible parts of a deeply corrupt system.” Many, perhaps, most people in China, want the system changed. The Ministry of Education and provincial governments have been making changes over the past few decades (for details read my books Catching Up or Leading the Way and World Class Learners)

Tucker: So Zhao is very much aware of the consequences of a rigid system set to outdated standards.  But that is not the problem in the United States.  We don’t suffer from ancient standards wildly out of tune with the times, enforced by tests that are no better.  We suffer from lack of agreement on any standards that could define what all students must know and be able to do before they go their separate ways.  We suffer in a great many schools from implicit standards that translate into abysmally low expectations for far too many students.

Zhao: I am very appreciative of Tucker’s understanding of my background but I am not convinced that the U.S. is immune to the same problems China has suffered from testing. Is it not the goal of the Common Core to instill a rigid system? Isn’t the Common Core to be enforced by tests? If not, why do we have the Common Assessment? Why are we connecting teacher evaluation to test scores? Moreover, haven’t we seen plenty of cases of cheating on standardized testing in our schools under NCLB? Isn’t there enough evidence of states manipulating data and cut scores? For more evidence, read Collateral Damage: How High-stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools by Sharon Nichols and David Berliner.

Another by the way: When I described the teacher evaluation efforts mandated by the Race to the Top to a group of science teachers from Beijing to study American science education this week, they were appalled and commented: Isn’t that a violation of human dignity?

Tucker: Without broad agreement on a well designed and internationally benchmarked system of standards, we have no hope of producing a nation of students who have the kind of skills, knowledge and creative capacities the nation so desperately needs.  There is no substitute for spelling out what we think students everywhere should know and be able to do. Spelling it out is no guarantee that it will happen, but failing to spell it out is a guarantee that we will not get a nation of young people capable of meeting the challenges ahead.

Zhao: This I will have to respectfully disagree with. The U.S. has had a decentralized education system forever (until Bush and Obama) and it has become one of the most prosperous, innovative, and democratic nations on earth. The lack of a common prescription of content imposed on all children by the government has not been a vice, but a virtue. As Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz wrote in their book The Race between Education and Technology: “We must shed our collective amnesia. America was once the world’s education leader. The rest of the world imported its institutions and its egalitarian ideals spread widely. That alone is a great achievement and one calls for an encore.”

Tucker:  Zhao apparently believes that standards mean standardization and standardization would inevitably lead to an inability to produce creative solutions to the problems the workforce will face in the years ahead.  That could certainly happen.  But it need not happen.

Zhao: Yes, it does not need to, but it does happen, has happened, and is unavoidable. When standards are enforced with high stakes testing, when teachers and principals are evaluated based on students’ test scores, when students’ fate are decided by test scores, the teaching and learning must become standardized and constrained. One does not have to go to China to see this. Just take a look at what happened under NCLB. It did not ask schools to narrow the curriculum, to reduce time for music and the arts, for social studies and science, or for lunch and recess, but it all happened. For the impact of NCLB on instructional time and curriculum, check out these reports (1 and 2)from the Center on Education Policy.

Tucker: It is simply not true that our inability to predict the jobs people will have to do in the future and the demand of creative, entrepreneurial young people relieves us of the obligation to figure out what skills and knowledge all young people need to have before they go their separate ways, or the obligation to translate that list of skills and knowledge into standards and assessments that can drive instruction in our schools.

Zhao: It is simply not true that the Common Core will prepare our children for the future. To conclude, I quote a comment left on my Facebook page by one of my personal heros, former president of America Educational Research Association (AERA) and widely respected educational researcher Gene Glass: “Common Core Standards are idiots’ solution to a misunderstood problem. The problem is an archaic, useless curriculum that will prepare no child for life in 2040 and beyond.”

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  • Will Richardson said:

    Thanks to both you and Marc for your willingness to conduct this debate in public. Hoping he responds. You guys could become the new Ravitch-Meier a la “Bridging Differences.”

    There are things that every child needs to learn, but those things are only a small part of the Common Core from what I can tell. I think once again, we’ve over reached, and we don’t fully understand the contexts in which we learn and work now. It’s an interesting moment.

    But I totally agree with your penultimate point. It almost doesn’t matter what the assessment or the standards. The high stakes that have been placed on the results make it difficult for me to see how standards won’t lead to standardization. That is the true failure of RTTT that I think we’ll soon realize.

  • What School Boards Should Read This Week said:

    […] More Questions about the Common Core: Response to Marc Tucker Dr. Yong Zhao is an internationally known scholar, author, and speaker. His works focus on the implications of globalization and technology on education. He has designed schools that cultivate global competence, developed computer games for language learning, and founded research and development institutions to explore innovative education models. He has published over 100 articles and 20 books. […]

  • Chuck Fellows said:

    Thank you for refuting the philosophy of “same ole, same ole”. Common Core and standards reinforce Einstein’s observation that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome is insanity.

    Ed Deming tried to wake up American business leaders to their myopia and gave them Fourteen Points and Seven Deadly diseases to guide them. As a product of our “same ole” educational system our business leaders are incapable of grasping these concepts.

    The Toyota Production System, known broadly in America as “Lean Thinking” demands observation and more observation at the level that the work is done in order to understand before attempting to improve a process.

    Both recognize the dignity of work and the essential knowledge that resides where the real work is done, in this case the classroom. Both embrace diversity, variability present in any system. The process will tell you what needs to be done in order to improve.

    Both management philosophies focus on creating a culture of never ending incremental continual improvement and depend upon a willingness to learn and questioning our perceptions.

    Common Core and Standards are military strategies for compliance and conformance. These “management” philosophies produce drones and clones those characteristics present in our educational, political and business leadership.

  • Assembled Pieces Reveal Disturbing Reform Picture | the becoming radical said:

    […] Yong Zhao has detailed carefully in an exchange with Marc Tucker, commitments to education reform policy linked to CCSS and the high-stakes tests built on these new […]

  • Mike Thayer said:

    I have been following the back-and-forth of this conversation with great interest. I appreciate the thoughtfulness and concern that you both have demonstrated, and the fact that you have been able to avoid the “talking past each other” problem that so often occurs with these dialogues.

    Having said that, as a mathematics teacher whose career began before NCLB, I can heartily support the points you’ve made. A set of national standards must, it seems, inevitably lead to a national curriculum with national testing. And we seem to be a society that will only use the tests for purposes of comparison (between students, between schools, between teachers) rather than for the truly evaluative purposes we’d ideally like to use them for. Until we decide that assessments have very specific and narrow purposes, and until those purposes are agreed upon by all participants in the process, we will continue down this path of education as competition rather than as an end in its own right.

    And that philosophy, as much as anything else, will serve to poison the well that is public education for years to come.

  • Yong Zhao: On Educational Freedom « COMMON CORE said:

    […] Many are following the Marc Tucker/ Yong Zhao interchange about Common Core with great interest. […]

  • The SCN Encourager – Friday, January 18, 2013 | The Encourager said:

    […] Here’s one way I’m following it, though; knowing full well that my movie needs more than a spectacular opening scene. Dr. Yong Zhao is an international scholar on culture, education, and technology. He has spoken at many of our conferences and leadership summits. He has some reservations about our emphasis on Common Core Standards. Whether you agree or not, this is a very good article to spend some time with.  […]

  • Articles of Interest – January 18, 2013 « National Creativity Network said:

    […] More Questions about the Common Core: Response to Marc Tucker Yong Zhao: Creative, Entrepreneurial, and Global: 21st Century Education […]

  • The Best Articles Sharing Concerns About Common Core Standards | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day… said:

    […] Five Questions to Ask about the Common Core is by Yong Zhao (and here’s a follow-up by him). […]

  • One Small Step to New Standards, One Giant Leap of Logic « COMMON CORE said:

    […] This point was discussed this week in a public “debate” of sorts between two of the country’s high-profile voices on education policy, Marc Tucker and Yong Zhao. ( […]

  • monika hardy said:

    thank you for sharing the convo. intriguing. and i too applaud your doing it in the spirit in which you have.

    perhaps there isn’t anything that a person needs to learn, that they wouldn’t learn if left to – and facilitated in – their own curiosity/whimsy. imagine all the time/money/energy we’d save if we believed that.

    how do you prep for uncertainty with any map at all – today? we might get to – better – but perhaps not to betterness. in the abundance of today – why would we settle?

    perhaps the only skill that would benefit everyone – knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.
    no prep. just swim. iterations of perpetual beta. per choice.

  • State of Utah fights battle with Indiana to end Common Core | Hoosiers Against Common Core said:

    […] between two of the country’s high-profile voices on education policy, Marc Tucker and Yong Zhao. ( Tucker: Without broad agreement on a well designed and internationally benchmarked system of […]

  • MOMwithAbrain said:

    Congressional testimony ON Marc Tucker. ALL need to read this before going any further:

  • Lance Wren said:

    I too thank you both for having this public dialogue. It is amazing to me that in a nation that was built on the power of individual initiative and entrepreneurship, that we have evolved, or devolved, into a country that measures every student with the same criteria and place such stakes on said measurement, that it overshadows the value of these individual talents.
    What our students need is not more mandates and restrictions placed on them, well-meaning as they are, but an environment that allows students the freedom and trust to pursue what they deem of value. As a middle school teacher, I would pose the question of student interest and engagement. Now I’ve been commissioned by my principal that is my job to motivate and inspire my students, so I will own some of that. But by placing more standards and also being accountable to them, you tell me how to incorporate them and raise student interest and engagement?

  • Joanne Yatvin said:

    Pardon my naivete, but I still don’t understand who determined what “every student should know and be able to do” and how that decision was validated. From all I’ve read, it appears to be just two people, David Coleman and susan Pimentel, and neither one of them has experience teaching students at any level.

  • Children for Sale By Alyson Williams | One Patriot's Thoughts said:

    […] This entry was posted in Children, Current Events, Family, Government Corruption, Homeschooling, Liberty, News, Personal Freedom, Tyranny and tagged Alyson Williams, Big Government, Bill of Rights, Clinton Administration, Common Core, Constitution, de facto national database of children, Democrats, Federal Government, Freedom, Gene Glass, Hillary Clinton, Let’s Take Over American Education, Marc Tucker, Obama, parental rights, pre-school age children, Race to the Top, socialism, State School Board, state-wide data collection, Totalitarian Government, tracking home-schooled children, US Education Secretary, Washington, What is Common Core?, White House, Yong Zhao. Bookmark the permalink. ← Because Newspapers are Publishing Maps of Gun Owners in NY, We Thought It Only Fair To Do The Same in Texas. Attached is a Map of Texas Gun Owners. […]

  • Lisa Linn said:

    I appreciate and applaud the willingness of both parties to hold a public conversation about what is or is not, what should be or what should not be part of our childrens’ education. We need to keep talking to each other, no matter how we may disagree.

    I am a teacher. It is not what I do; it is who I am. Ten years ago, when the first state standards made their appearance, I was appalled to see what was expected of my 11-12 year old sixth grade students. They for the most part, are simply not cognitively ready or able to do many of the learning tasks that are required of them. As an example, they are supposed to be able to write a five paragraph persuasive essay. At the age of my students, presenting a reasonable argument with evidence sounds something like this: “I think we should have computers because they’re cool.” I have struggled every single year with the concepts because they are unreasonable for brain development of these students. Not only that, but they have multiple other essay formats that they are supposed to be fluent with by the end of the year. After 20 years of teaching English and history, I would be so happy with just one well-written essay from every child by the end of a year! Could someone please tell me where in the “real world” will they be using the skill of writing a five-paragraph essay?

    So then, I ask myself, what moron has decided that these children should be able to do some of what they’re asking? The answer is easier than you might think. The standards were written by professionals in their fields, with advanced degrees in their subjects. Unfortunately, the degree and the detail that they want to make students responsible for -the information they believe is important, is at a level that is simply not necessary or achievable by many students.

    Over the last few years, specifically since NCLB, each new group of new sixth graders I see is less able to apply critical thinking or creativity to anything they produce in the classroom. Our elementary schools are producing great little test takers who always want to know if they are right or wrong. As far as they are concerned, there is no grey area, there are never alternatives. Everything is either the right answer or the wrong answer. Thank you standardized tests! That being the case, how can we expect them to eventually move into a collaborative, multidimensional workforce that demands constructivism, creativity, and divergent thinking?

    Oh, we’ve also been told by our administrator over and over,“The sixth graders color too much.” Really? I emphatically disagree!

  • Kevin Riley said:

    Dr. Zhao… perhaps you’ve asked the wrong five questions:

  • Craig Crebar said:

    Interesting discussion – If you have not read Yong Zhao’s latest book, “World Class Learners”, I would urge you to do so. After 26 years in education in just about every type of learning environment, including overseas experience, I am amazed that in discussions about educating children/young adults we don’t start with an “in-depth” discussion of the implications of pushing an agenda of “common/core” standards.

    I suppose one simplistic way to approach this issue would be with a few leading questions:
    1. Let’s say for the sake of argument that everyone is taught the same thing and further assume that everyone is “learning” the same thing by a certain grade level/age, then where/when does creativity, inspiration, developing individual strengths and talents come into play? Aren’t these the attributes of the students/citizens of an innovative society?
    2. How did the US become one of the world leaders in the number of International Patents?
    3. If the current/past structure of learning environments hasn’t achieved the results we would like (students able to effectively work in groups, develop higher order thinking skills, developing their individual talents, etc.) then why do we persist in keeping them relatively the same? Do we dare entertain the idea of what an alternate learning environment, to achieve the same, might look like? Why not?

    As an educator/administrator I cannot justify the current educational policies that are predicated on the idea that core standards will in anyway allow/prepare our next generation to flourish in a world that increasingly relies on “innovation/collaboration” to create the jobs/products/services of the future.

    I am deeply appreciative of the platform to have these kind of discussions.

  • Marla McLean, Atelierista said:

    Dr. Zhao,
    I am an Atelierista in a Reggio Emilia inspired public school in Washington, DC. I recently heard you speak in San Francisco at the Educating Creative Minds conference. I want to thank you for your research and writing that speaks strongly and critically of standardizing education in US public schools. It is a daily battle trying simultaneously to fulfill the requirements of DCPS while passionately creating and sustaining a progressive and caring environment for children. Your talk greatly inspired me to continue fighting for what is essential in education. I quoted you in my latest blog post (hope I was accurate as my notes were written wildly!) Your voice is needed and important.
    In appreciation, Marla

  • ¿Cuándo dejaste de dibujar? | GIGANTES DE LA EDUCACIÓN said:

    […] ha cerrado, por el momento, el debate, mostrándose “honrado” por la respuesta de Tucker aunque sostiene que “realmente no le […]

  • Blog | Lauren H Bryant | Learning Theory Devotee and Educational Researcher said:

    […] rigid, narrow, and unadaptive to meet the changing needs of our global society.  Yong Zhao made this point fairly recently, where he argued that having a nation-wide set of standards created by a small […]

  • Jessie Zhao said:

    Dr. Zhao,

    Well said. Thanks. Please keep up the good work. Common core is going the opposite direction from the founding principles for this great country.

  • Rethinking “Creative” in the Common Core Era: “Let’s not tell them what to write” | the becoming radical said:

    […] while I remain a strong critic of CC and have posted a number of pieces explaining my concerns, Yong Zhao’s recent response to Marc Tucker captures well reasons to reject CC—but I want to focus on one point about creativity Zhao […]

  • Sic’ ‘Em Saturday: CCSS, Progressives and PBLs | commoncorediva said:

    […] Below are some words he had in a debate with Marc Tucker (who’s very pro CC): “…my main point: it is 2) impossible, unnecessary, and harmful for a small group of individuals to predetermine and impose upon all students the same set of knowledge and skills and expect all students progress at the same pace (if the students don’t, it is the teachers’ and schools’ fault). I am not against standards per se for good standards can serve as a useful guide. What I am against is Common and Core, that is, the same standards for all students and a few subjects (currently math and English language arts) as the core of all children’s education diet. I might even love the Common Core if they were not common or core.” Read the rest, […]

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