As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I “just happened” to find a book by Bryn Zeckhauser and Aaron Sandoski called How the Wise Decide: The Lessons of 21 Extraordinary Leaders on the bargain rack at the Local Bookstore this week. I wasn’t expecting to see it or to buy it. But there was something about the book that called out to me. I’ve been reading it slowly, savoring it, and I can already tell this is a book I’ll return to. There’s a website, too, if you’re interested.
Life is full of decisions, of course, and deciding wisely is vital. But no one is born wise, and no one automatically (or automagically) becomes wise through a standardized process. Wisdom comes, when it comes, through taking action and observing the results, and (if you’re lucky) from a community that imparts wisdom its members have developed. Schools? Even at their most ambitious, they rarely claim they can impart wisdom. Knowledge? Sure, that’s what schools were designed to do: to transfer knowledge (a static, pre-packaged thing contained in The Textbook, The Curriculum Guide, and possibly The Teacher’s Head) from expert to novice. Skills? Maybe. But Wisdom?
When you read the Common Core Standards outside of their sociopolitical context, the way their authors say every text should be read, you see a strong commitment to the development (and testing) of a particular set of intellectual skills. No doubt the writers of the Standards sincerely believe they can change the focus by mandating those new standards, too … just like all the other writers of all the other Standards that now dustily decorate bookshelves in Somebody’s Office down at the Local School District. But changing the focus is hard, especially when you’re challenging the core competency of an organization. And the core competency of factory-model schools is the transfer and measurement of declarative and, to a lesser degree procedural knowledge.
And that’s why Higher Standards and Harder Tests “don’t work” to “raise the bar for everyone” the way their proponents hope. Schools keep doing what schools are designed to do … because that’s what they’re designed to do, and that’s what we school people are trained to do. And schools aren’t designed to teach and develop skills, except in “special” areas like athletics or the arts or sometimes world languages. “Do it this way!” Ms. X orders, “because we’re in Chapter Five! Next week we’ll do it the Chapter Six way!” Ms. X did well in school because she was good at declarative and procedural knowledge; her students, in turn, will do well on “her tests” and “her grades” if they’re good at those things.
The Mathematical Practice Standards in the Common Core documents would terrify Ms. X, with all those calls to “critique the reasoning of others” and “use appropriate tools strategically,” but Ms. X doesn’t read the actual documents. She reads the Implementation Guide and the Shiny New Curriculum, prepared for her by Local Powers who, in turn, were good at declarative and procedural knowledge. And the Anchor Standards for English Language Arts, with all that language about interpreting and “integration of knowledge and ideas,” would be equally terrifying to Mr. Y … terrifying, and quite possibly incomprehensible, if you live in a world of knowledge transfer.
Fortunately for Mr. Y, he doesn’t have to read the standards document, either. There’s an Implementation Guide, a Shiny New Curriculum, and (in relatively wealthy Local School Districts, anyway), some Shiny New Textbooks with a special sticker that proves they’re aligned with the Common Core.
So schools function as designed: they impart and measure declarative and procedural knowledge. That’s probably why constant measurement, in the form of The Test, The Pre-Test, The Practice Test, and The Weekly Benchmark, seems to be the primary result when Local School Districts “implement the Common Core.” It’s really hard to “implement” a skill-focused or understanding-focused thing when you live in a knowledge-focused world. “I hate this New Evaluation System for actual observations of teachers,” a principal-friend once told me. “It’s really good for summative evaluations at the end of the year, but there isn’t a checklist of what to look for during those observations.” Instead, the very same high-level, process-focused standards on the Big Final Form appeared on the little forms, too, and there was space to record specific things teacher and students did. It was another attempt to change the focus from knowledge to skills and understanding. But my friend, like Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y, had excelled in the world of The Checklist, and so had the other Powers That Be in That Particular District. Within a year, Those Powers had helpfully prepared a Special Document with checklists of things to look for. Skill and process yielded to compliance-based checklists because those were “easier and quicker” for everybody.
And what about wisdom? Well, it isn’t on The Test, and neither are those process and anchor standards … at least not directly. When you get busy (and in factory-model schools, you’re always busy, because time on task is one of those things you can easily measure and check for compliance), then there’s not enough time and too much to cover to bother with stuff that’s Not On The Test. A few weeks ago, One Ms. X was really irate at the Official District Pacing Guide for her subject. She’s now given The New Test a few times, and she knows perfectly well what it covered … but the Pacing Guide, written before The Test was first given, “wastes all this time” with stuff that has never appeared on The Test. “They should take that stuff out,” she sniffed, “or at least move it After The Test. It isn’t even important in The Next Course!”
So … if you’re looking for wisdom and skill in a system designed for factual and procedural knowledge, are you looking in the wrong place? And if so, how do you decide wisely about what to do next?