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How to recover from our school disaster: Top curriculums, training and resolve

Riley Slater, 11, a sixth-grader at John Adams Middle School, learning at home in Santa Monica, Calif. (Jenna Schoenefeld for The Washington Post)

How do we recover from that? Plans at the moment are preliminary and contradictory. But three essays, written just before the pandemic, revealed the essence of what we need. Their recommendations will be hard to follow, but nothing worth doing is easy.

The essays in the spring 2020 edition of the quarterly Education Next were a discussion of the Common Core State Standards, 10 years after they took effect. The writers were divided on that issue, as most educators are. All three agreed, however, that whatever happens to Common Core, we still need more challenging curriculums judged by effects on achievement, better teacher training and no more dumbing down of goals to make test scores look better.

The writers were Morgan Polikoff, associate professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California; Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and executive editor of Education Next; and Tom Loveless, past director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and a former policy professor at Harvard.

Petrilli said the reform movements of the 1990s and 2000s helped boost the lowest-performing students, although “the booming 1990s economy and big spending increases into the 2000s were probably at least partly responsible.” The writers agreed that Common Core established a national commitment to develop analytical skills needed for college and careers. Even the states that dropped the name Common Core because of political arguments didn’t change their standards much.

But all three also had data showing that Common Core hadn’t fulfilled its promises. Loveless said “the evidence suggests student achievement is, at best, where it would have been if Common Core had never been adopted, if the billions of dollars spent on implementation had never been spent, if the countless hours of professional development inducing teachers to retool their lessons had never been imposed.”

Which raises a big question, to which I have no answer. Whatever path we take as we come out of this crisis — even if we develop the unified, research-based, ambitious approach the writers desire — isn’t it likely to be discarded in favor of the next cool fad, as has happened so often before?

Teacher training is weak because professional development days are usually organized by local schools and districts. The administrators assigned to fill those hours have other duties and may grab the first speaker available. I remember how little useful information I had for the teachers who politely listened to me when I did those gigs. Whatever consultants are selling, administrators feel under pressure to buy.

This creates confusion. One Rand Corp. survey showed many teachers thought Common Core emphasized students reading at their own individual levels when the standards actually recommended that students read challenging grade-level texts.

Polikoff warned against changes that focused just on education structures, like charters, early college or other hot commodities, and not on practices. If you looked closely at what the most respected charters were doing, he said, “they are not letting a thousand flowers bloom.” They embraced proven instructional approaches and encouraged standardization and quality instruction in ways Common Core had failed to provide.

The writers found Louisiana an encouraging model. Polikoff praised the state’s insistence on only proven curriculum materials and massive training of teachers to replace people like me, just there to sell a book.

Loveless said students are ready to learn more sooner, but Common Core has slowed them down. He noted that, a curriculum evaluation organization supporting the standards, gave low marks to a textbook series based on successful methods in Singapore because that overseas program moved students more quickly through elementary math than Common Core thought appropriate.

Petrilli recommended against dumping the Common Core standards because the likely alternatives would be old state standards “that were mediocre, unclear and targeted at basic literacy and numeracy.” The writers said that if states banned weak curriculums and overhauled teacher preparation, progress could be made. Has the colossal 2020 education mess finally scared us straight?

It won’t take long to find out. Weary parents will demand that schools open this fall, even if all pupils have to be encased in plastic. I know many schools where what is taught and how it is taught are unified, the heart and soul of the classroom. That can spread if we let it.

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