The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Five key questions about the Common Core standards

By Yong Zhao

If you are reading this, you know the world didn’t end in 2012. But the world of American education may end in 2014, when the Common Core is scheduled to march into thousands of schools in the United States and end a “chaotic, fragmented, unequal, obsolete, and failing” system that has accompanied the rise of a nation with the largest economy, most scientific discoveries and technological inventions, best universities, and largest collection of Nobel laureates in the world today. In place will be a new world of education where all American children are exposed to the same content, delivered by highly standardized teachers, watched over by their equally standardized principals, and monitored by governments armed with sophisticated data tools.

This is the last year to ensure that happens: parents and school boards have to be convinced to remove any lasting resistance; teachers have to be fully trained so they can be turned on automatically when 2014 arrives; school leaders have to be readied so they can identify and incentivize good Common Core practices and exterminate bad ones; and data systems have to be developed so they can be deployed anytime. As American schools pour their resources into products, programs, and services to be Common Core ready in 2013, please keep in mind that the Common Core is a bet on the future of our children. While I have written about the Common Core many times before (e.g., Common Core vs Common Sense, Common Core National Curriculum Standards). I wanted to ask all of us to ask again if the new world of education ushered in by the Common Core will be better than the old one scheduled to end in a year.

The Bet

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy. Common Core Mission Statement

Questioning the Bet

The Common Core is placing this bet on behalf of millions of children. But how good is it? I cannot answer the question with as much certainty as the Common Core proponents, but I invite them and you to consider the following questions.

1. What makes one globally competitive?

With only a few exceptions (e.g., North Korea), geographical distance and political boundaries no longer divide the world in terms of economic activities. Virtually all economies are globally interconnected and interdependent. Employment opportunities are thus no longer isolated to specific locations. Jobs can be outsourced to distant places physically or performed by individuals remotely. In a world where jobs can be and have been moved around globally, anyone could potentially go after any job he or she desires. Whether she can be employed depends largely on two factors: qualifications and price. All things being equal, those who ask for a lower price for the same qualifications will get the job.

With over seven billion people living on Earth today, there is plenty of competition. But due to the vast economic disparities in the world, there exists tremendous differences in labor cost. The hourly compensation costs in manufacturing in 2010 varied from $1.90 in the Philippines to $57.53 in Norway, according to data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2011 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011). If a Norwegian were doing exactly the same job as a Filipino, it is very probable that his job would be gone soon. For the Norwegian to keep his job, he’d better be doing something that the Filipino is unable to do.

If all children are asked to master the same knowledge and skills, those whose time costs less will be much more competitive than those with higher costs. There are many poor and hungry people in the developing world willing to work for a fraction of what workers in developed countries need. Thus for those in developed countries such as the United States to be globally competitive, they must offer something qualitatively different, that is, something that cannot be obtained at a lower cost in developing countries. And that something is certainly not great test scores in a few subjects or the so-called basic skills, because those can be achieved in the developing countries. Yet the Common Core claims to be benchmarked with internationally high-performing countries, i.e., countries with high scores.

2. Can you be ready for careers that do not exist yet?

Old jobs are being replaced by new ones rapidly as old industries disappear due to technological changes and existing jobs move around the globe. For example, existing firms in the U.S. lost on average over one million jobs annually in the period from 1977 to 2005, according to a report of the Kauffman Foundation, while an average of three million jobs were created annually by new firms (Kane, 2010). As a result, there is no sure way to predict what jobs our children will have to take in the future. As the head of PISA, Andrea Schleicher, recently said: “Schools have to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented and problems that we don’t know will arise” (Schleicher, 2010). If one does not know what careers are there in the future, it is difficult, if not impossible, to prescribe the knowledge and skills that will make today’s students ready for them.

3. Are the Common Core Standards relevant?

Jobs that require routine procedure skills and knowledge are increasingly automated or sent to places where such skills and knowledge are abundant with lower cost. As a result, as best selling author Daniel Pink observed, traditionally neglected talents, which he refers to as Right-brained directed skills, including design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning, will become more valuable (Pink, 2006). Economist Richard Florida noticed the increasing importance of creativity in the modern economy ten years ago in his best seller The Rise of the Creative Class (Florida, 2012). And economist Philip Auerswald convincingly proves the case for the need of entrepreneurs to bring the coming prosperity in his 2012 book (Auerswald, 2012). These are just antagonistic to the core subjects prescribed by the Common Core and tested by international assessments such as PISA and TIMSS, which are mostly left-brained cognitive skills.

4. Does Common Core support global competence?

The world our children will live in is global, not local as before. Given the interconnectedness and interdependence of economies, the rise of global challenges such as climate change, and the ease of movement across national borders, one’s birthplace no longer determines his or her future living space or whom he or she may be working for or with. Thus to be ready to live in this global world requires the knowledge and abilities to interact with people who are not born and raised in the same local community. But the Common Core does not include an element to prepare the future generations to live in this globalized world and interact with people from different cultures.

5. What opportunities may we be missing?

Globalization and technological changes, while presenting tremendous challenges, bring vast opportunities. Globalization, for example, greatly expands the pool of potential customers for products and services. Niche talents that used to only be of interest to a small fraction of people may not be of much value locally, because the total population of a given community is small. In the globalized world, the potential customers could number seven billion. Even a small fraction of the seven billion can be significant, and talents that may be of little value in a given location can be very valuable in another country. Globalization and technology today enable products and services to reach almost any corner of the world. But the Common Core, by forcing children to master the same curriculum, essentially discriminates against talents that are not consistent with their prescribed knowledge and skills. Students who are otherwise talented but do not do well in these chosen subjects are often sent to spend more time on the core subjects, retained for another grade, and deprived of the opportunity to develop their talents in other ways.

In summary, the efforts to develop common curricula nationally and internationally are simply working to perfect an outdated paradigm. The outcomes are precisely the opposite of the talents we need for the new era. A well organized, tightly controlled, and well-executed education system can transmit the prescribed content much more effectively than one that is less organized, loosely monitored, and less unified. In the meantime, the latter allows for exceptions with more room for individual exploration and experimentation. The question is what matters in the future: Do we want individuals who are good at taking tests, or individuals who are creative and entrepreneurial? I believe the answer is the latter.

*Adapted from my latest book World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students (Corwin, 2012)