The debates about Common Core in K-12 education are difficult to reconcile because they go below the surface to the foundations of our educational institutions. These are debates about educational philosophy, and I see at least a half-dozen philosophies in the current discussions. This post will explain my claim that the current debate is indeed about educational philosophy. I will illustrate it by comparing two current philosophies, providing a quick test for determining what is at the philosophical foundation of a school, and offering a challenge or thought experiment for how we might find some sort of common ground.
What is a standard? There are state standards, national standards, even international standards for different levels of education and/or content areas. There are standards in the business sector, and they refer to agreed upon ways of doing something, measures of an established level of quality for a given task. It could be a quality standard for food preparation, standards related to building construction, or standards tied to efficiency in a given business operation. This is not far from how the word is used in the field of education. Academic standards, as defined by The Education Trust, are, “public statements about what all students should know and be able to do in academic subjects: mathematics, science, English, history, geography, arts, and second languages.” Or, the Common Core web site describes them in this way, “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.”
Academic standards are here for the longterm. The current educational system (on an increasingly global scale) is tied to academic standards. Yet, there is still ample room for debate, especially about the proper role of standards in learning organizations. In fact, I contend that the single most important question about standards for those connected to the field of education is one about their proper role. Are they foundational? In other words, are they properly seen as the basis upon which we design our learning organizations? Some contend that they are central and foundational to quality education.
This is a philosophy of education question, the type of discourse that we read about in Plato and Aristotle, Rousseau and Locke, Dewey and Pestalozzi, Counts and Adler, Montessori and Steiner (This last name may be less known. Think Waldorf schools.). To understand the foundation of a school, we also consider the purpose of school, and the names listed above offer shared and diverse ideas of such a purpose. Some focus upon the role of preparing citizens. Others look at preparation for work and the economic needs of a nation at a given time. Still others see schools as focused upon maximizing human potential, or helping each learner engage in personal growth and discovery.
Unfortunately, these topics rarely make it in mainstream conversations about education. At best, there are bumper sticker references to them. While educators, leaders, parents, students and policymakers in public and private schools do not agree on answers to questions about the purpose of education, the conversation about standards continues, often on the basis of promoting excellence, not falling behind the rest of the world, ensuring the strength and future of a nation, or ensuring adequate preparation for the next stage of a learner’s life (a new level of school or perhaps the workforce). As such, these are statements about the purpose of schooling, but they are rarely conversations leading toward a shared philosophy. This is no small matter if we believe Abraham Lincoln’s claim that, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”
If educators, parents, educational leaders and socially responsible educational entrepreneurs want to make significant progress in education, it is important to return to this question of purpose. Are we content with different schools and/or communities having distinct philosophies? Or, do we want to demand that as many as possible share the same philosophy, the same shared purpose for schooling? How about within a school? How much of a shared philosophy and view of purpose is important? In the absence of such a shared purpose, the standards are likely to rule, which bring with them a default purpose for and philosophy of education, namely to ensure that learners meet a set of common academic standards in preparation for some future role.
Consider a purpose for schools that is sometimes in conflict with a standards-based system, or at least in tension with it. What about schools that start with a foundational conviction that each human being is unique and full of unique human potential. This is different from the starting point of standards, which argues that each human being should be challenged to progress toward or exceed a common set of standards. The first statement leads us to design a system that honors the uniqueness of each learner and helps that learner recognize her uniqueness and then build on it, growing into someone who has distinct contributions to make in the world. That is not the priority of an academic program that has standards at the foundation, because standards are about uniformity.
It is not impossible for these two distinct philosophies to mix, but when we mix them, there will always be tension. Some will emphasize cultivating the unique potential of each person, while others will emphasize the need for all to reach shared goals and standards. As it stands in most educational institutions in the United States, there is no obvious balancing of these two. The standards win and dominate the agenda in a growing number of schools. Students get grades based on a common standard. They get rated, compared, and analyzed by how they are or are not progressing toward course-level outcomes, state standards, national standards and international standards. There are few schools that have a documented standard for helping each learner recognize, take pride in, and cultivate their unique potential. That is often not a part of the formal curriculum. When it does happen, it is largely due to the convictions and care of individual teachers who hold to an educational philosophy that values the unique potential of learners. This is despite the standards-based system, not because of it.
What would it look like for us to re-imagine a system or more schools that balanced these two philosophical foundations, one that was built to both nurture unique potential of each learner, and challenge learners to meet or exceed certain shared standards? Some claim that they are already doing this, but before making such a claim, I challenge such people to revisit how their school is designed. In fact, I invite them to look specifically at one part of the school design to decide the level of balance that does or does not exist between these two ideas. Look at feedback and assessments given to students. What percentage of that feedback is based upon measuring students according to common standards and/or objectives? What percentage is based upon helping learners recognize and cultivate their unique potential? What feedback is most valued by the teachers, the school administrators, the students, and the parents? Look at what we measure and what measures we value, and the true foundational concept of a school becomes transparent.
So, I offer the question one more time. What would it look like for us to re-imagine a system or more schools (on all levels) that truly balanced these two philosophical foundations, designing a context that equally nurtures the unique potential of each learner and challenges learners to strive to meet or exceed certain shared academic standards?