Imagine two villages. Both have just received a decree from the kingdom that henceforth, all jousting tournaments will share a few commonalities: the same length field, the inclusion of age brackets, and a staff of healers on hand to keep injured jousters from dying of their wounds. In the first village, tournaments resume, with all the pageantry and heroism of old, though now the field is two feet longer, jousters charge one another five times instead of four, and the required healers mend a broken clavicle every now and again. In the second village, the lord goes nuts. He tells the knights the decree came about because they’re all so ineffective at jousting. “We must keep up with Normandy!” he shouts, frothing at the mouth. “If we don’t, then doom will follow! Doom, I say!” Henceforth, decrees the mad lord, all knights must wear the same size armor, whether they’re 6 foot 10 or 5 foot 6. No more of those messy coats of arms and pennants of various colors dangling from mismatched lances, either.
The Legend: A Tale of Two Villages
Imagine two villages. Both have just received a decree from the kingdom that henceforth, all jousting tournaments will share a few commonalities: the same length field, the inclusion of age brackets, and a staff of healers on hand to keep injured jousters from dying of their wounds.
In the first village, the knights are convened for a discussion of why the new commonalities are going into effect. The village lord asks for their ideas on how to best make the changes. Tournaments resume, with all the pageantry and heroism of old, though now the field is two feet longer, jousters charge one another five times instead of four, and the required healers mend a broken clavicle every now and again.
In the second village, the lord goes nuts. He tells the knights the decree came about because they’re all so ineffective at jousting. “We must keep up with Normandy!” he shouts, frothing at the mouth. “If we don’t, then doom will follow! Doom, I say!”
Henceforth, decrees the mad lord, all knights must wear the same size armor, whether they’re 6 foot 10 or 5 foot 6. No more of those messy coats of arms and pennants of various colors dangling from mismatched lances, either.
From now on, all lances will be made of an expensive but unwieldy alloy purchased at great expense from Pearsonian Forge in Shrewbury. (The lances have not been tested in actual tournaments yet, but the forge owners have assured the lord that their experts are much smarter than actual blacksmiths or the jousters themselves.) Pennant color will feature a warthog (the mad lord’s totem) emblazoned upon a background of sewage green.
Knights will henceforth attend trainings to instruct them on how to gallop precisely seventeen hoofbeats before raising the new lances to an angle of not more than 20 degrees nor less than 18.5. Sacks of gold for tournament champions will be replaced with sacks of peat. (This change is unavoidable, as the contents of the village coffers are now bound for Pearsonian Forge, which in addition to supplying the lances, has generously agreed to provide the trainings as well for a modestly exorbitant price.)
Several knights in this village gone mad seek early retirement. Two others draw up a scroll of objections to the new rules and are promptly fed to a manticore.
In a recent post on my EdWeek blog, Teaching for Triumph (“Is Common Core the Enemy of Autonomy?”), I wrote that professional autonomy and a more coherent national system can co-exist, as they do in nations like Finland and U.S. school districts like mine.
I was ready for frothing tirades against government intrusion into our schools, written in all caps and 48-point font. Only one commenter obliged: “Gaining control of the schools gives the federal government control of our children. You can sugar coat Common Core, but it is a political force being funded by Bill Gates and Co. and the American taxpayer to indoctrinate children to the liberal mindset.”
The majority of those who wrote comments, though, told a different tale. 20 comments were posted on the EdWeek site, along with my responses to most of them, and a few dozen more went up on Facebook.
Only three of the people who posted comments agreed with me. The majority disagreed not because they see Common Core as some liberal conspiracy, but because of daily experiences in which their autonomy is being stripped away in the name of Common Core.
2008 New York Teacher of the Year Rich Ognibene wrote, “The excessive focus on test scores is causing district leaders to fear autonomy and favor uniformity of instruction and assessment year round. I see districts adopting pre-packaged modules and expecting every teacher to teach the same lesson, same bat time, same bat channel. A superintendent in a neighboring district told his staff he expects to move from one 3rd grade classroom to the next and hear the teacher in the latter classroom finishing the sentences of the teacher from the former. The loss of autonomy is very real.”
Another teacher wrote, “These reforms, all of which have some value, have been thrown at us all at once with little meaningful training or preparation. The result is a fearful, frustrated, demoralized staff.”
The most heartbreaking comment came from 2012 Alabama Teacher of the Year Dr. Gay Barnes: “I find myself questioning what else I can do to prove I’m professional enough to make routine decisions that I used to be able to make. I have advanced degrees, I’ve earned and renewed my certification with National Boards, I have a successful record with student achievement, I work with and train other teachers. I don’t think anyone in a classroom should be in a position where they try to teach under that feeling—not a brand new teacher, a mid-career teacher, or a veteran teacher like me.”
These teachers are not “whiners,” and they’re not local control zealots who think that learning from other countries’ best practices is somehow un-American. They are career teachers who see their profession and their students being harmed by administrative madness.
Common Core didn’t cause this madness. But for the Common Core standards to fulfill their promise, we need to cure it.
I believe that Common Core consists of better standards, better tests, and a shift toward national coherence that will bring about better instruction for kids. My school has become a better place because of Common Core, with kids doing more thinking and writing, less memorization and bubble-filling. Our professional development has evolved to include collaborative action research, plenty of peer observation, and a job-embedded approach that relies on our collective strengths to address our weaknesses.
I live in a good village. Many teachers don’t. They’re stuck in the second village in the legend, afflicted with a babbling lord who drives up hysteria to exert greater control.
True administrative leadership cannot exist without teacher leadership. And bad, mad administrators can sabotage even the most gifted of teacher leaders.
My question is this: What should teacher leaders be doing to make sure that Common Core fulfills its promise?
In the many pockets of the realm afflicted by madness, how do we work with principals, superintendents, departments of ed, and legislators to cure the autonomy-suppressing disease before it spreads?
The End of the Tale
In the first village, all the excitement, pageantry, and individual acts of heroism carried on. At the same time, the kingdom felt a little more like one unified realm.
In the second village, where the lord went mad, the best knights rode off to live in villages with more sane stewardship. Injuries increased, due largely to one-size-fits-all suits of armor and the ponderous untested lances provided by Pearsonian Forge. Attendance at tournaments waned, the village economy faltered, and the mad lord was sent off to a cave in the hillside, still muttering about rogue knights and the need to compete with Normandy.
Will our own kingdom see a rending of garments and gnashing of teeth? Or much rejoicing in the realm?
Teacher leaders are knights, not serfs. The end of the tale will depend, in large part, on us.
Note: For a parallel piece on what I learned from the many thoughtful educators who disagree with me on Common Core, check out today’s post on Teaching for Triumph: Administrators Gone Mad.