In our recent report “In Defense of the Common Core Standards,” Darrell West and I mounted a fresh defense of education standards. Standards have suffered through attacks from both liberals and conservatives who express various complaints about the Common Core. To better understand standards, we looked at evidence from other sectors and found that if properly implemented there are numerous reasons that people should reconsider their opposition to Common Core.
1. Standards spark innovation
Standards do not restrict creativity but support it. Consider a teacher who wants to find a new lesson plan online. Before standards, teachers might have difficulty finding lessons aligned with their states’ standards. After Common Core, there are more sites with a greater number of lessons that teachers can use. Agreeing to coordinate standards improves the utility of how other systems work with each other. Before states issued certifications or licenses to practice medicine, patients had to blindly trust their doctors. Education standards like the Common Core set clear and well thought out learning objectives. Without standards teachers must both set the goals and devise the strategies to teach students. Good schools set high standards for students and provide the resources for teachers to do their jobs. Innovation occurs when they have the time to reflect on past experiences and experiment with new ideas. Rather than puzzling over objectives it frees educators to improve teaching strategies.
2. Standards will improve the transfer of ideas
There is a connection between the ability of researchers to communicate ideas with practitioners and the capacity for a field to improve itself. In education, the transfer of ideas between experts is weak and ineffective. Professionals communicate with each other using journal articles, books, conferences, online content, and many other media. Standards can help get education professionals from various fields like psychologists, social workers, cognitive development experts and others on the same page. Journal articles filled with jargon don’t provide much help to teachers. But if researchers and teachers both begin to discuss their work in terms of Common Core skills than it improves communication between those fields.
3. Standards will improve how big data works
Big data is a set of strategies to uncover patterns with large sets of information and national standards like the Common Core help them work better. Sometimes these models misinterpret data. Imagine a rookie baseball player. Their first month they perform terribly, the next they do average, and the third they do very well. So is the player average or trending up towards their actual performance? It’s impossible to know for sure. Analytics can often give us false confidence that we know the answer. One solution is to think about how to value a statistic like home runs and then resist the temptation to tinker with lots of other options. The Common Core includes the skills we want students to learn and can inform how big data firms should develop their products. National standards also make it easier to link databases from separate states and districts together, which enables larger data sets. The more information available to researchers the easier it is to uncover new findings for small groups like students with specific learning disabilities. Standards also lower the barriers for new companies to develop programs. Developers can create a single tool for a national market rather then many tools for every set of standards.
4. Standards are different from accountability policies
Standards and accountability policies are closely intertwined. These policies evaluate teachers and students based on whether they reach the standards. The problem is the school leaders did not design accountability systems with enough care. For example, a system that triggers immediate sanctions for teachers with bad test scores is problematic. Accountability systems should include multiple measures and rigorous reviews if test scores indicate an issue. The culprit here is the accountability policy and not the standards themselves. It’s reasonable to expect educators to teach all of their students but how to address teachers identified as struggling requires a well-reasoned policy response.
Many other fields from engineering to health care use standards for their own benefit. Education has struggled to adopt national standards because of a sprawling and diffuse governance system. After applying these lessons to the field of education there is ample reason to believe that uniform standards could make a real difference for students. Our findings indicate that standards can promote creativity, improve the performance of personalized learning tools, and improve the transfer of ideas. Those who argue against standards should reconsider their position.
Joshua Bleiberg is coordinator at the Brookings’ Center for Technology Innovation and managing editor of the TechTank blog.