I've been trying to think of clear ways to explain what it going on with the Common Core ELA discourse (as usual, this applies only to ELA). Here's one model: the CC standards address three constituencies:
- People interested in standards.
- People interested in assessment.
- People interested in curriculum.
These aren't entirely mutually exclusive, of course, but I'd argue are moreso than you'd expect.
People interested in standards. This turns out to be almost nobody. Me, Sandra Stotsky, anyone else? How many articles have you read comparing the Common Core standards to other existing standards? Not just by superficially counting this or that, but actually analyzing the philosophy, scope and intent of the standards themselves. Not commenting on the commentary. Not comparing the new standards to the old assessments. Comparing actual enumerated standards. There has been very little such analysis.
It goes so far that the CC ELA standards were never internationally benchmarked, as was required by Race to the Top. Also note that this is not at all a problem in math, where plenty of people seem to care about what the standards actually say.
Incidentally, I'm interested in standards qua standards for two reasons. First, I helped design a school from scratch around a set of standards. I'm able to look at a technical specification as a blank slate and think "what kind of school does this imply" in a way that most people apparently cannot. Second, I'm a fan of Robert Scholes work in deconstructing and reconstructing the discipline of English, which provides a solid theoretical and historical framework.
People interested in assessment. This includes the testing companies themselves, who played a leading role in the design of the standards themselves (ACT, the College Board) and those seeking to implement policies that require more data -- particularly annual growth data. One particular implication of this is that the standards have to allow some degree of vertical alignment. "A year and a half's worth of growth," or "three month's worth of growth" have to be meaningful statements in this conceptual framework.
The standards are also designed to drive the creation of "next generation" assessments. That is, at least perceived as being better than the current "bubble tests," but hopefully within the technological grasp of the industry within the next couple years.
The actual enumerated standards are written by and for this audience. It is essentially a test specification; it describes a list of tasks which can be directly applied to create an assessment. To this audience, the CC standards are a clear and explicit roadmap.
People interested in curriculum. This is by far the largest group of the three. They drive the discussion and implementation of the standards, thus these folks had to be brought on board. There seems to be a tacit agreement between the assessment and curriculum people that the curriculum people can say whatever they want about the standards and the assessment people will leave them alone. In fact, most of the introductory material, appendixes, and other supporting commentary for the standards seems to have been handed over to curriculum people.
This has been good for marketing, as it gets people like Robert Pondiscio to say things like "Common Core restores art, music, history, and literature to the curriculum," which are utterly unsupported by the standards themselves, but suggested in supporting texts. If you've got a curricular axe to grind, you see the Common Core as a chance to impose your will on a momentarily blank slate. You need to have a seat at the table.
The assessment people can let the curriculum people say whatever they want, because in the end people will have to teach to the assessments, and all of the arguments about curriculum will hold no water, because they aren't based on the standards.
Maybe reading more non-fiction will get you higher scores on the tests. Maybe not. If not, exactly how long do you think schools will stick with it? How long should they?
Finally, there is no guarantee that "reformers" won't again become impatient and turn the technology necessary to support Common Core into a more sophisticated version of an educational assembly line. Common Core could degenerate into a super-duper hi-tech version of the scripted instruction that that has come out of NCLB but, still, it could be a step toward real educational equity.
If you focus on the standards themselves, in comparison to other comparable documents it is clear that "a more sophisticated version of an educational assembly line" is what we've been sold and what we'll get (at best).