Readers know that I am a strong supporter of Standards generally and the Common Core specifically. To me it is simply a no-brainer: there is no such thing as Georgia Algebra or Montana Writing. In a mobile society, and based on economies of scale, common national standards make a lot of sense.

But no friends of Standards can be happy with how this effort has evolved logistically, on the ground, in terms of guidance to and resources for districts; or satisfied with the incentives – actually, disincentives – provided for undertaking such challenging work. Worse, we are in the unenviable position of fighting over a set of standards that now belongs to no official entity, so there is no way to amend the Standards, properly defend them from critics, or (especially) push back on how they are implemented by states.

And indeed, the chief culprits here are the states, in my view, employing tactics that run counter to everything we know about organizational change.

Back to Deming’s principles. I wish to isolate one very basic problem of poor implementation. Every point of leverage being used in states is about sticks instead of carrots; and numerical ‘targets’ that cannot be understood by anyone but a few psychometricians. As suggested by my title, we are reinventing the utterly failed idea of wheat quotas in Soviet-era Russia. Command economies work no better than command schools. It didn’t work then and it will not work now.

What bugs me is that we are currently violating almost every principle about quality control articulated by W Edwards Deming 30 years ago. Deming, famous for helping Japan recover from WWII and for introducing modern management ideas to US businesses in the 80s and 90s, boiled down his complex system into a few pithy ideas that were key to genuine and effective reform in an organization. Here they are, courtesy of the ASQ (an international quality control organization), minus the few that address business issues not really relevant to non-profits:

  1. Create constancy of purpose for improving… services.
  2. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality.
  3. Improve constantly and forever every process for planning, production and service.
  4. Institute training on the job.
  5. Adopt and institute leadership.
  6. Drive out fear.
  7. Break down barriers between staff areas.
  8. Eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets for the workforce.
  9. Eliminate numerical quotas for the workforce and numerical goals for management.
  10. Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship, and eliminate the annual rating or merit system.
  11. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement for everyone.
  12. Put everybody in the [organization] to work accomplishing the transformation.

Drive out fear. Eliminate quotas. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. (i.e. don’t rely on external tests for quality control after the fact; build in quality all along in the work locally.) Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship, including annual rating systems. These 4 crucial principles are now being violated by every current state accountability system, blessed by the Feds and RTTT money.

It doesn’t matter that many of us who work in schools and have had success with our school partners see little need for fear. It is plainly true: there is NOTHING in the Common Core Standards that requires less creative teaching and more mindless ‘test prep.’ As I have long said and written, it is crazy or thoughtless to assume that worse teaching will raise test scores.  And I know from personal experience that the best schools and districts that we work with have seen their scores increase even in the face of Common Core based testing (1 district in Kentucky and 1 in New York).

But in both these cases, there are extraordinary leaders and teachers who have demanded that creative pedagogy and a focus on engaged learners doing interesting work remain the focus. Nice if it were the norm; it isn’t and never will be. That is indeed the challenge of national reform: take average leaders and teachers and help them keep improving and feeling optimistic and inspired.

I know from watching and listening all over the country in schools and in workshops, however, that many educators have become less creative, more timid and unimaginative, and have indeed lost pride in their work in the face of how heavy-handed the states have been in promulgating this retro and harmful “accountability”. Why is not the state responsible for ensuring that the incentives are right and the resources are available to do the work well? States should have to be accountable for how local leaders interpret their regs and rules. But states wash their hands of the problem of change; they merely issue mandates. So, teachers become brow-beaten by scores, encouraged to do bits and pieces of coverage and quizzing. In general, down the authority line, the message becomes:  teach worse rather than better – do test prep, somehow, in the name of “standards.” (It is also depressing to see Danielson’s framework bastardized into a lockstep accountability state system.)

It is a bad game of telephone, perhaps, but it is happening everywhere, and state departments (and the feds) have an obligation to do something about it.

I think it is time for a national summit on best practice with respect to institutional change. Let’s bring together reformers, Quality Control experts, and anyone else with significant experience in transforming organizations from a fear and quota based culture to an intrinsic-motivational system. The Standards are OK, but the implementation is unwise, uninformed, and harmful. And it is up to those of us who are pro-standards to aggressively make this case.

Let’s insist, in short, on their being standards for implementing standards, and accountability for state departments of education on how well national standards are implemented.