Opportunity Costs of the Common Core, or Any System of High Stakes Test Accountability

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One of the highlights for me in my work with EL Education is our annual national conference, and the highlight of the conference was always the keynote presentation from the students. Over the past few years we were enthused by 6th graders in Rochester, NY, with their proposal to revitalize the city by rewatering the Erie Canal; stirred by 8th graders from Portland, ME, with their interviews of local citizens who demonstrated “Small Acts of Courage” during the civil rights era; and inspired by students from Santa Fe, NM, with a program they called “Hooked on Books”, setting up stands with free books all over town and running a two week summer camp to help children learn to read.

Handkerchiefs, tissues, napkins, shirtsleeves regularly surface to daub our watering eyes as we rise to ovation. These are the kinds of learning experiences we all hope the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or other rigorous academic standards will encourage. These were projects generated by students, following their passions to surprising places, learning content and skills along the way in order to reach seemingly “impossible” goals. This is the kind of education we imagine listening to Tony Wagner describe an education for the 21st century, where he exhorts us to build our program on the foundation of play, passion, and purpose.

For all the good we can say about the rigor with which CCSS aspires to sharpen our students’ critical thinking, I don’t see a lot that will encourage teachers to create classrooms where students play more, design curriculum that follows or engages student passions, or pursue projects with a real purpose. It’s not as much a problem of the CCSS itself, but rather the unintended consequences of measuring achievement with one high stakes test. It was no different for No Child Left Behind (or before that the Iowa Test of Basic Skills which I remember taking in elementary school). When schools are measured and teachers are evaluated by one indicator, especially a test focused on cognitive skills, there is collateral damage for the rest of what it means to be a human being. We might measure those as the “opportunity cost” of designing our curriculum and instruction on the kind of cognitive rigor CCSS champions. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines opportunity cost as “the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.”

Not meant to be an exhaustive list, the implementing of the CCSS tends to favor the left column in the pairs below, and I am concerned about the diminishing attention to the qualities on the right side, equally (if not more) important in living a full, loving life.

Common Core tends to favor:

  • Rational            >         Intuitive
  • Cognitive          >         Emotional
  • Objective          >         Subjective
  • Information     >         Story
  • Science             >         Art
  • Gravity              >         Levity
  • Analysis           >         Love
  • Evidence          >         Experience
  • Knowledge       >         Relationship
  • Compelling      >         Inviting
  • Assessing         >         Encouraging
  • Planning           >         Emerging
  • Manufactured  >         Organic

I am sure CCSS enthusiasts would challenge some of the particulars, and claim to be equally supportive of many of the indicators on the right, but when it comes down to what teachers spend their professional development and personal time doing and thinking about, I believe it can be safely argued that the tendency, whether intentional  or not, will push schools toward the left hand column.

And again, I am all for the left hand column (well, almost all – except when it pushes down into pre-school and kindergarten, where I think an entirely different set of standards should guide!). When I began work with EL, I saw many projects that were engaging (dioramas, sugar cube pyramids, macaroni art, etc.) but kids didn’t really learn much content in the process. In the climate of “fluffy” projects I challenged them to consider academic knowledge and skill, complex learning targets, meaningful assessments – to pay more attention to the left hand column. Now in an age obsessed with cognitive rigor I find myself encouraging teachers to protect the elements in the right hand column, to resist the fierce educational emphasis on “head learning.”

Neil Postman called for education to play the role of a thermostat in our society, balancing the powerful influence of the culture to shape our thinking patterns. If it gets too hot, the thermostat clicks on the cool air. If it gets too cold, the thermostat signals for heat. If the “culture” of education in America is tending toward the left column (we could say “cool”) then according to Postman, we should be thinking about turning on the heat.  I’m not saying it is impossible to address both columns, but because the current of Common Core is so strong, if we don’t intentionally hold on to other values that matter, we are likely to be swept away.

How are you balancing the columns? What do you do to make sure your classroom is rich in the right column as well as the left?


TEDxTalks. “Play, Passion, Purpose: Tony Wagner at TEDxNYED.” YouTube, 30 May 2012Postman, Neil. Teaching as a conserving activity. New York: Delacorte Press, 1979



  • Steven Levy

    After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy (steven.levy@cace.org) is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.

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