An Open Letter to the Architects of the Common Core

Dear Architects of the Common Core,

How do you propose to test the skills and capabilities learned by the 8th graders at King Middle School in Portland, Maine?  If you missed our recent NewsHour piece, you may watch it here.  In just 11:38, correspondent John Tulenko and producer David Wald brilliantly capture how a 4-month ‘deeper learning’ project changed the lives of Liva Pierce, Emma Schwartz, Nat Youngrin and other young students.

John made four trips to Portland, beginning last October. He was there when the two science teachers explained the project: the kids were going to imagine and then design their own energy-generating devices that would improve people’s live.

The kids were clearly intimidated.  Liva Pierce told John, “That’s way too much. I don’t know the first thing about electricity. I don’t know the first thing about windmills. I am totally going to fail.”

Emma Schwartz was equally pessimistic: “First of all, I can’t build anything, and I have never handled a screwdriver in my entire life or an electric drill. Like, this isn’t going to work.”

So what happened?  Over the next four months the King School 8th graders worked in teams to build robots (and held a competition).  Next they read extensively about wind power and then constructed their own wind turbines (another competition).  These regular kids in a regular public school learned by failing, just as we do in life.  For example, Nat Youngrin’s sound-controlled robot failed during the competition because as Nat explained, he hadn’t anticipated that the cheers of the crowd would drown out the sound of his clapped commands, making his system inoperable.  But Nat didn’t quit; he learned and moved on.

The culmination of the final phase–designing energy-generating devices–was not a competition but a public performance.  Each 8th grader had to get up in front of a large crowd of fellow students and adults from the community to explain their device’s function, the science behind it, and to ‘sell’ its practicality.  Emma and Liva were poised, confident and determined.  In just four months they had been changed–I would say ‘transformed.’

What knowledge, skills and capabilities did Emma, Liva, Nat and the others acquire? Here’s a short list: the value of teamwork; the importance of grit and tenacity; the science of electricity, wind, et cetera; the art and science of public speaking/communication; the importance of citizenship and making a contribution to society; confidence in their own power to create a meaningful life; and, finally, a sense of wonder.  (I would also wager that the adults came away with a new appreciation for education, students and teachers.)

Is that overstating it? Watch the piece and decide for yourself.

But here’s my problem.  I am following the Common Core story with interest and am pleased that we are going to raise standards and challenge our students more.  I know the Common Core lists “Speaking and Listening” as one of its four English Language Arts priorities for grades 6-12, and that is broken down to include “comprehension and collaboration” and “presentation of knowledge and ideas.”  That is, you folks are using all the right words and saying all the right things.  That’s a step, or two, in the right direction.

However, so far I have not seen anything that convinces me that our system is anywhere near ready to test for the skills and capabilities that we witnessed those 8th graders acquire at King Middle School.

If past is prologue, things that aren’t being tested won’t end up being taught. It’s not just kids who ask, “Is this going to be on the test?”  These days, when test scores determine which adults get fired, they’re probably the first ones to ask, “Is this going to be on the test?”

If it’s not tested, then say goodbye to that King School program and others like it.

After all, what sort of standardized paper-and-pencil (or computer-based) assessment can test for grit, teamwork, communication, innovation, ambition and the like?  To test those skills and capabilities, we would have to be willing to go back to the days when we trusted teachers to assess their students.  We would have to back away from our current small-minded policies that embrace test results as a way to judge, threaten and punish teachers–and instead use tests and assessments as we once did, to improve learning and teaching.

(Eduwonk’s Andy Rotherham has some other concerns about the Common Core here.)

I predict that parents, teachers and students would go to the ramparts before they’d allow marvelous programs like King Middle School’s “Expeditionary Learning” program to disappear.

And I also hope that millions of people will watch our report and say “Let’s do that in our schools because that’s what we want our kids to experience, and because that’s what we want our kids to be: confident and capable, just like those kids in Portland.”

Even if it means saying to hell with the tests.

62 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Architects of the Common Core

  1. John,
    Thank you for your reporting on the multi-month project in Maine, and even more, for appreciating what so many data-driven reformers fail to grasp.

    Deep, authentic learning like this is fundamentally incompatible with the sorts of assessments that come from the standards-based approach now being mandated everywhere.

    I work with teachers helping them design PBL projects, and very often I encounter this dilemma. They are given a timeline with fifty or more standards they must address during the school year. A science teacher might have at most a week or two available to cover the standards that this project will take months to cover. Didactic teaching, where the teacher presents a topic, has the students take notes, watch a short film, do a day-long lab activity if they are lucky, do some textbook reading, and then take a quiz, is a far more efficient means to cover a large number of topics during the year.

    When teachers and schools are threatened with evaluations, pay, and even school closings over the scores they get on the tests, which cover large amounts of content, they resort to the most efficient means of covering the largest amount of material possible. Projects get shortened. The sort of in-depth project you describe is found only in schools with prodigious test scores, or private schools attended by children of the wealthy. Thus the students who live in poverty have a doubly impoverished curriculum, paradoxically enforced with rhetoric that is all about their “civil rights.”

    To hell with the tests indeed!


    • I’ve read before folks saying “Research shows that when a teacher teaches to the test, then the students actually do worse on the standardized test.” What they’re trying to argue is that if the teacher does what Merrow’s article describes…that somehow the students will do better on the standardized test. But when I look at the number of topics students need to learn in just 150 school days (that’s when testing begins in my state), there’s no way something this time consuming could be done in my humble opinion. Teachers must “maximize test scores” by doing what’s instructionally most efficient, especially if their career is at stake (firing by Rhee-types), or losing out on a bonus, or their school’s existence is at state (parent trigger, school closings based on test scores, etc…)


  2. John: Right on. But then teachers have to be as bold as those at King Middle School and be able to run these complex projects. Moreover they have to explicitly teach and assess the soft skills you mention.

    You can find validation of your point in an article by Tom Friedman in today’s NY Times that says, in part,

    …there’s been an important shift in the education-to-work model in America. Anyone who’s been looking for a job knows what I mean. It is best summed up by the mantra from the Harvard education expert Tony Wagner that the world doesn’t care anymore what you know; all it cares “is what you can do with what you know.” And since jobs are evolving so quickly, with so many new tools, a bachelor’s degree is no longer considered an adequate proxy by employers for your ability to do a particular job …they increasingly don’t care how those skills were acquired: home schooling, an online university, a massive open online course, or Yale. They just want to know one thing: Can you add value?


  3. Dear John, great piece. I agree entirely. There are good aims buried in the Common Core, but like so many recent reforms it may in actual practice simply add another layer of testing to over-tested schools, re-emphasize teaching to crappy tests yet again, and preclude experimentation that would lead to more curricula and teaching like the wonderful stuff you describe. How about a three-year period is which schools ready to do so are invited to experiment with curricula that meet and go beyond the Common Core? Then a national show and tell. We would not emerge with answers to the problems of the many, perhaps most, schools that now could only dream about meeting the Common Core standards, but such an invite and public comparison might help to give current educational debates a sense of and appreciation for possibilities–the very thing that is missing from the rigid national conversation on tests and standards. Possibility: The irony is that some schools are poised to do brilliant work that would change our ideas about what to aim for–and, as you say here, what to test for in the first place. Unlike you, I think the balance now weighs against the Common Core, for all its merits.


  4. “To hell with the tests” can be accomplished by refusing the tests. At United Opt Out National we are creating opt out guides for every state and plan to have them done this summer. If we wish to allow teachers and students to engage in projects such as John has shared here we must reclaim our schools by refusing to engage in the high stakes testing that destroys all opportunities for authentic learning and therefore, authentic assessment. Teachers and students together can assess and reflect on student learning. As John says, “things that aren’t being tested won’t be taught.” High stakes testing means teachers must teach to the test. The Race to the Top mandates will not be changed any time soon – it is up to us to begin to force the mandates to change by refusing the tests. These are OUR schools. These are OUR children. Our public tax dollars pay for these schools AND these tests; these tests are destroying any opportunity for real learning. Refuse the tests and allow our children to develop as creative thinkers who can independently problem solve and thrive in a world in which thinking out of the box is essential to saving our democracy. Find out more at .


  5. Right now we have standardized tests as the tail wagging the curricular dog. To change this and reward deeper learning, we’re going to have to turn to performances, presentations, and portfolios of student work — BETTER summative assessments, like the ones the kids in Maine experienced, that’ll in turn wag an improved curricular dog.

    Such a change won’t mean paydays for testing companies, but that’s too bad, isn’t it? Because the point of education is to enrich kids’ minds.


  6. This post is brilliant. It comes from someone who has followed education closely for decades. Maybe John is trying to protect the “status quo” that’s afraid of “accountability”…or…he writes from a deep understanding of what goes on in schools.

    Which is it education reformers?


  7. Let me echo Anthony’s comments. If we took a serious, serious break from testing and punishing, and focused on creative, flexible, locally-generated assessments, there might be a chance of making the standards useful. Let the standards guide instruction, without expecting every moment of every day to snap to alignment. I know that sounds awful to CCSS cheerleaders, perhaps undermining the whole enterprise from their point of view. The far greater threat to American education is excessive standardization. The project described in this blog post cannot simply be transported to all middle schools in America because it worked so well. It succeeded in large part because it had to be worked out by the people involved. That’s the point. I’d predict it won’t work exactly the same way in future years either, even in the same setting with many of the same adults. If we want students to graduate as creative, collaborative, critical thinkers, capable of hard work and possessing deep knowledge, we have to make schools into places that value all of those domains. And it’s unreasonable to expect teachers to foster for students an learning experience fundamentally at odds with their working conditions.


  8. There is a simple solution, in my view. I say ‘simple’ but that does not mean it would be ‘easy.’ It would be anything but easy, because this approach would disrupt the gravy train of the test makers, and it would require us to use assessments to assess student learning (and develop other ways to hold adults accountable, but that’s another issue).
    My (rhyming) suggestion is to ape NAEP. Seriously, let’s spend the money necessary to develop a sophisticated instrument that can assess those skills and capabilities that we value and that we see the 8th graders acquiring and developing in Portland.
    Test a sample, ala NAEP. The result will be a reliable photo of how the schools are doing. It won’t be a bludgeon to harm the profession but a benchmark.
    It won’t be easy, because a lot of people have their feet in the trough, and because a lot of people have made an ideological commitment to using tests to measure teachers, not kids.


  9. Excellent piece, John, and valuable comments.

    I have heard enough criticism of Common Core from people I respect, particularly as regards younger children, and the language arts standards, that I am not at all certain they are what good standards should be. Standards, in any case, should not be enforced by standardized tests, as John notes.

    The tests from PARCC and SmarterBAC will still be mostly multiple choice. They will have a few short tasks (certainly not projects) that will not be connected to any particular curriculum. They will therefore have little positive impact on moving schools away from the current culture of teaching to narrow tests. I’ve read numerous pieces in the last month or so on various websites pointing to how teachers are responding to CC with what they view as deeper learning, more use of tasks and projects, etc. These are rarely described and come with no examples, so I cannot say how good they are. Assuming they are at least better and may be good, they have nothing to do with the looming tests. As John said, that will put the improved curriculum and instruction under the gun, again. I certainly hope parents, teachers and students will rise up against this, as they have increasingly been doing against they current high-stakes tests.

    A couple links on these topics. FairTest has a fact sheet on Common Core tests at; on developing systems employing better assessment and evaluation, see; and on the growing movement, see


  10. I’d like to point out that every year, kids across America are doing exactly what the Portland, ME middle schoolers are doing, and they’re doing it at extracurricular Maker Faires, science fairs, and Destination Imagination tournaments.

    I should know — this year, my 3rd grade son and same-age teammates tackled this Destination Imagination challenge (Twist-O-Rama:, 240 point scoring rubric here: They did well enough at Regionals to go to the State tournament. Did they win? No, but they learned a heck of a lot about torque, stress tests, prototyping, design principles regarding weight-bearing loads, teamwork, creativity, and the rollercoaster of competition. And I’m not an engineer. Nor do I have any financial ties to DI.

    A happy coda for my son: his school principal loves DI so much, she plans to orient much of the project-based learning she’s rolling out under CCSS this fall around DI. It absolutely needs to be part of the school day, for ALL kids. And the performance/presentation-based assessments need to be weighted over multiple choice tests.

    Without a doubt, PBL and presentation/performance/portfolio assessments are feasible as summative assessments. We simply lack the political will at the national level and in most states to once again sideline testing companies like Pearson and their ilk. They have a role to play, but at the margins.


    • If we made extra-curriculars the curriculum, and the curriculum extra-curricular, we would be a damn sight better off. Honest…


      • Love the comment, “If we made extra-curriculars curriculum…” I worked in a very amazing after-school program many years ago (and it still exists today and is led by the same director). Kids indeed learned a lot because learning was fun, engaging and made them so incredibly curious they wanted the skills to necessary for seeking their own learning. No test prep, wall of data or threat of failure that results in teacher firings and school closings is going to motivate a student to be a life-long learner! Time to fire Pearson and all the other corporate profiteers! Time to fire those responsible for promulgating horrific national education policy like RTTT and the newest disaster – common core…. Ironic isn’t it that we have standards for teachers in the classroom – that they be highly qualified and yet our very own national secretary of education does not meet even the lowest standards of an educator?????


      • You’re right. The extra-curriculars are what sticks with kids as they become adults. Theodore Sizer made this point thirty years ago.


      • Yeah, what’s learned during PBL tends to stick. That’s because it involves developing procedural knowledge, which necessitates using more senses and body parts, and that means memories are concomitantly encoded in more areas of the brain than when learning declarative knowledge. It’s also a lot more meaningful than just memorizing facts.

        So the students in Maine are more likely to remember how to use tools and build a robot or a wind turbine than to recall how to make the device that they created on the computer for solving one of the 10 problems in the world, since they only drew that and didn’t actually work on building it. They may be likely to recall how to use that software again though.

        That’s why you can learn how to swim or ride a bike when you were 6 and go decades without swimming or biking again, but get on a bike or swim as an older adult and realize that you still know how to do it. You’re less likely to remember the names of all the presidents you memorized in 7th grade, unless you had reason to actually refer to that info during your life for some reason or if you used a mnemonic strategy to help you encode and recall it.

        I can still tell you the Greek alphabet that I had to learn like overnight when pledging a sorority as a high school freshman. However, at that age, I really hated the demeaning social demands of “Greek” life and dropped out shortly after that, during pledge week. So I never “used” it and I can only recall the Greek alphabet via the mnemonic device I chose for memorizing it –which means I’d have to sing it to you to the tune of Yankee Doodle.


      • BTW, It only occured to me to use a song as a mnemonic strategy because of my many years of experience as a camper. I had recalled that at camp, where we were often tasked with writing lyrics for team songs and cheers and had to perform them the next day, I always had an easier time remembering the songs than the cheers. I realize today that I probably would have learned the cheers much quicker if we’d had to write a lot of choreography to accompany them. (And I probably would have ended up learning the Greek alphabet to some rather interesting movements instead, since I was a very active kid and kinesthetic learner.)

        But anyways, another big YES to extracurricular and camp style learning. Those incredible experiences turned out to provide me with a well-stocked store of resources for my teaching, too.


      • I so agree! And this is where summative assessments MUST change.

        I taught first year college students literature and composition for six years. What was the summative assessment? It consisted of a portfolio of the student’s work: drafts, revisions, polished papers due during the semester and a final, longer paper with more extensive research/bibliography plus drafts of the final. I never had a problem with plagiarism and during my discussions with students about their progress — and their grades — it was very clear the trajectory their work took over the 13 weeks. The dialogue we had about their work led to much agreement with the grade they were ultimately assigned. In some cases, their reflections on their own work were part of my assessment too.

        So, why isn’t writing in middle and high school assessed similarly?

        Instead, we have timed essay tests that reward fast typers/glib thinkers in the name of standardization. Teachers feel obliged to prep their students to “succeed” at this type of assessment, and the good work they and their students have done for much of the year gets tossed out the window.

        The best writing, however, doesn’t tend to emerge from that timed essay test process.


      • John,

        You had me until this: “If we made extra-curriculars the curriculum, and the curriculum extra-curricular, we would be a damn sight better off. Honest…”

        That is what I saw happening at our local elementary schools. School was like summer camp and after school at home was filled with the drudgery of teaching mastery of core subjects. This is why we need choices. It is probably the best reason to have choices I can think of.

        I do not want to deny parents who choose to send their kids to a school that engages in project based learning because they don’t mind taking their free time to teach (or have their kids tutored in) the core subjects. But some of us do not want to follow that model. It might not work for our child or our family.

        Also, the “group based” projects in elementary school aren’t nearly as edifying as what was shown in this piece about the Portland school. Children learn to do things wrong or they learn to not think for themselves or to think an individual idea is inferior to one that is arrived at through a group process. It reminds me of the Harvard students that got in trouble for collaborating on a take home exam. Isn’t that exactly what they have been teaching produces superior results in K-12?

        I want to be clear that I think what the kids in Portland were doing was exciting and potentially life changing, but I would like to know that they were also being taught some Algebra or Pre-Algebra as well as English Composition (not just technical persuasive writing) and poetry and literature and history. All of those things are important, too. Immersion type teaching appeals to me more at higher grade levels than eighth grade, but I can be open minded.

        Also, I would have liked to have seen the program not hand feed the topic. I would have liked to seen parent and student involvement in what they wanted to accomplish. It seems to me that choosing wind generation (something I actually think is useful) is inviting conservative criticism (maybe anything they chose would). And, surely, there were some critics within the school, either students, teachers or parents. Would have liked to have seen some of that in the piece.


      • I have spent a lot of time doing project based learning (PBL) in my own classrooms, as well as observing it being implemented in many classes at a wide variety of schools. In my experience, PBL does not just consist of “group-based” projects or even students working in pairs. Teachers often encourage children to pursue in-depth individual projects based on their personal interests and needs. (The best camps also provide individualized schedules and activities for kids.)

        Even when PBL is a major component of the curriculum, I have not seen it implemented to the exclusion of all else. It would be informative to know how much time the students in Maine spent on project work and what other activities they were involved in each day.

        In the climate of high-stakes testing, it would also be interesting to learn how test prep is addressed at the school in Maine. In some PBL classes where I’ve been, that was assigned as homework. And, yes, sometimes it was a concern of parents, but that does not mean children were not taught those skills in school. Test prep workbooks are based on standardized tests and typically consist of a lot of drilling, which is not necessarily how that content was addressed in the classroom.


  11. John, thanks for your kind words about the success of Expeditionary Learning’s instructional approach at King Middle School. We are so proud of their success!

    At Expeditionary Learning, we have chosen to embrace the Common Core moment as a unique moment in education – a chance to push everything to be deeper and more rigorous. We understand why so many educators are concerned and skeptical, but we also see – in this time of change – an opportunity to push curriculum to a richer place. While the vision of what the Common Core is still being defined, we are advocating that places like King Middle School are exactly what we are all aiming for.

    To that end, Expeditionary Learning has been writing New York State’s grades 3-8 Common Core literacy curriculum: we’re trying to doing so in a way that respects the professional judgment of teachers and engenders persistence, collaboration, and joy in learning of students – just what we see at King. This curriculum is open source, available to teachers nationally.

    None of us know what the new CCSS assessments will look like, but we at Expeditionary Learning are taking an optimistic view. King Middle School, and other Expeditionary Learning schools nationally, already perform excellently on state assessments, which are narrow in focus. If the new assessments are deeper and more rigorous, that seems like a worthy challenge for all of us. We hope that they may shine more light on places like King where deeper learning already takes place for students.


    • Ron come on take a stand you know they are a waste if time and do nothing to help kids learn or help teachers improve their practice. I can see you might not want to pick up a torch but you don’t need to cheerleader for them.


    • “Expeditionary Learning has been writing New York State’s grades 3-8 Common Core literacy curriculum: we’re trying to doing so in a way that respects the professional judgment of teachers”

      Just like with the standards themselves, God forbid anybody who writes Common Core curriculum should actually BE a teacher. What kind of money is being thrown down the toilet to do that even BEFORE the assessments are completed?

      You can see examples of in-depth projects that have been implemented in P-12 that were designed by TEACHERS in collaboration with their students here:


      • Dear Chi-Town Res,

        I appreciate your skepticism and the resource you offer.

        Before you assume the worst about our efforts, you should know that full-time, active classroom teachers in EL network schools are the primary authors of our curriculum, exactly as you suggest should be done.

        Additionally, we are a non-profit offering this curriculum open-source to anyone who may wish to use it.



  12. I wrote a post this week about Chapter 9 of the 10-part video series, A Year at Mission Hill. The entire post, titled Teachers Could Shift the Conversation About Assessment and Accountability, is here:

    Here’s a part of it:

    Mission Hill’s teachers have also elected to assess for a broader range of learning and growth than is assessed by high-stakes, standardized tests. Mission Hill’s students know reading, writing, and math are important. But they also know that teachers in their school, their peers, and members of the larger community will assess them for so much more. Mission Hill’s students in older grades are expected to have the skills necessary to manage complex projects from beginning to end and to defend their project work, in addition to their entire body of school work assembled in a portfolio, by explaining it and responding to public questions about it. Mission Hill’s teachers assess cognitive and non-cognitive skills in these defenses, knowing such skills are essential to students’ success in learning, work and life.

    Mission Hill’s teachers remind us that while standardized testing is assessment, assessment is not merely standardized testing. Assessment itself is not a problem, nor is frequent assessment. The problem that frustrates many is that teachers – the professionals who are closest to the students – are so constrained by top-down controls that they are unable to define the purpose of assessment and the types of assessment to use in order to achieve their purpose — to improve learning among individual students. Too many teachers do not have the collective authority to make learning (not time) the constant. . .

    Mission Hill teachers and other teachers who are in the position to call the shots are beginning to shift the national conversation about the purpose, frequency and types of assessment that schools can embrace. Assessment and other learning activities can be in service of students and their individualized learning. Also, assessments that are in the service of students can be used for external accountability. Learning activities need not be in service to external accountability.


  13. Yes! However, don’t get your hopes up on Duncan’s support for project-based learning (PBL), based on his history in Chicago.

    Even with preschoolers, PBL is the most engaging and enriching curricular approach I’ve encountered in my 40+ years in the field. PBL integrates the disciplines around investigations of topics that are of interest to children, The best projects are in-depth, long-term (several months or however long kids remain interested) and driven by both student and teacher input. A more common approach in preschools consists of thematic units, usually selected and almost entirely driven by teachers or commercial curriculum. They are also integrated around the disciplines but they’re short-range (about a week) and typically just skim the surface of the topic. While developmentally appropriate and adequate, if not extended based on student interests, they tend to lack much depth.

    In Chicago, for awhile, preschool teachers had a choice of curricula that included two in-depth PBL curricular approaches, the remarkable Reggio Emilia, which originated in Italy, and the North American version, the Project Approach, and expansion of such programs at CPS schools was encouraged. However, though some of those programs do still exist today, under Duncan, expansion was ultimately discouraged, while the adoption of a theme-based commercial curriculum that is scripted was encouraged.


  14. Anyone have an update on what kind of assessments are being developed with the millions that the USDE awarded?

    I ask in part because as John knows, I worked for some years at a public k-12 urban school that used a variety of projects to help students learn. For example, we studied principles of ecology and students did various projects. Some, for example challenged 3 large companies that were stinking up the air. It was a 3 year project that was successful. But there were many challenges.

    I’m interested in what the millions in new forms of assessment are producing. Insights welcome.


  15. Comment on John Merrow’s open letter to authors of Common Core

    PBL is great, but don’t underestimate the power of book ownership (and access to libraries). Kids who have experience with books from an early age will be better learners no matter what the teaching approach. (See the work of Stephen Krashen and others.)

    As I was reading this post and some of the comments, I was also listening to the PBS News Hour over the Internet. Today’s show includes a feature on Dolly Parton’s book ownership program, called Imagination Library:

    This is the first I’ve heard of it, but the program sounds great. Give Dolly Parton credit! She’s the first education oriented mogul I’ve run across (with the possible exception of George Lucas and his Edutopia project) who’s more interested in helping kids make the most of their lives than in sucking the life out of public education.

    As for the intricately wrought balderdash that is the “Common Core Standards,” with its related tests and “alignment” materials… If you want to oppress children with age-inappropriate lessons, pedagogy based on bad assumptions, and overtesting, I say full speed ahead. Keep funding nonsense. But if you want kids to learn and you want them to love learning, buy them books. Build libraries. Encourage PBL. Meet kids where they are and get them involved in their own education. These priorities are inconsistent with the Common Core.

    Finally, who’s the better education leader, Common Core author David Coleman or Dolly Parton?

    [audio src="" /]

    Caution: David Coleman’s talk contains frequent profanity, sycophantry, incomplete thoughts, and shaky illogic. I’ll confess to being a fan of Dolly Parton’s singing (and her work ethic, creativity, and generous spirit—just what you’d want in a role model for kids). Not every viewer will appreciate her unique personal style, but this highly staged video makes a lot more sense than Coleman’s (largely incoherent) remarks.

    What if more “reformers” and education philanthropists were to focus on directly benefiting children, instead of pursuing their own self-interested agendas?


  16. While reading this great post, I thought of Bill Ferriter’s recent post on “How Testing Will Change What I Teach.” If more teachers did as Bill has done and published how how high stake’s testing’s narrowing of the curriculum really looks like on a day to day basis, perhaps it would help put a few holes in the zeppelin of misguided/corporate “reform.”


  17. John –

    Your idea re: NAEP was suggested by Stephen Krashen years ago – and has not gotten any mainstream media coverage – see here: .

    However, what must occur in order to move in that direction is to halt the harm NOW by refusing the tests. I appreciate the discussion here, but discussion is not enough when we have children suffering – right now – under the mandates of high stakes testing. Parents need to realize that they can refuse these tests and demand assessment that is created by teachers, as they do in Finland, and then, demand that the NAEP be used to get a sample. Action is necessary to end the push for common core and high stakes testing – the corporate ed. reformers end goal is to privatize public education via CC and HST. They will not stop until they have done so. If we are to take back our public schools we must refuse the high stakes tests which will all be aligned to the common core “national” standards.

    As Stephen Krashen says, “Our efforts should be to improve the NAEP, not
    start all over again, and go through years of fine-tuning with new instruments.
    Gradually improving the NAEP will also solve the “standards” problem, as the NAEP is
    adjusted to reflect competencies experts in education consider to be important.
    If we are interested in a general picture of how children are doing, this is the way to do it.
    If we are interested in finding out about a patient’s health, we only need to look at a small
    sample of their blood, not all of it.”

    If we do not halt the testing now, by letting parents know that they have the right to refuse these tests, it will be very difficult to halt the madness once PARCC and SBAC are in place – the push back will be intense because there is a lot of money to be made using our children and our tax dollars.


  18. “After all, what sort of standardized paper-and-pencil (or computer-based) assessment can test for grit, teamwork, communication, innovation, ambition and the like? To test those skills and capabilities, we would have to be willing to go back to the days when we trusted teachers to assess their students.”

    No: The testing-industrial complex will immediately try to develop standardized tests that measure grit, teamwork, communication , etc.

    Not paper-and-pencil but of course computer-based, because that’s where the money is. Making sure all test are taken online requires making sure all students are connected to the internet, constant upgrading, and of course regular replacement of the equipment as it becomes “obsolete.” A magnificent boondoggle.

    Remember Arne Duncan’s presentation “Beyond the Bubble Tests” from about two years ago,when he suggested all this would happen. We will have brave new tests, ever more complex, ever more expensive, ever more profitable for the .01%.


  19. “Let’s do that in our schools because that’s what we want our kids to experience, and because that’s what we want our kids to be: confident and capable, just like those kids in Portland.”

    Mr. Merrow.. you really need to get out more and send more people out to see what is really going on in many classrooms around the country. It is great what the children and teachers in Portland did. It is also great, extremely brilliant what others are doing too.

    I will give you an example from my own classroom this year. My students (4th grade) were very conscientious about recycling water bottles. They noticed that while they could recycle them, hundreds of thousands of bottle caps were being thrown away. So I challenged them to come up with ways to reuse bottle caps. Their “inventions”, “uses” were amazing. They punched holes in the caps and used the bottles again to water plants. They made picture frames, jewelry, drawer dividers for sharp knives. We even had games made which they used for the rest of the year during indoor recess. I can’t even tell you all of the curriculum areas, concepts the children covered in this challenge. Too many to count. I can tell you that in mathematics and science there were so many extensions and ways to go with this challenge. Confident and capable children, global contributors.. all in this challenge that came from their action. The children wanted to set up a market and advertise and more. Sadly, I had to cut the activity short because the standardized tests approached. Mr. Merrow, I am sure that thousands of teachers and children can add “amazing” projects to my list. I ask as an educator of 38+ years and still learning that YOU and others stop selling us short. My students, my colleagues…we meet the challenges you describe every day and we do it very well.


    • This is a great and exhilarating story, even with the sad news about the intervention of the tests. Thanks for sharing it. I hope lots of people read it.


      • John,

        This is more than sad. This is typical. In fact doing a story about the great work being done at 1 school is somewhat misleading.

        Don’t get me wrong. I think we need to make sure to put a spot light on great teaching during these dark days of accountability. However, after ten years of working in many classrooms all over Central Pennsylvania I can tell you that “test prep” is the status quo in grades 3-8.

        How about a follow up story? We need a story about the common and not the uncommon. Americans needs to know that what you witnessed in Portland was almost entirely unique. In fact, reading about this type of teaching and learning might even lead people to think that things are just fine in our public schools. However, nothing can be further from the truth.

        Test prep is a cancer that is slowly killing genuine teaching and learning–especially in our schools that serve our most vulnerable. The public needs to see the pain and suffering.



  20. John,
    Not only is your blog spot-on, but the commentary was so thought provoking that I have read the entire batch! Could you imagine NewsHour giving you an editorial moment to say this out loud to their huge viewing audience? The video of King Middle School is really wonderful, but just as is the case with our videos about Mission Hill , and Lagunitas School District’s Open Classroom , people tend to dismiss these examples as exceptions, based on super-teachers. Teachers like Cheryl and Anthony know that is not the case, but our national conversation keeps being about bad teachers, bad schools, test scores, and punishment. Our voices need to rise above that cacophony! I deeply appreciate your leadership, and hope you get an opportunity to say it on air.


  21. With all due respect John, “sad news” is truly an understatement. As someone who helps parents opt out all over the country and as someone who works in a high poverty high needs school, I can tell you that it is much more than sad – the media very rarely, if ever, shares the true ugliness that comes with high stakes testing and now with common core. The intervention of the tests is horrific and it is abusive. Because these are high stakes tests the children in the public schools with the highest need are receiving test prep and skill drill at the expense of ALL creative thinking. The intervention is not simply at testing time, the intervention encompasses the entire school year. Common core is increasing this intervention – better stated as corporate takeover – by leaps and bounds. What is your opinion on refusing the test John? Thanks for allowing this much needed discussion.


    • We are reporters first, although you know I have a few opinions. But regarding opting out, we would have to be convinced that it’s not just a few hundred angry families but something akin to the beginnings of a movement. Then it’s a story… Does that make sense?


      • I’ll answer that one. No, your reply doesn’t make sense, not to me at least. Reporting based on a manufactured consensus (purchased by self-interested foundation dollars and big companies sniffing out profits) isn’t reporting at all. This is how people like Steven Brill, Jonathan Alter, and Michelle Rhee get to claim expertise in education when they’re actually very much in the dark about teaching, learning, and schools.

        A smart researcher will track down anomalies and try to find out where they come from and why. To suppose that a small opt-out movement might just be “a few hundred angry families” isn’t just dismissive. It misses the chance to dig deeper and find out why the people most directly affected by testing–students, teachers, and parents–are starting to resist, even though most of them feel powerless to do so.

        Why wait for a testing scandal or some other educataclysm that you can sink your teeth into years after the fact? Dig into the anomalies springing up today with respect to high-stakes testing, and you could help save public education tomorrow.


      • I think John is one of the few reporters in the nation trying to do this. So thank you for your efforts John. Hopefully you can lead the way to better education reporting in the nation.


      • I’m not arguing that he isn’t doing great work. If a good reporter is on a skiing vacation and an avalanche happens, sure, he’s going to want to cover the aftermath. What I don’t understand is why he would dismiss the Opt-Out movement as potentially just a few angry parents instead of trying to get to the bottom of why they (and tons of education professionals, and students) are angry.

        High-stakes testing is an avalanche in the making that can still be slowed and even halted. But only if the relative handful of stakeholders fighting to hold it back are given their due. Better to cover the small scale protests in depth right now than to try to sort out the inevitable (unnatural) disaster that’s bound to follow if they’re ignored. The few reporters currently doing this work deserve more than our thanks. I’m just hoping that others will join in.

        What if more reporters had paid close attention to Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, the only US Senators to oppose the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, instead of dismissing them as cranks? Maybe our involvement in Vietnam would have changed course. Whoever publishes the Pentagon Papers of the bogus education reform movement will be a hero in my book.


      • John,

        Opt out is more than a “few hundred angry families.” We have well over 10,000 “angry families” that claim opt out as their home and “other family.” While some still have not actually opted out, they participate daily in the conversations and openly support the parents and students that do opt out.

        Also, look at Jesse Hagopian and Garfield in Seattle. By orchestrating a full teacher opt out of the MAP the MAP is now gone in secondary classrooms. Look at Long Island where within one day of setting up the Long Island Facebook Page they had over 6,000 join.

        It is the only form of action that targets the mechanism of “faith based” reform–testing and test scores. If we wait for legislators to lose the “faith” we will never see test and punish public schooling banished.

        And remember opt out is not anti-testing or anti-assessment. Opt out is fully supportive of quality assessment that tells us about learning. The story of opt out is not a simple story of angry parents who won’t let their kids get tested. Opt out is the story of resistance. And resistance in forms of civil disobedience is all “angry” people have when it comes to counter punching at billionaire reformers messing with community schools.

        Yes, I’m an ANGRY parent! But don’t be fooled into believing there are only a “few hundred” of us. There may only be a few hundred that openly and publicly resist but for every one of us that does “opt out” there are 10 – 30 who want to and are supporting us and they are just as angry.

        So opt out isn’t about a “few hundred angry parents.” Opt out is about a growing resistance of thousands of parents, teachers, and students that realize that the only way to get PBL like in Portland is to organize and demand it! One way to demand it is to simply stop–opt out–of this horrific game that only benefits politicians and testing companies.



      • I think those involved with this movement need to start making calls / e-mails to the press. That’s how things change…as imformation changes and gets reported, it influences those who don’t follow education as closely. I think they’re the key.

        Right now, the corporate reformers have a virtual monopoly on the press. I know some people say the press is bought, but I think there are decent reporters out there who just need to hear more of a different perspective from parents.


  22. I laugh every time I hear “reformers” use terms like evidenced based learning and accountability-
    We have ample evidence of what truly transforms learning such as arts, inquiry, smaller class size, wrap around programs, culturally relevant curriculum- not one of these proven approaches is addressed in common core. Why? Because long range true achievement for all kids isn’t immediately profitable. We do have evidence that demonstrates the enormous profits being reaped by Pearson and other private common core related companies
    That’s evidenced based
    As for accountability? We have made children accountable to Wall Steet
    They will not stop because we can prove this curriculum faulty and problematic
    It will only stop when we stop it by refusing to participate in the testing that drives the machine


    • The same people who demand scientifically-based data-driven instruction gave educators faith-based standards created by non-educators and upon which faith-based curriculum is being written by non-educators. Assessments are still being written and they will be scored by non-educators from Craig’s List and technology.

      Those who demand all this are the politicians and their billionaire sponsors who want even more wealth and aim to get it from generating, collecting, analyzing and storing the all the data. But none of them will guarantee the security of the data and, in fact, they even intend to violate privacy rights by sharing the data with vendors.

      Accountability is for no one but educators. It’s just one double standard after the next nationally and that’s commonly just rotten to the core.


  23. All US parents can learn from Texans Advocating for Meaningful Assessment (TAMSA) about how to stand up to fraud and corruption in high-stakes testing. TAMSA moms are not afraid of Sandy Kress, Pearson, Spellings, Duncan, Texas Legislature, etc. They collectively called out the profiteers and stood up for public schools and students by holding the Texas Legislature accountable. Reformers and the lobbyists did not see TAMSA coming and change came through legislation in Texas.

    About 54:30 into the youtube video, a CPA calls Spellings out. She squirms and said, “We were shooting in the dark when we designed NCLB.” It’s important to watch the entire video to see how Susan Kellner (TAMSA) and Tom Pauken (TWC) place Spellings on the defensive.


  24. Great story, though I think Anthony is right, and the degree to which he is right might be relative to location. The urban school where I served was under a great deal of pressure, some of it coming from corporate monitoring systems that functioned from checklists of “best practice.”

    My location was Denver Public Schools (recent resignation). That’s relevant because our superintendent was instructed at the Broad Superintendent’s Academy (suspected of corporate motivations), and our board is now split 4-3; four of the board members were corporately purchased during campaigns, as noted by uncharacteristically large contributions for a school board election, and three “dissenting” members remain unbound to corporate cash. The result is, indeed, a very great divide. Our mayor and governor seem to be in sync with the supe and four board corporatizers.

    I don’t think I can overstate how important it is that each and every one of us is aware of what’s happening at the local level of school board politics if we want to see more classrooms like the 8th grade class of King Middle School. I plan to be very involved in the next election cycle.


  25. John, I wish that you would also explore the federal laws that have been broken by the Obama administrating as it has ushered in Common Core, the assessments accompanying it, and the changes to FERPA and studen privacy laws, all done without congressional consent. Congress was circumvented by the Department of Education under the leadership of Arne Duncan, and now many congressmen are questioning the legality of his actions, and rightfully so.


    • Yes, I wish John and his team would investigate those actions, too.

      I also wish that people affected by such policies would file lawsuits, instead of expressing frustration and rage at public rallies in language that is offensive and reflects very poorly on the profession.


  26. John – Thank you for your commentary. King Middle School has been a leading member of the Expeditionary Learning (EL) community for the last 20 years and this learning model has produced innumerable benefits to our students. The intangibles you mention (add-ons in some schools) are what make our kids stand out as they move through the Portland high schools and beyond. We regularly receive letters from former students (and parents of former students) who express their gratitude for the education they participated in here at King.

    We recently hosted 70+ teachers from all over the US at our annual site seminar who wanted to visit our school and find out what makes it work so well. A snapshot of what happens here during the year was finely portrayed on the PBS special and we regularly have visitors who walk through and check us out*. One recent visitor asked me what I think makes King an outstanding school to learn and teach in and what I replied is that we work every day to create a culture of learning throughout the building that both challenges and supports kids. They are our first concern and are who we build all our expeditions and curriculum work around.

    I am glad that the push to CC is being examined in this forum (and others) and I hope that we educators will continue to keep an eye open for the welfare of our students. After 26 years in education, I have seen a lot of reforms come and go. Some have involved teachers, many have not. At the end of the day, however, it is the relationships we build with kids and how we inspire them to learn throughout their lives. That is why we are here.


    *The same week that we had our site seminar and were on PBS was the week that our governor gifted us with a “C”, his current attempt to undermine and demoralize Maine’s public schools. Our students were, as you might imagine, more than a little miffed at him and the MEDOE. They know better, of course!


  27. John writes: “We are reporters first, although you know I have a few opinions. But regarding opting out, we would have to be convinced that it’s not just a few hundred angry families but something akin to the beginnings of a movement. Then it’s a story… Does that make sense?”

    Unfortunately, it makes perfect sense in the current country we live in which is owned by the corporations. If I were one angry billionaire I wouldn’t need to convince anyone and I honestly wouldn’t need to “make sense.” I’d simply hire myself an advertising spot on TV and tell the whole country to refuse the test! No need to prove myself. No need to even get angry. Just show me the money and the path will be paved.

    However, you see, I am not a billionaire.

    I am a public school teacher who gets up at 5 a.m. and gets home by 5 p.m. on a good day. I also run a nonprofit, United Opt Out National, with five other education activists (who also all hold down full time jobs). I run the nonprofit before I go to work and after I get home. As a nonprofit our assets include a website and a few Occupy the DOE t-shirts. Of course, there is also the issue of real life and family – I have two young boys, a husband, and a house to take care of – I don’t have a cook, house cleaner, chauffeur, or lawn person – you get the picture. I don’t have any extra money to throw around to even create a little blip in my local paper to encourage people to opt out because as a teacher, I got that darn master’s degree years ago and I’m still paying off my student loans even though I’ve been told that the degree is worthless – those billionaires who don’t have to “convince” anyone or make any sense told me that.

    So, long story short, I have found myself in the predicament of continually having to “convince” reporters “that it’s not just a few hundred angry families but something akin to the beginnings of a movement.” Quite honestly, I don’t waste a lot of time doing this anymore because I’ve found that my time and resources are better spent helping create grassroots movements with people who are fighting this madness on the front line – the truth has convinced these thousands of folks to take action.

    For more information about the thousands who are angry, passionate, intelligent, and care about our children go here: . And you can find out about how much sense I make here or here . And finally, our website, which is being included in the Library of Congress archives (someone convinced them that we had something important to say I guess) can be found here:


  28. John, You really ought to investigate the creative wordsmithing of neo-liberals who ascribe such titles as “architects” to the writers of the Common Core, who have no formal training or experience as K-12 educators, as well as such misnomers as “state standards” when they are national standards, as they were intended to be.

    This crafting and hijacking of language is very common with corporate education “reformers,” and it’s all propaganda aimed at concealing truths and agendas, which really need to be exposed.


  29. This is a great article, and the comments are equally interesting. Every time I hear/read about “standardizing curriculum” or “regulating data” I think of the factory model of education so many of our schools still utilize, and I wonder, is this reform? Many of our initiatives seem to be driven by large urban school districts, and working in rural and suburban New England sometimes can lead me to forget the troubles of inner city schools. I have some early educational experiences with regard to poverty and urban life, so I understand some of what they go through, but not enough. I can understand that the need to standardize and regulate classes of 30-40 students (many of which who have attendance issues and other issues) can give schools a sense of “control” and purpose when so much of what they face on a daily basis seems out of their control. However, the Common Core, while a nice set of guidelines, are not the “end all, be all” of education and a students learning. Much like Anthony, my concern also comes not from the “standards” but from how they are measured. As an educator and administrator I have spent much time discussing and teaching about the different types of and uses for assessments. The rub is often not how the assessment is given but how the assessment is used, and we certainly don’t have a great track record of using the data wisely. As we embark on “Smarter Balanced” assessment we have to ask ourselves is it really smarter and balanced.


  30. Hi all:

    I believe in “more wow-making, less test-taking”.

    So I am planning to launch a charter school that will both comply with CCSS (because we will be publicly-funded), while retaining the flexibility to allow students to pursue their own passion-driven creative projects. Balancing both test-taking and wow-making means that we have to be innovative.

    The plan is to use flex blended learning in which FL Virtual School provides online instruction, while our instructional provides individualized insights to achieve academic results that meet CCSS/PARCC needs. The flex blended learning approach also frees time and funding for students to pursue their own passion-driven creative projects.

    The students get to choose their own projects (non-graded, no time bounds) under the coaching and mentoring of our instructional staff. Students will have to room to explore which is also room room for failure, as described in the following 2 paragraphs.

    Our students will have the time and funding to explore and pursue their passions without needing to worry about grades. In other words, there is room to fail. Success, especially in creative pursuits, includes learning how to rapidly recover and learn from “failure”. They can demonstrate market acceptance by external funding via Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, or comparable online funding platforms. They can also use online manufacturing platforms such as to manufacture and distribute their creative outputs.

    We will not accept mediocrity from our students. We want our students to strive for ambitious goals, and are willing to accept worthy failures, in which the only failure is the failure to learn. We believe that students who pursue their passions will find their professions.

    Our website is: Feedback welcomed!

    All the best,


  31. I honestly have grave concerns about spending time considering if PARCC or SBA are smarter or balanced – I think that the corp.ed. reformers would love for us to spend all of our time examining these tests in depth, finding their strengths, their weaknesses, and giving them the chance to proclaim their mistakes, their “bumps” along the way, in order too – guess what – give us a BETTER test!!! They are more than happy to appease us with better tests. As long as they can continue to profit using our public tax dollars (in the billions) and our children they will do so. The point is this – the only smart and balanced test that I can find for my son would be created by his teacher. It is absolutely fascinating how mainstream media has created mass amnesia around the concept of teachers creating assessments. As a public school teacher, I have received extensive education on how to create assessments for my learners. And, if I want to compare student achievement over time, as well as compare subgroups of students, I can use the NAEP – see Krashen’s brilliant idea here: .

    The only course of action necessary at this point in order to halt the harm of high stakes testing and the onslaught of teaching to the test via the common core corporate curriculum is simply to REFUSE the tests. Halt the harm first, then reclaim and improve public schools with the input of REAL educators, students and community members. Join the thousands that are already refusing the tests – and mark my word – there will be many more next year!


  32. All praise for students working with each other and with their hands and speaking in public.

    Nobody praises the serious academic work of students done by themselves with books and paper for learning history, for example, and for writing serious history research papers. Academic activity needs encouragement just as much as building something and showing it off.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s