Need an appropriate Common Core

After reading and rereading two letters addressed to “colleagues” from New York Education Commissioner King – one dated Oct. 24, 2013, and the other Dec. 30, 2013 – my first impulse was to simply throw up my hands in despair. In good conscience, I can’t bring myself to act on that impulse. The issues raised are far too important.

Having spent more than 60 years studying public education and attempting to formulate changes that match what I, along with many others, have found about what constitutes productive human experience, central to the general education mission of schooling, I am aghast at the way in which the Board of Regents and its commissioner have spun a web of rhetoric that never addresses the fundamental problems but almost sounds like they have reasonable intelligence – that is, if you do not ask the question, “What is all this stuff based on?”

Ever since the turn of the 20th century, when Edward Thorndike became known for his experiments with the associative learning capabilities of animals, a like-minded behaviorist theory of learning has been applied to us humans, and the concept has permeated the educational landscape. When George W. Bush announced the need “to know” what is being learned or not learned in our public schools, in support of “No Child Left Behind,” the aftermath of Thorndike’s work, the so-called “objective” test, came of age. An obsession with standardized testing has now taken over instruction, along with the establishment of principles of statistical analysis and machine scoring. Standardized testing and a standardized core of prescribed outcomes have been mistakenly given a central role in educational decision making by the business community and education’s questionable decision makers.

Given the present obsession with standardized tests, you might think there are no effective alternatives to measure what has been learned – a clearly misguided premise. This mindset, however, has been so embedded in the psyches of the public, they apparently seldom see the fallacies in this position.

Perhaps the following can shed some light on what needs to be done.

To standardize means to set a standard. The issue with the current Common Core standards is not that standardizing is wrong; it’s about standards that are based on assumptions about individual human beings that are known to be incorrect or incomplete. Behaviorism is the prime example because it essentially ignores our unique higher thought processes – namely, synthesis and critical-creative evaluation.

Since products from our higher-level cognitive processes of synthesizing and critically evaluating are unique to each of us, they cannot be measured by a one-size-fits-all standardized test. These cognitive processes are missing from statements of standards and standardized tests, yet it is ingenuously claimed, “Assessments emphasize critical thinking.”

The standards set for everyone by the Common Core are based on outcomes created by a select group of people. These conclusions have already been formulated and memorialized, determined by so-called experts to be appropriate for everyone else, regardless of individual developmental differences, unique experiential backgrounds, cognitive abilities, inheritance or unique perceptions of life’s many manifestations.

Mandating learning outcomes, as specified in the Common Core, ignores a most basic human characteristic, that of the need to actively create-construct-find meaning in one’s personal life and in the lives of others. To deny this basic need is to deny humans their individuality and unique identity. This is legitimately at the heart of the protests against the implementation of the current, standardized Common Core and explains its devastating effects on our young citizens. It is also at the heart of prior criticisms of education, before the present and expanded version of standardization came into being.

The key to an appropriate Common Core that truly reflects the needs of human beings is to make a paradigm shift from the primary focus on outcomes to a focus on processes of learning. Systems design is a modern process of learning used extensively in fields such as medicine, engineering and electronic innovation. Natural processes of systems design are consistent with the problem-solving needs of humans.

Systems viewed within all realms of meaning and the application of the creative processes of academic disciplines can produce outcomes that will not only reveal that which is identified in the present Common Core but will surpass those outcomes in many creative ways. We have at least the first 14 years of schooling to perfect these processes and the rest of life to refine them.

Determining the nature and extent of outcomes from individualized creative processes best requires a systems orientation. A system is a set of parts we each perceive to form a unitary whole, uniquely integrated or synthesized from the infinitely large realm of the universe down to the infinitely small. Systems analysis is a proven strategy for assessing and evaluating the characteristics of these uniquely constructed systems and their functions as unitary wholes.

The uniquely creative processes of individuals are fully honored with a focus on systems design, its products to be compared with any previously stated outcomes others may determine to be important, including the current version of a Common Core. Contrary to the advocates of the Common Core, the unique outcomes of each individual’s creative processes can be effectively assessed and evaluated using known processes of systems analysis.

Personalized record keeping built around concepts of systems design and systems analysis should become the new standard that allows and encourages individual pursuit of meaning that reaps the rewards of sharing with others throughout each of our lifetimes. Learner-managed record keeping, using modern systems theory, utilizing the input, storage and manipulative capabilities of digital innovations will far outstrip the capabilities of measurement propagated by the imposition of narrowly conceived standardized tests. “The Constructive Assessment, Recordkeeping and Evaluation System” is designed to validate these claims.

Elaboration can be found in “Remaking our Schools for the Twenty-First Century – A Blueprint for Change/Improvement in our Educational Systems” by Robert L. Arnold. (2013, Ithaca Press, available through

Looking to the future, check out “A New Vision for Our Public Schools,” available at

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Email him at