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OPINION: Teaching to Greatness

Since moving to Syracuse from the Boston area in 2012, I have been captivated by the impassioned public push back here in Central New York on state-mandated accountability testing – high stakes testing that is lately driven by an approach to elementary and secondary education known as the Common Core Standards.

The stated goals of the Common Core are admirable and worthy – to ensure that students graduating from high school have acquired the requisite skills and knowledge in English language arts and mathematics to enable them to succeed academically in college course work or in workforce training programs. That said, there is a growing number of educational scholars who have questioned the Common Core because of its “one size fits all” approach that seems targeted to mediocrity.

One such scholar is Yong Zhao, the associate dean for global education in the College of Education at the University of Oregon, and an internationally recognized expert on the implications of globalization and technology on education.

I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Dr. Zhao speak about education at a conference for New York heads of independent schools in November 2013. Zhao noted that America’s schools are falling behind their international peers because the majority of our schools teach to “Good Enoughness” rather than “Greatness.” Zhao specifically referenced the potential dangers the Common Core has in becoming that new standard.

Citing author Daniel Coyle and The New York Times bestseller “The Talent Code,” Zhao noted that there are three essential elements that lead to cultivating greatness – time, passion and feedback. By way of example, he described the despair his newly-licensed teenage daughter expressed when she executed a less-than-perfect turn on her way home from getting her driver’s license. How could one so new to the art of driving expect to be great at it without more practice, he observed. And practice, he emphasized, takes time. Time to do a thing and do it again until it is done to perfection.

The next ingredient in cultivating greatness is passion. A doer must be passionate about what he or she is undertaking.

And finally, add the third element – feedback – to the mix and one has a complete recipe for greatness. By way of example, Zhao showed a slide of a beautifully drawn butterfly created by a sixth grade boy in art class. The next slide showed the first attempt the boy had made at drawing the butterfly. It was rudimentary and ill proportioned. Based upon feedback provided by the boy’s art teacher, the boy’s next few iterations of the butterfly were much improved and eventually became an exquisite drawing, resulting from a deliberate commitment to greatness on everyone’s part.

Having explained the precursors to greatness, Zhao went on to note that the Common Core, quite contrary to its intended purpose, is spurring curricula in the public sector that are long on breadth and short on depth primarily because they are accountability-test driven. As such, the Common Core is proving incongruous for cultivating greatness. First, the Common Core is being used to set up a race to “cover” large quantities of content in a relatively short period of time. When the exposure to content is cursory and short lived, the time that is needed to drill down on it and the opportunity to get transformative feedback is not available to students. And what about passion? The palpable growing public dissatisfaction with the race to “cover” material so that students can produce on state mandated tests is borne of the discontent of students and parents who are stressed and disenchanted with test-driven learning.

During my 30-plus years in education as a teacher, a coach, and an administrator, it has become clear to me that great teaching and learning come from the process of taking deep dives into topics and ideas. As implemented in the public sector to date, the Common Core standards are not achieving their intended result.

At independent schools such as MPH, faculty are given the liberty to create and power a unique curriculum that does not teach to standardized tests nor is driven by a “one-size-fits-all” approach. In such a setting, faculty are able to stimulate the intellectual, social, and physical development of students in a way that assures academic investment and success. This is why refer to our own academic experience as “uncommon to the core.”

It is time for elementary and secondary education in this country to embrace anew the critical aspects of time, passion, and feedback in our quest to teach to greatness. Those of us in the independent school world have the freedom to do this. My fondest hope is that our public school brethren will someday soon be similarly situated.

D. Scott Wiggins is the Head of School at Manlius Pebble Hill School. He can be reached at or by calling 446-2452 ext. 129.