The Promise Of The Common Core
In recent months, the Common Core has come under increasing criticism from a number of different quarters.
An op-ed in the New York Times’ Week in Review is emblematic of the best of this disapproving sentiment. Yet even it mixes together fundamental misconceptions about the entire Common Core project with legitimate issues of inadequate preparation for teachers and students and poor implementation by state education departments and districts. The Common Core is described as a “radical curriculum” that was introduced with “hardly any public discussion." We are told that it is a “one size fits all” approach, built upon a standardized script that teachers must use for instruction. Finally, it is suggested that the Common Core is a “game that has been so prearranged that many, if not most, of the players will fail."
This is the Common Core seen through the prism of a fun house mirror. In truth, the Common Core is neither “radical” nor a “curriculum," but a set of grade level performance standards for student achievement in the core academic disciplines of English Language Arts and Mathematics.* Indeed, one of the more telling criticisms of the implementation of the Common Core is that in all too many states, districts and schools, these standards have not been developed into curricula which teachers could readily use in their classrooms.
The Common Core has been the product of a lengthy and multi-stage process. The English Language Arts and Mathematics standards were themselves first developed, using procedures that included major, substantive feedback from teams of teacher practitioners from across the country.** The two sponsoring organizations, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA), published the draft standards for comment, and adopted them only after the incorporating changes that they received during that process. Finally, the standards were adopted by forty-five separate states and the District of Columbia, each with their own statewide educational decision-making body and process. At each step of the way, there has been vigorous and open debate. It is hard to conceive how that process could have been any more public or transparent.
Far from a “one size fits all” approach, the Common Core was designed to establish broad performance standards that could be easily adapted to quite different curricula and pedagogical approaches. The notion that it constitutes an exacting script that every teacher would need to follow precisely is so far from the actual reality that it leaves one wondering if some of the critics have actually read the Common Core standards they so fiercely denounce.
Finally, the all-too-real ‘game’ that establishes winners and losers for life is the current state of American education, with its unforgiving inequality in the quality of education provided to the wealthy and to the poor, to white students and to students of color. Almost sixty years after our nation made a promise in Brown v. Education to end separate and unequal education, our schools continue to embody and perpetuate the radical economic inequalities that have grown so dramatically in American society over the past three decades. If anything, the Common Core gives us a new means to address this ongoing stain on our national education.
Another Passing Reform, Or An Opportunity To Refocus American Education?
American educators have grown accustomed to a steady stream of passing educational fashions, a continual barrage of reforms du jour that have come and gone. In understandable acts of self-defense, we invest the minimum of our time and effort in each new volley of the latest educational ‘silver bullet.’ The day is too short and the things that need to be done for one’s students too many to be spending one’s time on a program that will soon be gone and forgotten. The temptation is to decide that the Common Core fits this pattern, and that it, too, will soon pass. The recent drumbeat of criticism of the Common Core, however wrongheaded, reinforces the notion that, sooner or later, these standards will go the way of the first standards movement of the 1990s.
There is truth in the common sense of the teacher: the Common Core standards are in peril.
But the loss of the Common Core standards would be a real tragedy, taking away from us for a generation the capacity to make necessary, progressive educational change. The Common Core standards are well worth saving.
- The Common Core focuses on what is important in education. In an era when our national obsession with standardized testing has diverted attention from the vital purposes of public education, turning all too many American schools into ‘test prep’ factories, the Common Core refocuses us on the skills which are essential for the education of citizens in a democracy – critical and analytical thinking, the comprehension and use of complex texts, problem solving and purposeful written and oral communication. While much discussion of the instructional shift required by the Common Core has focused on the difficulty of the standards, it has largely ignored the powerful rationale for their more challenging nature. Too often the ‘raising of standards’ in American education is little more than speeding up an assembly line mode of education, demanding that students learn in the eighth grade what they used to learn in the ninth grade by cramming more detail into a course of study that is already a mile wide and an inch deep. What distinguishes the Common Core from such ‘factory model’ reform efforts is its fundamental rethinking of what students should know and be able to do, with a focus on knowing well and in depth what is truly important.***
- The Common Core sheds much needed light on persistent inequality in American education, and creates a basis for educational equity across the nation. By instituting a universal set of performance standards, the same across all forty-five states (and several territories) that have adopted them, the Common Core creates a bright spotlight of comparability that can be turned on the radical disparities that continue to define American schooling nearly sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education. Until this moment in the history of American education, we have had a patchwork of different state and local standards, applied haphazardly, that have often served to disguise the inequalities of class and race in American education. With the Common Core, the nature and consequences of decisions in state capitols to starve schools of needed resources and to perpetuate extreme educational inequalities will become more difficult to camouflage. Just as importantly, Common Core brings with it the promise of providing every American student, from Beverly Hills to Bed-Stuy, the same high quality education, pitched to the same performance standards.
- The Common Core brings coherence to K-12 American education.The Common Core standards are sequential, with performance benchmarks building upon earlier learning to create a coherent educational experience for students, K through 12. When the standards are fully implemented, students should have access to a comprehensive quality education in the core academic subjects. While this logical organization and development of education is important for all students, it is particularly important for students living in poverty: the transience that accompanies poverty creates many disruptions in the education of these students, making it all that more difficult for them to be successful in their education. To the extent that all schools use sequentially organized, comprehensive performance standards, these disruptions in the education of students living in poverty will be minimized.
- The Common Core has the potential to empower teachers, giving us new opportunities to improve our craft and the teaching profession. The Common Core sets out performance standards for what students should know and be able to do in a subject: it does not prescribe either what teachers should teach or how they should teach and work with their students to attain these standards. Moreover, by requiring that students develop deeper and richer understandings of the subjects they are studying, the Common Core implicitly breaks with the ‘factory model’ of schooling and the ‘test prep’ deformation of education. The instructional shift demanded by the Common Core poses both a challenge and an opportunity for teachers to work together in their schools in the development of lessons, units and teaching materials that would support them in teaching to the new standards. Teacher creativity and teacher collaboration are thus essential to doing the Common Core right, and are at the center of the work in schools and districts that have prepared well for the Common Core.
So, with all this promise, why is the Common Core at risk?
Some would point to the spectacle one finds these days on the fringes of American politics, overwhelmingly from the far right. In recent months, the Common Core has become the latest obsession of what the historian Richard Hofstadter once aptly named "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." On the political margins, the Common Core functions as a Rorschach Test through which one plays out, in an untethered free association, one’s particular political paranoia. To wit…
- “ObamaCore” is the “unconstitutional” plot to “indoctrinate” American students “to accept the leftwing view of America and its history." (Phyllis Schlaflay)
- Common Core is the “federal school curriculum” of “terrorist professor Bill Ayers and Obama” (Mary Grabar for Accuracy in Media) and an assault on “Western civilization” and “Judeo-Christian values." (Mary Grabar in FrontPage Magazine) Common Core-compliant books advance “the old lie from the Soviet disinformation campaign that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was a homosexual who organized a paranoia campaign about communism to Americans." (Mary Grabar for News and Analysis, Selous Foundation)
- Common Core is “part of a United Nations plan to have complete control of our educational system." (Arizona Tea Party)
- “Your child or grandchildren won’t be able to escape Common Core materials that are anti-Christian, anti-capitalism, and anti-America. Or that are pro-homosexuality, illegal immigration, unions, environmentalism, gun control, feminism and social justice… This is not a novel like 1994. It’s Common Core." (1994 is not a typo; it is from the original quote. LC.) (Alabama Republican Women’s Federation official)
- “Rotten to the Core” is “a Trojan horse for lowering [academic expectations.]" (Michelle Malkin)
- Arguments on behalf of the Common Core are of a ‘Red Commonist’ species. (Jay Greene)
- Common Core is "the gateway to parents losing their rights” and a "dumbing down of America’s schoolchildren." It "indoctrinates" kids with “extreme leftist ideology." (Glen Beck)
- Common Core promotes Islamism. (Note the subtle use of the iconography of Triumph of the Will.)
- Common Core is an attack on the very foundation of all that is good in American education, "cursive handwriting."
- The Common Core “puts children on a treadmill to becoming scared, obedient workers for the global economy. The constant exhortation to teachers and students is ‘You’re not good enough for the market economy!’” (Susan Ohanian)
- “All four major organizations responsible for CCSS from inception for its principal development– the National Governors Association (NGA), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), Achieve, and Student Achievement Partners– have received in total $147.9 million from Bill Gates for a variety of purposes, $32.8 million of which is expressly earmarked to advance CCSS. One man is purchasing his view of what American education should be." (Mercedes Schneider)
- And you thought that only Glen Beck and the far right knew how to draw conspiracy flow charts? Not any more.
But Corespiracy is not serious politics. Corespiracy enthusiasts talk mainly to each other, in a language that only a fellow true believer would appreciate and understand. In the late 1800s, the old German socialist August Bebel offered the memorable aphorism that anti-Semitism was the “socialism of fools," a thoroughly impoverished and completely misguided understanding of power in German society that was blinded by its own rage and prejudice. As such, Corespiracy is a “populism of fools." To the extent that Rick Hess is correct that Corespiracy and Common Core politics pose a problem for Republican politicians (see his most recent contribution in this vein in point three of this post), the problem lies not with the Common Core itself, but with a Republican Party that lacks authority figures who are prepared to lay down clear lines of demarcation between the party and its fringes, as William F. Buckley once did with the John Birch Society. (Should it surprise anyone that the John Birch Society is among the most avid Corespiracists?) A Republican Party in the thrall of Corespiracy enthusiasts is a Republican Party that will not be trusted by the American people to rule.
The Real Threat to the Common Core
And yet the Common Core is in real peril. Its implementation and roll-out have been so poorly handled that the brand itself is in danger of being irreparably damaged in the eyes of the one group it can not afford to alienate, American teachers.
Ignoring the history of America’s first standards movement of the 1990s, state education departments and the US Education Department (USED) have gone straight from Common Core performance standards to standardized exams that are purportedly aligned to the Common Core, leaping over all of the essential intermediary steps in the process. Everything that is necessary for teachers to be able to prepare their students to meet new, more challenging standards – high quality curricula based on the Common Core, teaching resources and materials to use with those curricula, professional development in teaching to the Common Core and time for teachers to work together to produce Common Core aligned lesson plans – has been passed over in a mad rush to subject students to new standardized exams. As a result, it is only the most exceptional schools, those with the capacity to provide extensive resources and supports on their own, that have been able to do the necessary work to educate students to the Common Core standards.
Between USED and state education departments, close to a half-billion dollars has been poured into the two consortia that will produce Common Core aligned exams, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter, Balanced Assessment Consortium. A very small fraction of that sum has been spent on the necessary building blocks for teaching and learning to the Common Core standards. New York was so intent upon introducing new tests aligned to the Common Core that last year it jumped the gun on the consortia exams (which New York has helped to fund, but are still in the development stage), and bought and used another set of standardized exams, which were produced by the for-profit Pearson**** company and were sold as being “Common Core aligned." Predictably, unprepared students across the state performed rather poorly on the exam, as the numbers of students falling below standard mushroomed. Worse, the New York State Education Department and local school districts seem intent on using those flawed results in decisions on student promotions and graduations and in student growth measures for teacher evaluations. There should be little surprise, therefore, that the Common Core has been associated in the minds of educators, parents and students with these exams, and the altogether inappropriate use of their results in high stakes decisions – to the detriment of the Common Core.
There are two problems here. First, the lesson of the first standards movement was that, when you go straight from standards to assessment, skipping all other steps, the assessment determines what is taught, narrowing and truncating what should be a rich and robust curriculum. This seems to be entirely lost on policymakers, both at USED and in the state education departments. Second, a top-down and punitive concept of accountability, developed in response to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), is being superimposed upon the Common Core. While the evidence of the flaws in such a concept is bountiful a dozen years into NCLB, State Education Department and school districts are invested in systems in which all of the accountability devolves upon schools, educators and students, and none on themselves. Earlier this year, when Randi Weingarten made a proposal for a moratorium on the use of Common Core aligned exams in high-stakes decisions for students and teachers, on the seemingly commonsense premise that we should get the assessments right before we count on them in making decisions about the futures of schools, educators and students, Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change was quick to issue a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” response.*****
At the end of day, it is not opponents’ corespiracy attacks which threaten the Common Core project, but the failure of its self-avowed supporters among the nation’s decision-makers to do their share of the work necessary for its success. If the Common Core is to be saved, responsibility for its full and proper implementation must be shared by all actors in the field of American education, with the USED, state education departments and local school district stepping up to the plate to ensure that schools and teachers are provided with the tools and resources they need to teach to the Common Core. Anything less will mean the loss of a rare opportunity to improve the quality of American education for a generation.
- Leo Casey
* The Common Core standards for Science and Social Studies are still in the development and adoption stage. It appears that the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers have decided that they will not incorporate any Social Studies standards into the official Common Core standards, out of a fear that Social Studies would engender too much political controversy. Given the centrality of Civics to the very purpose of public education, this failure of will is most unfortunate.
** A number of major changes were made in the final Common Core ELA and Mathematics Standards as a result of feedback from the teacher teams. Among the changes implemented as a result of teacher team feedback:
- Moved from standards for multiple grade bands to grade by grade standards in K-8
- Refined, clearer progressions in standards
- Extension of narrative writing into grades 9-12
- Addition of literacy standards for Social Studies and Science
- Use of illustrative, rather than restrictive, texts
- Better integration of number competencies and improved pace of learning, K-5
- Change Algebra standards to make problem solving and concrete application more prevalent, 6-8
- Better explanation of level of sophistication expected by standards, better connection between concepts and skills, 9-12
- Added sections on adapting standards for English Language Learners and students with special needs
**** The fact that there is a history of problems with Pearson exams in New York City and New York State – most notably, the use of the unintelligible ‘pineapple and hare race’ questions – has only fed skepticism about the quality of the tests.
***** For the record, Weingarten is the President of the Albert Shanker Institute, as well as the President of the American Federation of Teachers.