So here is what many of you have been waiting for. Why are so many people so against the Common Core? Interestingly, when you look at anti-Common Core media (from Colbert to Ravitch), much of what people are complaining about has little to do with the Common Core itself. And although some concerns are valid, others are based on misinformation, politics, and misunderstanding. Other concerns expressed as concern about the “Common Core” are actually more about Race to the Top and other aspects about American education.
In fact, I am very excited about the questions about American education that are being raised by Common Core implementation; unfortunately, I am also concerned that un-informed, politicized protest will not only be unproductive, but also counter-productive for our teachers and students.
While some of the concerns listed below are valid, they are not insurmountable. I don’t think it would be wise to totally give up on the Common Core for these reasons (especially since that would likely put teachers and students back in the position of having to get used to a whole new, and likely equally untested, set of standards and curriculum). Instead, we need to learn what we can from these mistakes and work toward more effective implementation of future reform. And we need to advocate for a workable process for revision as needed.
Concerns about Common Core
Common Core is not developmentally appropriate.
I have heard this concern most often targeting the early grades, which is of concern to us as parents of elementary school students. The research is still being done on this. At this point, our best bet is to trust teachers to use their professional judgment to bridge the gap between where students are, what is developmentally appropriate and what is expected in the Common Core. We should also advocate for the Common Core/Maryland College and Career Readiness Standards to be adapted as new research becomes available.
We should think of the Common Core as being more like the Constitution (a living, changeable document) than a Bible (sacred text). It would be a mistake to view ANY standards or curriculum document as infallible an immutable. We have to be willing to make changes as knowledge demands change and new research becomes available. At this point, there is no process in place that I know of for teachers, parents, and scholars to suggest and make changes, so that is something that needs to be put in place. Until then, I’m trusting teachers to use professional judgment.
Common Core math is too confusing.
The new approach to teaching math is different and will require professional development for teachers. Part of the problem is that textbook companies and teachers are trying to apply old models of skill and drill to a new model that was originally designed to be taught through highly collaborative discussion of very few carefully chosen questions and problems that allow deep processing, conceptualization and problem solving.
A common problem in education is how to bring an innovative idea to scale without losing its power, authenticity, and effectiveness. These articles explain the math issue very nicely:
o Common Core Math Is Not Fuzzy: USA Today
o Confusing Math Homework? Don't Blame the Common Core
Common Core is liberal indoctrination
This just isn’t true. There isn’t anything in the Standards about what books students need to read, what topics they should be taught in science and social studies, or what ideologies should be emphasized.
When someone posts about a “shocking Common Core lesson about _______,” the lesson may address Common Core standards for reading and writing, but the teacher chose the shocking topic on her own. That is not a problem with CCSS, but an isolated incident of poor professional judgment. It would be a mistake to blame the CCSS or place more restrictions on teacher autonomy because of those isolated incidents that go viral (and are likely misunderstood, and at times discredited on Snopes).
Common Core is untested
This is a major concern for some scholars, and I suspect it is a result of politics and economics. Politicians want a quick fix that they can show voters, and while philanthropic foundations and education testing and textbook companies were willing to help pay for the creation of standards, they were not likely willing to pay for a lengthy testing and roll out period.
Although the components of CCSS were tested individually and based on research, the continuum as a whole was not piloted before adoption and implementation. Some districts who had a slow roll out and implementation were able to work out the kinks and adapt curriculum and instruction more effectively to the new standards, but implementation was rocky for those who did it more quickly or had fewer resources for adapting curriculum and doing adequate professional development.
Concerns about American Education
In studying people’s concerns about Common Core, I noticed that although people use the phrase “Common Core” what they are actually against is often something else. I am actually very excited about these very important concerns being raised; these are conversations that we need to be having, but erroneously labeling them as “Common Core” will confuse the conversation. Here are the main issues of concern that often get mis-labeled as “Common Core.”
Commercialization of education
One major concern raised in this new age of education reform is the question about the extent to which testing and textbook companies should be involved in determining education policy. Because schools often rely on these companies to provide innovative, high quality products, there should certainly be a level of partnership between these companies and our schools.
However, we also need to realize that these companies are more interested in profit than learning. While profit and learning don’t have to be mutually exclusive, we can’t assume a product is high quality and beneficial for supporting student learning simply because it looks polished and claims to be Common Core aligned. All too often, school districts pour money into educational resources, technology, and textbooks that teachers find to be unusable in the actual classroom. Many of my colleagues and I found it much more effective to create our own materials designed to meet the needs of our students. The emerging questions about commercialization of education certainly merit further discussion.
Over-emphasis on standardized testing
Most of the complaints about Common Core that I have studied are actually complaints about PARCC (the new tests aligned to CCSS) and our society’s obsession with standardized testing in general. This is HUGE and may merit a whole separate series in the future. Talk to any parent, teacher, or student, and it seems that they all agree that too much instructional time is devoted to standardized testing.
As a teacher, I found testing data to be almost unusable to inform me about student ability and needs beyond telling me how good they were at standardized test taking. Any effective teacher is continually assessing students using informal observations as well as formal authentic classroom assessments that provide them with detailed understanding of what students can and cannot do.
As a parent, I am much more interested in what the classroom teacher who sees my child working everyday has to say about her progress than I am about her standardized test scores. I’m not saying those scores don’t matter. I am relieved that my daughter does well because I know that standardized tests are gatekeepers in our world that determine who has access to higher education and job opportunities. But I AM saying that standardized tests are not the most important data I have about my child’s progress.
So who is the testing for? Why is there so much testing? Standardized tests are a directly tied to the politics and business of education, our nation’s obsession with quantitative data as a means of making “objective” decisions, and a major shift in education policy away from access and equality toward evaluation and accountability.
Based on the notion that schools can be run more efficiently using business principals, those outside the field of education needed a way to quantify, measure, and compare educational outcomes. However, many are questioning this approach to solving the problems in public education on the premise that our students are not products and schools are not factories. As I said, this is a huge complex issue, but it is very exciting to see so many people questioning the assumption that increased testing is the best way to improve outcomes.
Over-emphasis on evaluation and accountability
This is related to the above obsession with data, but it goes beyond students to teachers as well. A major part of Race to the Top had to do with tying teacher evaluations to student outcomes. This led to a massive overhaul of teacher evaluation.
Much of this push is based on research by economists into a method of statistical analysis known as Value Added Measures that claims to be able to measure teacher effectiveness based on student test scores. I won’t get into the controversial mathematics involved (especially since Maryland has opted not to use VAM), but the end result in Maryland has been to burden teachers with very complex and time-consuming expectations for documenting student learning and professional behaviors.
Many teachers that I know have either spent inordinate amounts of time on this documentation or suffered low evaluations for opting to focus their energy on classroom instruction instead. Because it is easy for ineffective teachers to manufacture the artifacts needed to receive a high score, the system seems to be more of a time consuming burden than an effective method of holding teachers accountable. Furthermore, many are concerned that the burden of this evaluation system is taking time away from true professional growth and development.
Increased rigor and assessment will not lead to improved equal outcomes without increased resources and improved instruction
Another major concern for those interested in social justice and equality in education is the irrational assumption that raising expectations and accountability for disadvantaged students and struggling schools will somehow lead to improved outcomes. Outcomes will not change if we do not address the socio-cultural issues and economic disadvantages facing students in our lowest performing schools.
The current approaches to school funding and working conditions ensure that these schools struggle to provide adequate facilities and attract high quality teachers. Claiming that the Common Core and accompanying assessments will improve education and close the achievement gap is enormously misleading.
As you can see we have some major issues to address in American public education, and they are worth wrestling with because the idea of free and equal education is worth fighting for. But if we are going to have productive conversations about these issues, we need to make sure we know what we are talking about. Although there are some changes that may need to be made to the Common Core, the Common Core itself is NOT the real enemy. Effective teachers CAN use the Common Core along with effective pedagogy to create meaningful and engaging learning environments for our students.
However, we have to make sure that they have the access to time, professional development, and resources to do this successfully. And we need to ask hard questions about the role and structure of standardized testing and teacher evaluation in this process. In our next post, I will provide some ideas and resources that we can use to support teachers and students during this frustrating and exciting time of transition.