A Conversation about Common Core

After a year of grappling with the new Common Core standards, I feel mixed. I oppose the new Common Core assessments because they’re all part of privatization, top-down control of schools, and high-stakes testing — all those things that have come to be known as “corporate education reform.”

But I’m not sure I’m against the Common Core standards. Yes, they’re deeply flawed. They are copyrighted by a private sector organization, which means the public — that’s you and me — has no control over their content. On the other hand, I think national standards make sense. They are a way to communicate to parents what their kids are expected to be learning, and we definitely need that. Having just one set of standards also makes it easier to develop and plan curriculum at lower cost. So I’m asking myself: might it make sense to keep the standards, but ditch the high-stakes assessments?

That’s why I was excited when I saw a friend start a Facebook conversation on the topic. With the permission of the participants, I’m reposting it here — not as a debate, or the last word on the subject, but as part of the ongoing conversation on what kind of education real parents want for their kids.

Zara: I’m out of alignment with my Party and my usual allies on this one. I’ve had qualms about Common Core, especially about its sloppy, rushed, improperly-supported and counterproductive implementation. I was angry about the way it was developed, like so many recent reforms, without real educator influence and with much pressure by wealthy private individuals. However, Democrats and Progressives are very much disappointing me in their all-or-nothing, un-nuanced approach to the reality of CCS.

To throw it out wholesale at this point would be incredibly disruptive. How, instead, can we organize to make sure Common Core works the way it should? How can we assure that the test results are not used inappropriately and harmfully?

(They should NOT be tied to teacher evaluations – neither as sticks nor carrots. They should NOT be used to grade or rate schools. They should NOT be a trigger for punitive measures against schools. They SHOULD be a signal that a school needs greater, long-term, stable support – not short-term interventions (such as three-year grants) or threats of mass firings or closure.

CCS is deeply imperfect (as I understand it). The assessments are even less perfect (as I understand them) and the profit to be made from them is troubling. But I don’t believe they’re the educational, social-justice napalm my friends do. And the response from my own corner of the ring strikes me as short-sighted, stubborn, slightly paranoid and possibly harmful to our school systems, given the phase of CCS we have already reached.

I know I’ll get criticized by my allies for being ignorant or co-opted or some other unhappy thing. I’m not looking forward to it, but I felt I had to speak up – under my own name – no matter how unpopular or suspect it might make me in the anti-reform circles I generally respect so well.

Kim: People I’ve talked with would rather revert to standards we had in place prior to CCSS, and then with educator input, tweak those. And then there are others who really value a national set of standards, but they need to be developmentally appropriate, created by educators, and minimal so as not to drive everything happening in schools. Also, Pearson and Gates need to be uninvolved.

Sandi: Zara, I agree with you! I want my kids to have the same expectations and learning opportunities in our public school kids that the kids in the best public and private schools across the nation offer. If that takes a set of “standards” then so be it. I’ve always agreed to the concept, but not this current incarnation of the implementation and tests.

Recess is being cut even more than before, and kids’ progress is charted and managed like vacuum sales results, project based learning is gone in some places, and pre-scripted curriculum is rampant.

Teachers are not truly being allowed to develop curriculum to meet the standards, but are being told what to teach, when, and how.

The focus is still “learn this to pass the test,” not “learn to love learning and learn this because it is knowledge and process that will help you develop and find your passions.”

Kristin:  I’ve been thinking the same thing as you, Zara. There is benefit to be had in common state standards. And yes, changing them NOW would disrupt kids for another two to five years. On the other hand, though, they are copyrighted and can’t be tweaked.

Kim: Teacher driven education is key, and to let the testing madness continue is to let the community believe that test scores matter in ways that they do not. As Sandi points out, the testing is the serious problem. The standards are flawed, but I bet we can find flaws in all standards. And so it goes back to data collection, excessive time at the computer, too much emphasis on test scores, not enough time on subjects that aren’t tested, and so on.

Thanks to everybody for letting me post your thoughts. Readers, what do you think?

By dotmatchbox at flickr [CC-BY-SA-2.0] , via Wikimedia Commons

By dotmatchbox at flickr [CC-BY-SA-2.0] , via Wikimedia Commons

2 responses to “A Conversation about Common Core

  1. Good to know. I haven’t even looked at the Common Core science standards yet, but I gather from your comment that the National Academy of Sciences already had a set of proposed standards, and Common Core just sort of overwrote them? That’s worrisome.
    I was also interested in what you had to say about the existing tests being discriminatory against ELL students. I notice with the Common Core testing that 90% of ELL students are supposed to fail in mathematics. To me, that points to a huge design flaw in the test! That is, whatever it’s measuring, it’s not math.
    As for the opaque switchover to the common core standards, yes indeed.

  2. Hi Kristin,

    Back in my teacher training days – last year! – I had to write a paper comparing the national and state standards for my subject area, which is high school science, and biology in particular. The existing national standards as proposed by the NAS are excellent, with only one or two minor holes IMO. The state standards were holier than Rosh Hashanah. Whole swaths of necessary material, zzzip, not in there.

    This seems to me to be a good argument for national standards: for the sake of completeness (and of course, some bozotic states are going to want to leave out evolution, right?). The reality in the classroom, however, is that in one school year one can cover only a pretty small fraction of “biology”, which means that the standards students have to meet for their one required year of biology had better be pretty damn low. The current Bio EOC test in Washington seems to me to be a pretty low bar, but it also is discriminatory against ELL students, and maps poorly onto the standards the state is supposed to be supporting (again, IMO).

    I guess put me down in the “pro-standards” camp, but the devil is in the details: who designs the standards? And who designs the assessments our children and students (and both) have to take to demonstrate competency on those standards? I like that the national standards were promulgated by a fairly transparent organization: the National Academy of Sciences, but the switch over to the “common core” standards seems considerably more opaque. This worries me.

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