Putting the Brakes on the Common Core


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Common CoreWhat follows is a guest post by Gordon Bonnet, author of the blog Skeptophilia.

If you want to get a near-violent response from 98% of current public school students, about 75% of teachers, and unknown (but probably large) percentage of parents, administrators, and various other folks associated with education, all you have to do is utter two words:  Common Core.

It’s a funny thing, really.  On the surface, it seems like such a good idea — creating a set of uniform standards, high ones, that establish what students at every level should know and should be able to do.  Of course, there’s the immediate knee-jerk reaction from both the Right and the Left — Right-Wingers resent the intrusion by the federal government into what rightfully should be state or local decision-making, and Left-Wingers hate the infringement that the new mandates will have on the freedom of teachers to teach as they see fit and as their students might need.

What I’ve found, though, is that lots of people from all sides, and (sadly) many of the people who comment the most loudly on the Common Core, are ignorant about what it really is — and ignorant, too, about what deeper, more subtle problems this movement engenders.  So maybe it’s time for some facts, before we get to the opinions (but don’t worry, those’ll come sooner or later).

The English and math standards — the ones currently driving the changes we’re seeing K-12 in 46 of the 50 states — can be viewed here (links to the English and math overviews, which contain additional links to the complete standards).  And even a careful reading will probably leave you little room for disagreement with any of what the standards, in their most general framing, say.  As most of my readers know, I’ve been a vocal critic of current trends in public education, and have not hesitated to speak my mind on the subject — but it’s hard to see how could you argue against statements like the following, from the English standards:

Through reading a diverse array of classic and contemporary literature as well as challenging informational texts in a range of subjects, students are expected to build knowledge, gain insights, explore possibilities, and broaden their perspective. Because the standards are building blocks for successful classrooms, but recognize that teachers, school districts and states need to decide on appropriate curriculum, they intentionally do not offer a reading list. Instead, they offer numerous sample texts to help teachers prepare for the school year and allow parents and students to know what to expect at the beginning of the year.

Likewise, the math standards seem equally commendable:

The standards stress not only procedural skill but also conceptual understanding, to make sure students are learning and absorbing the critical information they need to succeed at higher levels – rather than the current practices by which many students learn enough to get by on the next test, but forget it shortly thereafter, only to review again the following year.

Aubrey Neihaus, a specialist in teacher professional development, has some gentle but firm words for the naysayers on her website, I Support the Common Core:

One thing that  frustrates me the most when I’m reading the mainstream media’s handling of the Common Core is conflation. Too often, well-intentioned journalists publish pieces that never explain that the “Common Core” is a set of learning standards (see the rest of the title of the document: “State Standards”). This inaccuracy (and perhaps ignorance) leads to a conflation of learning standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Sometimes, teacher evaluation systems and data collection are also thrown in for good measure. We’ve all seen it, haven’t we? An article professing to be about the “Common Core” when it’s really about another element of education.

But therein lies the problem, doesn’t it?  As a veteran teacher — 27 years in the classroom, and counting — I have seen over and over again that you cannot unhook the standards from the curriculum, from the instructional methods, from the assessments, from how the data are used.  So however noble-minded Ms. Neihaus’s wish is, that we evaluate the Common Core based on the standards alone and not on how they are being implemented, that is a fallacious approach (and may be impossible in practice).

Let me give you an example from my own classroom.  In my AP Biology classes, we are currently studying statistical genetics.  I teach this topic as a process — typical problems involve calculating the likelihood of a trait showing up in the offspring, given a particular type of gene and certain information about the parents.  This decision (the standards for the topic) drives the instruction (how I present it), the assessment (how I design the problem sets and tests to see if the students have met the standards) and even the data (how I weight and score those assignments and tests).  If my standards were different — if, for example, I valued the students learning large numbers of terms, and memorizing examples of each genetic inheritance pattern, every single part of instruction would be different because of that decision.

So you can’t tease apart the standards from the other pieces of the puzzle, and something has got to drive the decision-making.  And the unfortunate bottom line is that in this case the assessments are the driver — because the data they generate are being used not only to evaluate students, but to evaluate teachers, administrators, schools, and entire school districts.

Diane Ravitch, whose stance on education I greatly admire, has said that she cannot support the Common Core because it is foisting an untested schema of education on schools by fiat, with the Race to the Top money as a carrot (although it bears mention that my school district’s share of the RTTT money was about $50,000 — one year’s salary for a first-year teacher, counting insurance and other benefits).  Much as I often agree with Ravitch, I think she doesn’t go nearly far enough.  However the standards themselves sound good, the Common Core’s implementation has been chaotic, with toxic effects on students, staff, and parents.  And lest you think that my including the parents is unjustified, a friend of mine with two daughters just last week sent a letter to her younger child’s principal saying that she is calling halt to the time the girl spends on Common Core homework a night.  An hour after dinner, every night, just for the math homework, is excessive…

… especially if you’re in third grade.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing has summarized the reasons for their opposition to the Common Core standards, but by far the most damning is that the greater rigor in the standards has translated into unrealistic and poorly-constructed tests:

In New York, teachers witnessed students brought to tears (Hernandez & Baker, 2013), faced with confusing instructions and unfamiliar material on Common Core tests.  New York tests gave fifth graders questions written at an 8th grade level (Ravitch, 2013).  New York and Kentucky showed dramatic drops in proficiency and wider achievement gaps.  Poor results hammer students’ self-confidence and disengage them from learning. They also bolster misperceptions about public school failure, place urban schools in the cross hairs and lend ammunition to privatization schemes.  If a child struggles to clear the high bar at five feet, she will not become a “world class” jumper because someone raised the bar to six feet and yelled “jump higher,” or if her “poor” performance is used to punish her coach.

The sad truth is that the powers-that-be have sold out the public education system to corporations like Pearson, Educational Testing Service, and CTB/McGraw-Hill, who have a long history of poor-quality products, scoring errors, and general incompetence.  The corporate test-designers are now making the decisions regarding what gets taught, and how — and the teachers and their students get dragged along behind, with as much decision-making power as a leaf in a windstorm.

Lest you think that I’m overstating my case, here, I recall vividly the last time I went through a sea change like this one — when then New York State Commissioner of Education Richard Mills launched his ill-conceived “Raise the Bar” revamping of the Regents Exams, the high school exit exams required for graduation.  One of the changes in my subject was that there were now four labs that were mandated — labs that had to be performed, by every student studying biology across New York State.  The four “state labs” are uniformly poorly written, and one of them has glaring factual errors, a problem I brought to the attention of the science specialist at the New York State Department of Education.

This initiated an increasingly hostile exchange of emails, with her defending the labs and claiming that in any case I had missed the deadline for commenting on them, and my stating that I didn’t care about deadlines but that I wasn’t going to teach my students something that was scientifically wrong.  I enlisted the help of Dr. Rita Calvo, professor of Human Genetics at Cornell University, who was entirely in support of my position.  All of our efforts were fruitless.  Finally I became angry enough that I said to the science specialist, “Do I understand correctly that the bottom line here is that you are telling me that I have to do this lab, mistakes and all, for no pedagogically sound reason, but simply because you’re in charge and you say so?”

And she wrote back one line:  “You got it.”

This spirit of top-down micromanagement, and disdain for the opinions and experience of the rank-and-file teacher, is still in evidence today.  Just last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan created a firestorm when he responded to criticism of the Common Core with a dismissive, and rather insulting, claim:

It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary.  You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.

The implication, of course, is that the only reason you could criticize the Common Core is if your own kid showed a drop in scores — and the only reason for that is that your kid isn’t as smart as you thought (s)he was.  Seriously, Mr. Duncan?  There couldn’t be another reason that scores drop, such as that the test questions are poorly written, like the idiotic “talking pineapple question” on the 2012 New York State eighth-grade reading assessment?  There couldn’t be another reason to criticize the standards, like the research of Tom Loveless, which found that the rigor of the standards has little effect on student achievement?

Loveless notes that there are three main arguments for having all public schools teach the same subjects at the same level of rigor and complexity. First, students will learn more if their learning targets are set higher. Second, students will learn more if the passing grade for state tests are set higher. Third, students will learn more if lesson plans and textbooks are all made more complex and rigorous through required high standards…

(N)one of those arguments holds enough validity to risk all that money and effort…  states with weak content standards, as judged by the American Federation of Teachers and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (not ideological bedfellows), had about the same average scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests as states with strong standards.

Schools will undoubtedly weather this chaos, as will teachers — with the exception of the increasing number of teachers who, tired of the frustration and the atmosphere of distrust, are finding other jobs or retiring if they can.  But I fear for the students — because, after all, we only get one shot at them.  They move through the system and out, and with luck, into careers and college and productive adult life, still with their curiosity and love for learning and enthusiasm intact.  The test-and-data driven model we are currently using is already showing signs of crushing those delicate mental constructs, of turning kids into anxious, think-inside-the-box exam bubblers who worry more about why they got an 84 instead of an 85 on the test than they do if they actually can apply what they learned — or (amazing thought!) enjoyed learning it.

I can only hope that enough of us are getting angry about the whole thing that maybe, maybe we can stop the whole thing in its tracks.  Not throw it out, necessarily; as I said, the standards alone aren’t necessarily bad.  But for crying out loud, let’s see what’s happening with implementation before we simply plunge on ahead.  Let’s remember that all of us — teachers, administrators, parents, and members of the state and federal departments of education — are supposed to be on the same side.

The side of the children.

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