Monday, September 15, 2014

Common Core: What It Is, and What It Is Not

Pundits, politicians, policy makers, parents, and teachers are in an uproar over the Common Core standards. On the political right pundits and politicians such as Michelle Malkin and Boby Jindal view Common Core as an unconstitutional federal takeover of public education intended to propagandize children and turn them into a horde of gay/secular/socialist hobgoblins. On the political left critics such as Karen Wolfe and Diane Ravitch view Common Core as a federal/corporate ploy to dismantle public education and hand it over to private interests that will turn our children into sociopathic, Monsanto loving, fascist automatons.*

Now, what I've done hear is create two straw men. I created a caricature of critics from both the right and the left (although my caricature of the right was less of a stretch). I've glossed over some fine detail and nuance in the arguments presented above by Common Core critics and it would behoove the reader to click on the links above to examine the minutia of their positions. Nonetheless, I set up these straw men because the average consumer of outlets such as MSNBC and Fox News will likely come away believing in such caricatures. Unfortunately, as with most everything in the universe, the truth is rather opaque and not very amenable to dichotomous thinking.

Common Core was developed by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSS), with substantial funding coming from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.** It is not a federal program, nor has the federal government threatened to withdraw educational funding from states that do not adopt the standards. Individual states voluntarily adopt the standards and decide how to implement and assess them. States that adopt Common Core are welcome to add to the standards as well. However, there is a federal initiative known as Race to the Top which offers grants to states that adopt the standards, among other conditions. This is certainly an incentive, but it is hardly the coercion that critics make it out to be, nor is it in any way a mandate.  Additionally teachers, principals, parents, and students all contributed towards the development of the standards to varying degrees.

Common Core is a set of standards and nothing more. It is not a curriculum. A curriculum is a planned course of study and student teacher interactions centered on a specific subject or topic and includes lessons, materials, activities, assessments, and approaches. The main purpose of a curriculum is to create a continuing, coherent, educative experience for pupils. Meeting standards is a secondary purpose and can be easily accommodated without diluting the curriculum.  It is not a testing regime. A testing regime consists of the physical standardized tests, and an entire state and district level bureaucracy that designs, administers, and evaluates the tests. Common Core doesn't specify content, materials, or teaching methods. What the standards actually specify are specific skills that students should be able to demonstrate at the end of each grade. For example, one of the grade 6-8 literacy standards for social studies states:
[Students will be able to] determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
Teachers have widely varying degrees of latitude in terms of choosing the materials, content, and practices he or she believes are most appropriate for meeting any standards. For the most part in this country curriculum is designed at the individual school and district level, and testing regimes are developed and coordinated at the state level. Common Core changes none of that. The Common Core Initiative is currently developing standardized tests specifically aligned to the standards, but states are free to develop their own tests aligned to the standards. Common Core does not mandate that states add more standardized tests to their testing regimes. Most states are simply replacing existing standardized tests with Common Core aligned tests. Similarly, text book companies are developing materials aligned to Common Core, which schools and districts are free to purchase and use, or not. Like curriculum development the purchasing of books occurs at the district and school level. All of this is par for the course in public education. States and text book companies regularly align testing regimes and materials to state standards and local curricula. 

The real problems with Common Core come down to implementation and ideology. At the state level governors and legislators are using Common Core as a way to push their specific ideologies about what public education should look like. Some states are tying the standards to teacher evaluations, while other states use it as a way to justify the shifting of funding away from public school towards charter schools and voucher programs. Most prominently, many states are moving way too quickly to overhaul their testing regimes putting undue stress on teachers, students, and parents across the country. All of this is being done in the name of Common Core, but there is nothing in the Common Core standards themselves that calls for any such things to be done.

The lesson to take away from all of this is that the debate over Common Core standards has largely (although not exclusively) been motivated by political ideology. If you're a parent with children currently in school then you should be worried about how quickly and haphazardly your local schools, districts, and states are implementing Common Core, but the standards themselves are not the problem. If you have a problem with specific content that your children bring home, then meet with their teachers. If you have problems with the nature of the standardized tests that your children are required to take, then contact your local state legislator and petition your state government. If you have a problem with the federal government offering financial incentives to states for anything related to public education, then contact your congressperson. Absolutely none of the above problems are the result of the Common Core standards themselves. Those are problems which are deep, old, and endemic to public education in the United States.

*In the interest of full disclosure I work as a substitute teacher and I'm certified to teach at the secondary (middle school/high school) level and admit that I am more sympathetic to the critiques of Wolfe and Ravitch than I am to those of Malkin and Jindal.

**The link above is to a thorough piece from Amy Golod at US News and World Report debunking myths about the Common Core Standards. Any factual statements in this post about the Common Core standards are from this source. The facts are easily corroborated here, here, and here.

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