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Education Opinion

The Big Common-Core Lie

By Guest Blogger — February 18, 2016 5 min read
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Note: Alexander M. Hoffman, the president of AleDev Research and a former high school teacher, is guest blogging this week. You can contact him at ahoffman@aledev.com.

I am a fan of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I look at them and see the very themes and lessons that I’ve been preaching about for decades. I see in them the most important lessons that our schools should be putting at or near the center of their efforts.

(To be fair, I am a secondary school guy. I cannot evaluate the elementary school standards the way I can the middle and high school standards. I have to defer to those with real experience at the elementary school level as to the appropriateness of CCSS. I also think that the 70%-30% split on informational vs. literary texts was not really thought through well. I am glad to see a real valuing of informational text and the importance of considering all content areas when thinking about literacy, but 70/30 does not work when you get down to the nitty-gritty. Other than that, I am generally a CCSS fan.)

However, I think that there is a big lie right at the foundation of CCSS implementation. It is such a big lie that it makes me ask whether the esteem for CCSS—mine and that of others who like CCSS—is based on anything real, or if I am just projecting what I want to see. Here is how I see it.

If the Common Core State Standards really raise the bar on rigor, they must do so in every grade. CCSS laid out, all at once, ambitious new standards for each grade. By analogy, imagine that that means 20% more learning each grade—it is really more complicated than that, but this is just a simplified analogy to explain the point. That’s 20% in first grade, 20% more in second grade, etc., etc. CCSS assumes that children enter fifth grade with all the learning of fourth grade (which was built upon the learning of third, second and first grades).

Add all those 20%s up, and sixth grade CCSS has a very different starting point that what it replaced. Within this simplified analogy, CCSS sixth grade is really like pre-CCSS seventh grade. That’s an incredible difference.

Now, consider the amazing work done by Carol Burris and others in Rockville Centre to “level up” curriculum in the 1990s as a strategy to attack the achievement gap. They wanted all students to take Algebra in eighth grade, but they knew it would take a lot of work to get there. They traced math instruction back through earlier grades to figure out what they would need to fix and realized they had to go all the way back to fourth grade. The district took a planning and training year, with central office leaders and teachers working together to figure out what was needed—but that did not get everyone into Algebra. That just fixed fourth grade. Then, when those kids moved up to fifth grade, they were on pace for Algebra. They fixed math instruction in each grade, as this cohort of students made their way to eighth grade. Each subsequent grade built on the years of improvements that came before for these children. Then, and only after all those years, the first year of universal 8th grade Algebra finally came.

Our CCSS implementation has been nothing like that.

Instead, we have rolled out CCSS all at once. Year 1 of CCSS instruction in first grade is also Year 1 of CCSS instruction in sixth grade. How is this even possible??! How can children who have not had the (presumed) benefit of grades 1-5 of CCSS-based curriculum and instruction possibly be ready for sixth grade CCSS-based curriculum and instruction? In fact, the further up the grade ladder you go, the more outlandish that idea becomes. How could last year’s new ninth graders possibly be ready for ninth grade CCSS, when they didn’t have eight previous years of CCSS-based curriculum and instruction?

If the Common Core State Standards—the actual grade-by-grade standards available to all at the corestandards.org website—is actually what it was advertised to be, then rolling it out all at once inevitably undermines it at the higher grades. That undermining begins as early as first or second grade, and gets worse each year.

Alternatively, if the new curriculum, materials and tests (that we are told are CCSS-aligned) are the least bit workable in middle and upper grades today, then they necessarily have bailed on the promised rigor of CCSS. That is, if the jump from last year’s pre-CCSS curriculum to the new curriculum is manageable for students, then the new curriculum must not actually be aligned with CCSS in the middle and upper grades.

Thus, one of these two must be true:

  • The implementation of CCSS is a lie, in that the new curriculum and assessments are not actually CCSS.
  • CCSS itself is a lie, in that it is not really rigorous at the middle and upper grades.

Now, in reality, CCSS is not a huge step up in rigor—whatever that actually means—for all states and for all districts. Some states already had rigorous standards, on a par with CCSS. Even in states without such standards, there are many districts that have long exceeded their states’ standards. For such districts, The Big Common Core Lie is easy to explain: CCSS is not a big deal because such districts have been operating at that level of rigor for years, perhaps even surpassing it.

But what about the other districts? Either,

  • their required rollout of CCSS at all grades at the same time is doomed to fail,
  • they are are not faithfully rolling out CCSS at every grade, or,
  • CCSS is not actually that rigorous at every grade (relative to previous standards, curriculum and instruction).

Based on my own teaching experience, I believe that CCSS actually is a big jump for many states and districts—a jump far too big to be possible in every grade at once. Thus, while I am fan of the actual Common Core State Standards, I do not believe this rushed kind of implementation (i.e., one that is not rolled up grade-by-grade) is going to help anyone. It does a disservice to CCSS. More importantly, it does a disservice to the very students whose schools the authors of CCSS hoped to impact.

--Alexander M. Hoffman

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.