Education Opinion

When, How and With Whom to Battle the Common Core?

By Nancy Flanagan — January 09, 2014 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

There are several reasons why I think it’s a mistake--and dangerous--to join forces with people who are looking to take down the Common Core as a liberal plot to infiltrate the minds of children. The primary one is that--as my mama used to say--you’re known by the company you keep.

Item: I’m in another state, visiting my daughter. We’re getting pedicures. My pants are rolled up to my knees, my feet sitting in warm water, and the nice, 40-something woman wielding the metal clippers says this: So you’re a teacher, huh? What do you think about this Common Curriculum thing? My daughter is a straight-A student, but this Common Curriculum worries me. I heard it’s a lot harder. I worry that her grades will drop and she won’t be able to get into college. And I really want her to have that opportunity, because I didn’t.

Item: A National Board Certified math teacher, whose children attend a Catholic school, sends me a copy of a letter sent around to parents: Scholars fear that the tobedeveloped science and history standards will “inculcate students into a materialist metaphysics that is incompatible with, the spiritual realities” and “promote the easy moral relativism, tinged with a pervasive antireligious bias, that is commonplace in collegiate history departments today.”

There are lots of reasons to oppose the Common Core. But disaggregating the good reasons from the outright baloney is important. When we join the crazies, we reinforce their craziness and further muddy the discourse, if that’s even possible. Opponents of the Common Core might get what they want--the end of the CCSS --but other, very negative consequences in addition: further damage to, and fear-based withdrawal from, public schools, for starters.

Points to ponder:

#1) The Common Core is confusing to the general public. Many people who have boldly taken the anti-CC side are confused about the whole idea of curricular frameworks or the purpose of academic standards. They just want to be mad at someone (usually Obama or their state ED or legislators who pushed RTTT policies forward).

So, not to put too fine a point on it, they make stuff up, about moral relativism and materialist metaphysics. Just like David Coleman and the CC cheerleading team made stuff up, about this movement being led by states and the standards being created by teachers. We need much less making stuff up, and much more clear information about what national/state/local standards can and can’t do.

#2) Textbook publishers have had control over a kind of de facto national curriculum for decades. The rest of the nation studied what big states with an approved textbook list (like TX) determined were the “right” topics and sequencing, because publishers shaped their textbook content toward sales in big states. Americans have been feeding out of the same curricular trough for years. Proof of that is the evergreen dust-up over algebra in 8th grade. Repeating--we already have a national conception of what should be taught when.

The CCSS are just an updated, one-sided version of what we’ve already had and found wanting. If we had a better idea than “raise standards,” we might get somewhere. If we’re stuck battling Coleman and Achieve and Arne, without that infinitely more compelling idea about how to improve curriculum and instruction in public education, we’re nowhere.

#3) There is a significant subset of teachers who like the Common Core, and find it useful. Keep in mind that the modal number of years of experience that teachers now have is one-point-something. We do not know precisely how many teachers support/reject the CCSS, but in my work in professional development and teacher leadership, I meet teachers all the time who say they like the CC and appreciate having a K-12 framework. Most of them are young, and find the structure, if not each individual standard, useful.

My life’s work is respecting the perspectives of teachers. I don’t see it as valuable to try to convince teachers that the CC standards are useless, or are a boondoggle created by a cadre of academics and publishers (even though that’s true). When teachers say they like the Common Core, I listen. And encourage them to put the focus on honing their personal judgment about what their students need, right now. Something that gets easier and clearer, every year you teach.

On the other hand, I have never--ever--met a teacher who supports the testing aligned with the standards, or the collection and uses of data generated from those tests.

Over-testing is a much better leverage point for change action. Without testing, the CC is rendered mostly toothless--just another set of so-so standards.

#4) Standards, in and of themselves, aren’t inherently bad. Remember the first set of national standards, developed by actual teachers through their disciplinary organizations, in the late 80s and 90s--the ones that launched the Math Wars, the Phonics vs. Whole Language Wars, the George-Washington-Is-Barely-Mentioned Wars? You can find some of these old standards here.

Those national standards were created by educators, offered voluntarily, and not attached to standardized tests or teacher evaluations. They were written (mostly) for the right reasons. Ideas about pedagogical content knowledge were changing in subject-area fields, and disciplinary organizations thought teachers--their members--across the country could improve their practice using new conceptions. Professional educators did argue, endlessly, about them--What is the most important knowledge? Do sequencing and instructional strategies matter?--but that’s a good thing. It represented teachers using their hard-won experience to take control of their professional work.

I used the national standards in music daily, for over a decade, and found they expanded and enhanced my practice. They provided a great tool for change and improvement. But they were voluntary (so I could pick and choose), teacher-led, clustered in three developmental levels rather than based on graded benchmarks. They were not aligned with pre-packaged, mandated curriculum and national tests.

Why did the old national standards fade, and the new CCSS rise to prominence? Politics and money, of course. It was all about profit, power and the bone-deep conviction that teachers can’t be trusted with their own work.

I would lie down in front of a school bus to preserve public education. But I don’t think the Common Core is anything more than just another money-making edu-scheme. And that’s what I said to the nail technician: Worry most about testing, and how test data impacts your daughter’s goals. Big policy ideas come and go in education--encourage your daughter to fall in love with learning, to challenge herself, rather than see the Common Core as a barrier to her future. Discuss your concerns with your daughter’s teachers, too. They may have some ideas about what she most needs to learn, her strengths and her future.

Agreeing with the folks who see the Common Core as tearing children from the arms of their parents is a dangerous business. Let’s have a rational conversation about the uses and misuses of content standards.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.