Defending the Common Core

By Catherine Gewertz — August 21, 2013 3 min read
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Will the Common Core State Standards eliminate cursive writing? Will they create a national warehouse of student data? Those are a couple of the questions that have created hot spots in the debate about the common core. Common-core supporters offer their answers in a paper released today.

“Common Core State Standards 101,” issued by the Alliance for Excellent Education here in Washington, takes on six of the questions that have fueled ongoing skepticism of the new standards.

On the question of whether the standards eliminate cursive writing, the Alliance says no. But it also says the standards are “silent” on cursive, focusing instead on what students write, and language conventions like grammar and spelling. Students are expected to use technology in writing, but the standards do not “preclude or discourage” the retention of cursive writing, the paper says. States can also use the “15 percent rule"—which allows them to add more standards to the common core—to ensure that cursive writing gets continued attention, the paper says.

Another question tackled here is whether the standards eliminate Shakespeare. It’s a curious one, since works by Shakespeare are actually among the tiny handful of texts required by the standards. Most of the controversy, to the extent I’ve seen it, revolves not around Shakespeare, but whether the standards displace important fiction with nonfiction (something I’ve written about). For the record, the Alliance reiterates that the standards expect half of the reading students do in elementary school across all subjects to be fiction and half nonfiction, a tilt that increases to 70 percent nonfiction—again, across all subject areas combined—by high school.

The paper takes on the question of what algebra is required by the common standards. But it poses it this way: Will students be able to take algebra in 8th grade? The answer supplied here is yes, since the standards leave various math pathways open to districts. The more controversial question, as we’ve heard the debate out there, is whether the standards expect students to study algebra in 8th grade. It’s a point of contention, since some districts aim for that mark. But although students could study algebra in 8th grade under the standards, it’s not the only way they can go.

A myth-versus-fact section of the common core website says that the standards “accommodate and prepare students for Algebra 1 in 8th grade, by including the prerequisites for this course in grades K‐7. Students who master the K‐7 material will be able to take Algebra 1 in 8th grade. At the same time, grade 8 standards are also included; these include rigorous algebra and will transition students effectively into a full Algebra 1 course.”

Another hot point in the standards debate concerns the use of student data. The Alliance paper asks if the common core will create a national database on students. It answers no, explaining that states can continue to use their current privacy procedures for student data. The two assessment consortia will collect background information on students, such as their race and whether they’re special education students, but that will be used only to report the achievement performance of subgroups. “They will not collect data that will enable anyone to identify individual students,” the paper says.

The bulk of the Alliance paper recounts the history of the common standards, clearly from an advocate’s point of view. When it gets to the federal Race to the Top competition—a key flash point in the opposition to the standards—the Alliance says that the “states were eager to support the standards, and the federal government, which had no role in the development of the standards, was eager to back the states,” so it gave state applicants for Race to the Top points (40 out of 500 possible) if they had adopted the standards. It also cites a Center on Education Policy survey that found that while Race to the Top might have hastened states’ adoption of the common standards, it didn’t influence whether or not they would adopt them.

The paper casts an optimistic light on the work being done in many quarters to help implement the common core, touching on the instructional resources being created by the two national teachers’ unions, the two state assessment consortia, and by states themselves. It notes that “commercial publishers are redoing their textbooks and digital materials to align to the standards,” a line that will doubtless prompt snickers in some quarters, where publishers’ claims of “alignment” to the common core are being met with skepticism, to put it mildly. We’ve written, in fact, about the dubious levels of alignment in such materials.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.