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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Standards Opinion

Common Core Is a Meal Kit, Not a Nothingburger

By Rick Hess — May 13, 2021 5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
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I recently wrote about Tom Loveless’ terrific new book on the Common Core, Between the State and the Schoolhouse, and Tom’s conclusion that the Common Core did nothing to change classroom practice or boost academic achievement. Fittingly, the post on the always-contentious Common Core summoned more than the usual amount of feedback, “attaboys,” and denunciations. One response that I thought worth sharing was a cordial, thoughtful, but hard-hitting rebuttal from Caroline Damon, senior program officer at the Chamberlin Education Foundation. Caroline, who directs the foundation’s Instructional Leadership Community of Practice, argued that Tom and I were selling the Common Core short. I thought her argument worth sharing. See what you think.

—Rick

The other week, Rick Hess shared Tom Loveless’ take that perhaps, after more than a decade, the large-scale federal implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has amounted to little more than, in Hess’s words, “a big nothingburger.” The flaw in this line of thinking is that Common Core was never intended to be a burger at all, or any fully cooked meal that is immediately ready to academically nourish every child in America. Common Core, I would instead suggest, is a meal kit that provides beautiful nutrient-rich ingredients for a teacher to cook up—although, with this meal kit, it takes years to build the collective expertise to turn these new ingredients into Michelin-star teaching in every classroom.

The analogy has its limitations, of course. Meal kits are meant to make cooking easier, while Common Core promises no such thing. Instead, Common Core promotes a deeper and more rigorous set of learning goals, raising expectations for both students and teachers—and unlike a meal kit, Common Core arrived without an easy-to-follow recipe guide.

These factors help explain Loveless’ claim, shared by Hess, that “no convincing evidence exists that the standards had a significant, positive impact on student achievement.” While it is true that student achievement has not meaningfully improved at scale yet, the adoption of Common Core has led to the creation of higher-quality curricula, resources, and supports for educators, which has already improved teaching and learning in many classrooms across the country. Educational support organizations no longer needed to spread themselves thin trying to understand all 50 states’ divergent learning goals; they could instead focus on strengthening their expertise around one set of national standards and creating truly great offerings for educators.

Indeed, in the past decade, excellent new resources and trainings have been developed to help educators understand and apply Common-Core-aligned instruction. The educators I work with in Richmond, California, have leveraged these resources to build their own mastery around Common Core. They have attended UnboundEd Standards Institute, an immersive conference that builds educator expertise on standards, content, and curriculum; they have scoured Achieve The Core, an online hub of best-in-class resources to support educators with CCSS-aligned instruction; and they have sought professional learning from the numerous partners that are now offering high-quality CCSS-aligned training, such as Instruction Partners and TNTP. Additionally, sites like the Professional Learning Partner Guide and EdReports.org now exist to help educators to vet the quality and CCSS-alignment of resources. Educators across the country are increasingly taking advantage of these offerings: Standards Institute, for example, has grown from 500 educators when it first launched in 2016 to 1,600 in 2020.

Without these resources, many early CCSS trainings were ineffective, and the rapid rollout didn’t allow trainers to sufficiently build their own expertise. One longtime educator told me that she only truly understood the instructional shifts required by Common Core after attending Standards Institute last year—and she had been a CCSS trainer in 2011! Ten years later, we are all far better prepared to help educators translate the standards into meaningful shifts in classroom practice.

The educators I work with now use Common-Core-aligned materials every day. The schools our foundation supports have recently adopted new high-quality curricula in math and literacy—instructional materials that were created in the past decade as a direct result of Common Core. Adopting these curricula has led to substantive improvements in teaching and learning. Lessons now examine multidisciplinary, complex texts. Students (and teachers!) are building deeper understanding of mathematical concepts. And everyone is expected to cite evidence rather than broadly conjecture—a skill that too many adults have yet to master.

In the years ahead, we should double down on our investments to help teachers leverage the high-quality CCSS-aligned curricula and resources created in the past few years, rather than perpetuating a defeatist narrative that Common Core is a useless failure. Otherwise, we advance the idea that policymakers and educators should throw CCSS out altogether and start over—an approach that Loveless himself opposes. I’m glad he does, because this kind of pendulum swing in policy and rhetoric is exactly what leads teachers to disregard CCSS as another “this too shall pass” endeavor and instead return to Pinterest for instructional ideas and materials.

High-quality implementation of Common Core is sizzling in some schools, simmering in others, and, to the detriment of students, still defrosting in too many schools across America. As we move into a postpandemic phase of schooling, the education community must build on, not turn away from, the progress that has already been made. We must embrace a continuous improvement approach to ensure that high-quality, Common-Core-aligned instruction occurs in every classroom. To heal our children and our country, we must provide the rigorous, meaningful, and engaging academic experiences that all students deserve.

The meal kit is in the fridge. It’s time to get cooking.

Caroline Damon is a former high school English teacher and the current senior program officer at Chamberlin Education Foundation. Follow Caroline on Twitter at @carolinecdamon to learn more about her work with educators in Richmond, California.

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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.

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