Standards Opinion

Raising the Common Core Bar Until Nobody Can Get Over

By Nancy Flanagan — May 14, 2016 3 min read
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The legislature in my home state is currently on a roll. They’re planning to systematically destroy the largest public school system in Michigan, once a landmark district, drain it of resources, and make it super-easy for predatory, for-profit charters to move in. Plus other ultra-important stuff like preventing municipalities from banning plastic shopping bags, and keeping open-carry laws as open as possible.

And, of course, getting rid of Common Core State Standards.

I’m no advocate for the Common Core (although the thought of abandoning all the CCSS alignment work and pricey professional training teachers have been dragged through makes me shake my head). But here’s the funny thing: the Michigan House wants to adopt the old Massachusetts State Standards--the ones MA abandoned when they adopted...the Common Core.

I know. Confusing to the general public (and more than a few educators). Didn’t we already adopt the CCSS to raise standards? Aren’t teachers complaining about how unrealistic the standards and tests are--even harmfully inappropriate for our youngest learners? What do the old Massachusetts standards have that made them more--what, successful?--than the Common Core?

Good question. Quick answer: they were being utilized in Massachusetts. Fully 55% of adults in Massachusetts have at least an Associates’ degree, compared to 39% in Michigan. Poverty rates? MA is in the top ten, nationally--and Michigan’s in the bottom third.*

Massachusetts had a reputation for having excellent state-built education standards, but they (like many other states) dropped all their in-house work and jumped on the Common Core bandwagon, probably in hopes of tapping into the federal grant machine. And here’s the real irony: MA standards are very similar to the Common Core--especially the math standards.

So why is the MI Senate so hot to dump the Common Core?

The legislation was introduced by Sen. Patrick Colbeck, a longtime critic of Common Core who argues the change is needed because the standards haven't delivered on their promise of increased student achievement. "The goals that it has set out to achieve, which are improved student performance or academic achievement, it's not achieving," said Colbeck, R-Canton.

Colbeck and his media cheerleaders are making a classic mistake, here (albeit one that many citizens make): Believing that raising standards will raise achievement. Problems with low-achieving students? Don’t look for causes! Don’t bother trying solutions! Just raise the standards!

Besides, I’d be willing to bet that none of the senators co-sponsoring this bill have actually read the standards--either set. This is a political ploy--a jab at the folks who adopted the CCSS in the first place (the State Board), and a chance to poke some more at public schools, who have been diligently (and often reluctantly) rolling out the Common Core to meet the latest tests--whatever the legislature decided was the test du jour.

By shifting to the Massachusetts standards, the lawmakers think they can claim they raised the bar. So high that an increasing number of students can’t get over them. “Proving” that public schools are failing, and need to be replaced by for-profit charters.

I do agree with Colbeck and his anti-Common Core crew on two issues:

Colbeck says the state shouldn't bet on standards that aren't proven. "Beyond that, I think it's important from a government control perspective ... I'm actually very concerned about making sure that we have Michigan control of our education system."

Maybe adopting the unproven Common Core standards wasn’t such a great idea. But blaming them for not raising test scores is idiotic--and expecting another set of standards to do the job is worse.

Nobody seems to understand that the Common Core was the essential building block in crafting a set of national tests that would generate a comparative-data gold mine for would-be “reformers” and a boondoggle for publishers and professional training. There was a lot of happy talk about building your own curricula and using rich content to develop critical reading skills, but in the end, the Common Core was mostly about what Arne Duncan called “the same goalposts.”

Some people think the Common Core is what has ruined the teaching of English or forever screwed up arithmetic. We can argue about instructional, curricular and assessment issues--it’s my professional wheelhouse--but the Common Core is not what has broken public education. It’s the accountability movement and austerity funding. And maybe, in some states, a craven disregard for the children of the poor.

The Common Core is just another set of standards. We can raise and lower, tweak and replace standards until the cows come home, but until other things are in place (clean, safe classrooms, say--or books, supplies and experienced teachers), it’s an exercise in blah-blah over reality.

Most important: if we’re going to dump everything we’ve been working on, let’s put the rebuilding back in the hands of educators, not politicians.

* These data are presented in the same verbal format as the linked source, but somewhat confusing. Massachusetts is #10 on a list of state poverty rates, and 9th in the nation in childhood poverty; the lowest poverty rate is #1, New Hampshire. Michigan is number 33. See the linked source for more information.

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