Curriculum Opinion

The Common-Core Debate Continues

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 29, 2013 5 min read
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The Common Core Standards emerged and have remained a volatile political football, tossed about by educators, politicians, parents, and reporters. Within the uproar exists misunderstanding and controversy. This confusion calls for clarity. Clarity becomes the role of the expert: the educational leader.

The leadership skills involved are no different than those we use in other situations. First, we need to question ourselves about our own understanding and beliefs about the CCS. Should the federal government, in a nation as diverse as ours, dictate the national standards? Our own negative sentiments must be separate from our responsibilities as leaders for the implementation. The national agenda will change the life of every child and every classroom over time. Given the percolating opposition, we cannot presume our public understands and supports the CCS. Carefully, we must plan information dissemination within each of our communities, educate our parents about the purpose of the CCS and then help our teachers prepare and support them in the implementation. Simultaneously, we must listen to the voices of our opposition and address concerns and misunderstandings the best way we know how. For those who take up the charge to fight against the implementation of the CCS, let them continue to be informed about the facts so as they step up against them, they are dealing with the facts.

An embedded Catch 22 is that along with the expectations of the CCS, the assessments immediately followed. Unlike other changes in practice, this time, teachers are expected to learn, understand, and implement all at once. Students are tested, and they, along with their teachers, are measured immediately, and the results made public. Whether it is fair, or not, to hold the system accountable in this way, the shock, itself, has been disruptive. Was that the goal? Perhaps it would have made more sense to adopt the standards, test the teachers on their knowledge, and use that baseline to plan for the teaching and learning they need before putting the experience of our children in the game. There is the rub. And, there is where our schools are suffering, struggling to keep these frazzling nerves of failure away from the students. Perhaps, there are those who believe teachers will do better if the children are in harm’s way...high stakes for a political game.

Fox News reported that Glyn Wright, executive director of Eagle Forum, stated, “With the new math standard in the Common Core, there are no longer absolute truths. So 3 times 4 can now equal 11 so long as a student can effectively explain how they reached that answer.” It is that type of misinformation that fuels parents, educators, and politicians, alike, to develop opposition to the CCS. In that same article, Timothy Shanahan, a professor at the University of Illinois was quoted. He had been part of an independent expert panel that reviewed the standards. He speculates why many are opposed to Common Core.

The reason that this criticism is coming up is because the Common Core is promoting greater attention to science, history and other informational texts. Studies show that American kids do better with stories than with science or history materials, placing them at a real disadvantage in international economic competition.

There are many misunderstandings about what the Common Core is and isn’t. Something in Common written by Robert Rothman continues to be a helpful resource. As he goes through the history of their adoption, he quotes Diane Ravitch, when she was assistant U.S. secretary of education and led the effort. At that time, she is quoted as saying that the intention was,

to encourage professional fields to shape a consensus about what students should know and be able to do. Eventually, the standards would make their own way into the schools (or not) by virtue of their quality, as the NCTM standards have, and not because of the coercive power of government to impose them (p. 37).

Despite her intentions, politicians accepted her end and changed the process. Mandates followed.

However, reading the Common Core Anchor Standards for reading, writing, speaking and listening, and the Standards for Mathematical Practice, who could argue against their implementation for the improvement of teaching and learning (pp. 91-94)? Common Core Standards are not curriculum. Is that distinction too subtle or esoteric for the public?

Curriculum is often the missing element that makes standards usable in classrooms. Curricula outline what should be taught over the course of a year to enable students to reach the standards and often suggest a sequence of instruction that leads to mastery of the standards (Rothman, p. 122).

Common Core Standards are neither curricula nor assessments. Therefore, it is essential that we help our communities of teachers, parents, and Boards of Education understand exactly what the Common Core Standards are. As the groundswell of objection grows, we are in a complicated position. In and of themselves, they are not bad. They simply require us to reexamine our current practice and evaluate where we are preparing our students and where we can do better.

It appears that the misunderstanding about what the Common Core is and isn’t continues to make the news. It may not be happening in the media outlets to which we all listen, but it is happening in many. It is our responsibility to continue to educate our communities about what the Common Core Standards are as different from the ‘reform agenda.’ In order to do that, we can no longer talk about the “six shifts” or “close reading” or “complex text” or “reading in the content area” and accept that as knowing. We need to be experts with the skill of making the complex simple. We need to offer clarity where others stir up dust. In order to care for our schools and communities while the dust is clearing, we need to shine light into the confusion.

Rothman, Robert (2012). Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

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