Standards Opinion

The Common Core Remains a Mixed Bag

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 04, 2014 6 min read
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“It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” (FDR 1932)

We have drifted a long way from FDR’s perception of trying and trying again. Currently, given a first attempt that is unsuccessful, the agenda is labeled a failure and, often, its architects as well. It seems we expect failure more than we do success and the media even seems to like it more. This is in all fields, not just education.

Across the country, and here in New York, the Common Core continues to be controversial. But, then, is the oppositional gathering of strange bedfellows really talking about the Common Core or not? Certainly, one dimension of the controversy is the actual content of the Common Core Standards. Some read as standards and others as required curriculum topics. Educators need clarity. Is the Common Core a set of learning standards? Or is it a curriculum? It does make a difference and we all need to know.

Heated arguments continue. The Common Core and the related use of standardized testing to evaluate students and teachers remain unsettled issues. The call for delaying implementation or backing off altogether continues. Alan Singer’s blog in the Huffington Post provides a compelling story of his struggle to help improve the flaws (actual or perceived) in the Common Core and its implementation. Before reading his post, it is important to know Dr. Singer, according to Hofstra University:

has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Rutgers University. In Hofstra University’s School of Education and Allied Human Services, he is a professor of secondary education and the director of social studies education. Singer is a former New York City high school social studies teacher and is editor of Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York State and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies. He is also the author of Social Studies for Secondary Schools (Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates, 2nd edition, 2003) and editor of a 268-page secondary school curriculum guide, New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance.

Mistakes are taking a huge toll on our systems. Telling teachers to “just teach it differently” or “do something systemically” (as Singer speaks about in his post) lacks the deep and complex understanding that leaders of change must have. Each implementation will be different. Schools are different. Each has its own identity, community, culture, climate, priorities, and difficulties. Some have younger faculties, some mixed, some very experienced. Some have stable leadership and others experience leadership waves. Some have boards of education with an overall sense of what is good for the district, and others have boards driven by personal agendas. Some schools have large numbers of students who attend that system from kindergarten through high school graduation. Others have great numbers of students moving in and out of the district...sometimes throughout the year. Classrooms have the same number of variations; students who understand things quickly and can move on, students who need learning to slow down, be drawn or written down, students who need things spoken slowly and in different words, students who can read well and those who don’t, students who speak English and those who don’t, student’s whose homes have heat and food and those who don’t. Teachers do try. In some places the results will be stellar and in others a clear and certain flop. Tell a teacher to “just do it differently” or to “do it systemically” and a legitimate look of surprise, confusion and /or frustration surely follow.

Why measure the teachers at the same time you want them to change their practice? Every trained teacher evaluator knows that in order to encourage change in teaching practice, the evaluation of early experimentation must not be evaluated. The confluence of teacher evaluation methods, and the Common Core implementation runs counter to everything we know to be true about improving teacher practice. But, recall, the decision to measure teachers at this time was not made by one body alone. In New York, for example, the Commissioner, the Governor, and the head of the statewide teachers’ union were all at the table. Accountability has its place. The timing was dead wrong.

At least two things have to change. We need to have real dialogue with active listening, and thoughtful questions that lead toward a successful result. Those in decision-making positions...the US Secretary of Education, Commissioners of Education, Governors, and legislators need to listen to what the forward thinking members of the field are saying. Those voices have become mixed with those who are less thoughtful and more reactively oppositional. It is never good to stop listening to the other voices.

We encourage the asking of the right questions. In the introduction to his bestselling book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande tells a story about an emergency room episode that may be compared to our current struggle. To summarize, a patient entered the emergency room with a stab wound. It was Halloween night. The nurses and doctors followed all the correct protocols and considering it was only a two-inch slit in his belly no rush to the operating room was indicated. But suddenly the patient became quiet and his heart rate accelerated. He was rushed to the operating room and able to be saved. “There are a thousand ways that things can go wrong when you’ve got a patient with a stab wound. But everyone involved got almost every step right...Except no one remembered to ask the patient or the emergency medical technicians what the weapon was” (p.3) The weapon had been a bayonet! The wound was much deeper than anyone imagined it could have been given the two inch cut they saw on the surface. The right question wasn’t asked.

We think it is possible that in our case everyone just may have gotten almost everything right too. But no one remembered to ask us the most important questions. How will this affect your current programs? What do you need in order to make this a timely and integrated change in your classrooms? What measures do you think would be best to demonstrate progress in the implementation? What other existing barriers to implementation can you project will hamper your success? How sad that the policy makers are not bringing those questions to he field. If they did, they could really, and fairly, hold us accountable.

The Common Core remains a mixed bag. There are CCSS that are exactly that, standards. Yet, others read like curriculum. Anchor standards span the grades, yet take a long time to break down when you are applying them to a class of 5 year olds. This is not the first, nor the last time, a change of this magnitude will be met with opposition. The field is speaking and the longer dialogue is averted, the wider the chasm between the leadership and those responsible for teaching children will become. There will be no winners. And, at the end, don’t we all want the children to be winners?

FDR speech at Oglethorpe University in 1932
Gawande, Atul (2010). The Checklist Manifesto. New York: Picador

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