Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

The Door We Open When We Defeat the Common Core

By Anthony Cody — November 17, 2013 8 min read
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On Saturday I posted an explanation of ten major errors committed by the Common Core standards project. The response has been phenomenal. That post has been the most widely read article on Education Week over the weekend, and has been “liked” more than seven thousand times on Facebook, which means it is being widely shared. In the past week, a video of Tennessee high school student Ethan Young airing similar concerns about the Common Core has been viewed by thousands. And Arne Duncan is reeling from some serious blowback after he suggested that opposition to Common Core was coming from “white suburban moms upset that their children aren’t as brilliant as they thought....”

So there is real momentum building against Common Core. In response to my list of errors, nobody has thus far raised any evidence that contradicts any of the substance. But two educators wrote suggesting that I was perhaps throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and the standards themselves should be looked at, and perhaps preserved, even if we oppose the tests. Here is my response:

First of all, I appreciate the sincere efforts to wrestle with the potential good and bad that might come with Common Core. I understand that many educators are trying to see what good might be salvaged from this. I have to say, I remain a bit skeptical on several counts.

First, both Jennifer Gonzalez and jpatten ask that we evaluate the standards themselves, independent of the process. So let’s do that. I did mention two areas of major concern on my original post: First, there is a broad consensus among early childhood educators that the K-2 standards are inappropriate and harmful to children. Second, the Common Core takes a utilitarian view of the purpose of education, and focuses us narrowly on preparation for college and career.

Beyond these two concerns, reader Tom Hoffman provided an insightful analysis of the approach to English Language Arts:

Ms. Gonzalez says "an emphasis on reading literary and informational texts, developing a stance on these, and providing textual evidence to back up your stance," but in fact, the CCSS don't require the student to develop a "stance" or response or interpretation of the text as a whole. They very pointedly do not do that. Here's an example from one of CCSSI's own international benchmarks: Victoria, Australia Unit 1, Outcome 1, Key Skill 4: construct a response to a text, including the use of appropriate metalanguage to discuss the textual features and textual evidence to support the response; CCSS are explicitly AGAINST this type of reader response approach. What the Common Core does is focus on a short list of specific textual analysis tasks, and *that's it*. The fact of the matter is that there has been almost no public debate of the ELA/Literacy standards *in detail* from a critical perspective.

I have read various criticisms of the Math standards, but this is not an area where I have the expertise to comment much myself. In this case, again, process matters, and the fact that we have not had a process where these standards were publicly vetted and trial tested remains a big concern.

Both jpatten and Jennifer Gonzalez suggest that the Common Core, as a set of standards, does not mandate any curriculum and allows teachers flexibility. This may have been their experience thus far. But once the stakes for students, teachers and schools have been attached, the standards become the curriculum - and that is the way Common Core was designed. As Bill Gates said: “When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well.”

Commenter jpatten teaches in California, and his or her experience reflects the fact that states are using different timetables for Common Core implementation. California has taken a slow approach - in fact, our state will have NO statewide standardized tests at all this year. The state will be doing some trials of the Smarter Balanced tests, but meanwhile will have dropped the STAR test, normally given to all students in the spring. So jpatten and other California teachers are in a special place, for the time being. If the Common Core standards were offered with no high stakes tests, I would have fewer concerns.

If you visit New York, which is several years ahead on this timeline, you find that there is a very tight curriculum being imposed on teachers, and it is enforced with benchmark tests as well as high stakes state exams.

However, the situation in California is a temporary one. Two or three years from now, when all students are taking the Smarter Balanced tests, as is the plan, the current flexibility is likely to disappear.

In California, the governor and State Superintendent of Education have thus far resisted the demands from the federal Department of Education that test scores be made a part of all teacher evaluations. Nonetheless, in Los Angeles, the largest district in the state, evaluations already include test scores. And there are efforts underway on the part of some urban districts to cut side deals with the Department of Education to get NCLB waivers on a district level, and these deals could require test scores to be used in teacher evaluations. Can the state’s resistance prevail? Could California roll back the tide of federal control? It is possible, but only if the movement against Common Core and high stakes tests continues to grow.

If it becomes possible to revise the Common Core, on a state by state basis, this could be an option. But remember, the organizations which control and hold the copyright for the Common Core have strict rules that state the standards must be adopted exactly as written. States are allowed to ADD no more than 15% of their own standards. Nothing in the Common Core can be edited or modified in any way by any state or district - not even the great state of California.

It is unclear what the consequences would be if states decide to defy this. Will the copyright holders of Common Core sue? Will the Department of Education withhold funds?

Public Law 103-33, General Education Provisions Act, sec 432, reads as follows:

No provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, [or] administration...of any educational institution...or over the selection of library resources, textbooks, or other printed or published instructional materials...

Therefore, the Department of Education is FORBIDDEN from supervising standards and curriculum at the state level. Common Core was supposed to be a VOLUNTARY program. Thus, it ought to be within the rights of the states to do whatever they wish with their standards.

The suggestion that we separate the discussion of the standards from the high stakes tests prompts the question: Could it be possible to implement the Common Core WITHOUT high stakes tests? I think the removal of high stakes tests would remove much of the potential for harm, and that is a worthwhile goal. Given that the standards were designed to be enforced through tests, this would be a tall order -- but worth fighting for.

However, there is a deeper principle at stake here. Standards developed in secret without the active participation of K12 educators, parents, students and experts from the start are not acceptable or legitimate. There may be elements of the Common Core that are worthwhile, as jpatten suggests. The trouble is, we have not had any real process to debate these standards, or try them out with real children. And as indicated before, there is no process available to alter the standards in any meaningful way. According to their sponsors, they must be adopted as is, or dumped. I say dump them. Start over. Go back and fix the process - and the new standards we end up with will be better as a result.

And for those who just want to skip over the issue of democratic process, and take the standards as a starting point, I challenge you to stop and think about the precedent being set, and the prerogatives we are handing to both the Department of Education and the Gates Foundation. This is our chance to set a completely different precedent, which would undermine rather than reinforce the prerogatives of the powerful. Isn’t that worth doing?

Here is a possible scenario for the state of California:

The Common Core as it stands is dropped, and we initiate a new process to define 21st century standards for California.

California could lead the way, and use the money we are saving with the cancellation of standardized tests this year to convene a public process to review and revise our state standards. People who like parts of the Common Core can certainly advocate for them in that process, as well as considering our previous standards, and any other models that might serve our students well. We should also consider the advice of early childhood experts, language acquisition specialists, and special education teachers. This should be a public process, informed by the participation of parents and students as well.

We should put an immediate halt to the headlong rush to purchase soon-to-be outdated computers and iPads for the purpose of taking tests. In our current budget situation every dollar spent on computers is a dollar that cannot be spent repairing crumbling buildings or lowering class size. Los Angeles has shown us where this can lead by spending a billion dollars in construction bond funds on iPads. We should not allow the rest of the state to repeat this mistake.

When we bring back tests, they should be designed to measure student skills, but they should not be attached to teacher or principal evaluations, or used to close low-scoring schools. The only way to avoid the tests becoming the curriculum is to take away the heavy consequences attached to them. They should be used in the ways these tests were originally intended - to provide us with diagnostic information about students so we can identify those that need extra support.

There are other possible scenarios, which might involve revising the Common Core, and removing the high stakes tests. The removal of high stakes tests ought to be the true bottom line for all of us - otherwise we have simply made No Child Left Behind more efficient.

Take a look at this video from the Common Core.

It makes it clear that the purpose of the Common Core is to rank and sort our students, to show who is winning the race, and who is not. In my opinion, standards should help us meet the needs of students, not sort out the winners from the losers.

The point of opposing Common Core is not to be ornery, or “preserve the status quo.” It is to open the door for something truly innovative and creative - a real democratic process to create standards worthy of the students we care about -- and wouldn’t that be a challenge worth taking on?

What do you think? Are there elements of the Common Core worth preserving? Or are we better off starting over with a real public process?

Update: See Diane Ravitch’s post in response to the one above.

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The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.