Sunday, August 1, 2021

The Top 10 objections to the Common Core


I have read many posts by critics and proponents of the Common Core State Standards these past few years, but none have been as good as Anthony Cody’s post today in an Education Week blog, here.

As we have been carrying on a discussion and self-imposed debate of the Common Core, I want to post a response to Mr Cody’s well-reasoned essay. That response is given below.

In order to promote a discussion that means something, I will take the position of supporting the Common Core, since Mr Cody has taken the position that the Common Core was fraught with errors from its conception, through its adoption, and certainly at its point of implementation. For the record, I agree with every one of Mr Cody’s objections, but he already made his point, and I honestly don’t believe I’ll find any true supporter of the Common Core to make a defense of the initiative that includes anything more than talking points from a list provided by a corporate reformer or a state department of education. I am therefore assuming the adversarial role.

Mr Cody concludes that the implementation of the Common Core in any school in the country should be stopped immediately. “I do not believe the standards themselves are significantly better than those of most states, and thus they do not offer any real advantages,” he writes. Furthermore, “the process by which they were adopted was undemocratic, and lacking in meaningful input from expert educators. The early results we see from states that are on the leading edge provide evidence of significant damage this project is causing to students already. No Child Left Behind has failed, and we need a genuine shift in our educational paradigm, not the fake-out provided by Common Core.”

To this, I would respond that the standards are better than those used in several states prior to their implementation, at least according to the judgment of some people who bemoaned the lowering of the bar in states like Florida to spin their results in a more favorable light. As for Mr Cody’s use of the words “most states,” we don’t really have time to produce an opinion about former standards in every state in the union, which is what would be required to refute Mr Cody’s assertion. By the rules of debate, I must therefore accept his assertion as fact, and that’s just fine.

But what the Common Core does is to make the learning standards the same in every state that adopts them, at least in math and English. Whether the standards are better in 26 or more states than the previous standards is not a sufficiently strong point to negate the fact that teachers in a given state’s classrooms will benefit from sharing resources with those in other states, a collegiality they had little reason to seek out before the Common Core. Teachers in other states weren’t referencing the same standards, so there was no guarantee their volley at cooperation would bear fruit, because what was taught in Idaho, say, probably wouldn’t address the learning standards in New Hampshire. Now that both New Hampshire and Idaho have adopted the Common Core, teachers have more to gain by discovering ideas in out-of-state classrooms that might work in theirs.

The remaining conclusions follow from Mr Cody’s arguments, so let’s look at those one by one. Mr Cody requests that anyone who engages him “for the sake of transparency, … disclose any payments they or their organization has received for promoting or implementing the Common Core.” Voxitatis has received no money for promoting the Common Core, and we do not implement the Common Core. My full-time employer, the Maryland State Department of Education, has promoted the Common Core at community forums and with printed material. I’m not a part of this push, but the agency has received funds from the state and federal governments to promote and assist in the implementation of the Common Core. I write for myself only, however, and my comments were neither solicited nor approved by MSDE. Construe any overlooked occurrence of the pronoun “we” (or its associated forms) to mean “we Americans,” “we citizens,” or “my friends and I.”

Error #1: The process by which the Common Core standards were developed and adopted was undemocratic.

Mr Cody points out that the general public, educators, students, parents, and democratically elected representatives had nothing to do with drafting the standards. He is correct on every single point.

It was our understanding that the federal government could not impose learning standards on the states. Mr Cody cites the following federal law: “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…”

Clearly, the federal government did exactly those things they’re not allowed to do in requiring states to adopt the Common Core in order to receive federal funds, which they needed badly. Some people have called this extortion, but I think it was more like a trusting of people and corporations, who didn’t know what they were doing, to provide educational guidance for our schools. The federal government simply trusted the wrong people, and they trusted them, mainly, because those wrong people had money to burn.

One thing Mr Cody fails to mention in his discussion is that two of the leading educators associated with the release of the standards, James Milgram in math and Sandra Stotsky in English, refused to sign off on the standards.

Error #2: The Common Core Standards violate what we know about how children develop and grow.

(Also see Error #4.) Based on research we have reported previously, this is especially true at the K-2 level. When you start moving toward high school standards, Mr Cody’s statement is less true. Hundreds of experts are now on record as saying in early childhood, instruction on a narrow set of standards, like those found in the Common Core, will force teachers to provide much less instruction in material that is required in early childhood, such as social and emotional skills. The extra instruction in literacy and math, required for students to learn the skills and knowledge in the Common Core, will take that time away from instruction in more age-appropriate knowledge and skills.

If that is true, kids in kindergarten would be missing out on much needed instruction just so they can master math and literacy standards that might not even lead to success later in school. There’s no good evidence that teaching kindergartners how to count raises their achievement in third or fourth grade math.

Furthermore, the testing of very young children, which the Common Core invites, is not appropriate, as I showed in my feeble attempt at injecting some humor into the debate, here. If we establish standards in K-2, we are, almost by definition, inviting testing companies to develop assessments that measure how well those 5-year-olds are doing on those standards.

There can be no response here. Testing kindergartners is absolutely wrong. It will result in several of those students getting low scores, and 5 is too impressionable an age even to take a chance on that happening. We have nothing to gain from the scores on those standardized tests—not even No Child Left Behind, epic fail that it is, requires testing in kindergarten—so we agree on this error: stop the insanity.

Error #3: The Common Core is inspired by a vision market-driven innovation enabled by standardization of curriculum, tests, and ultimately, our children themselves.

I’m not exactly sure why Mr Cody objects to the inspiration behind the Common Core initiative. However, he seems to rebel against corporate reformers’ apparent suggestion that only entrepreneurs, led by the standards and data from standardized tests that are aligned to those standards, can develop innovations for the education market.

If that’s what Common Core proponents believe, it’s news to me. Innovations have always come from teachers, tutors, teacher aides, principals, and others who have a wealth of knowledge about how students learn and how the lessons they’ve used get through to students—as well as those lessons that fell on deafer ears. The innovations follow from their work with students, and Mr Cody seems to think some proponents are saying innovation comes from outside the classroom only. I am aware of very few “innovations” that came from outside the classroom. Heck, even that spray that prevents the spread of germs was developed by a teacher.

So, reality doesn’t match the error. Nobody that I know is suggesting teachers can’t develop innovative ideas and lessons that work with real kids. What Common Core proponents are suggesting is that these innovations, which will most likely come from teachers but we want to keep an open mind, can now be deployed in classrooms in other states. This gets back to my initial point above that the Common Core should promote the development, down the road, of a college of educators across the country, sharing ideas with each other and using their professional judgment to choose which innovations might work best with the kids in their individual classrooms.

I realize many corporate executives see the K-12 market as an untapped cash cow. It isn’t, and Mr Cody knows that, but reformers are a little slow to pick up on economic issues. Just look at how they tanked the US economy during the recent recession. It will take time for business people, who are just now learning about teaching and will never understand it fully, to find out what really matters in teachers’ real classrooms. I don’t want to make enemies of business, because if they ever find out what’s important to me or teachers I know, they have the money to develop it and share it with other teachers who aren’t my friend on Facebook. Those teachers would otherwise be deprived of my great innovation, and if it might help even one kid in their classrooms, it’s worth finding a way to get it to them.

Those are the resources I just don’t have, but if I truly care about kids in other schools as much as the kids I know personally—and I do—I can’t make an enemy of business and throw out every chance I have of spreading a good idea just because a few business leaders or politicians still have their heads stuck under rocks. I realize business is doing everything in its power to make an enemy out of me. I can’t control their actions, but if there’s a mutually beneficial partnership in our future—educators with their innovations and big business with monetary resources—we shouldn’t throw it away because of a current but, I hope, short-lived misunderstanding.

Error #4: The Common Core creates a rigid set of performance expectations for every grade level, and results in tightly controlled instructional timelines and curriculum.

Yeah, that’s a problem (also see Error #7 and Error #9).

I can only add that it isn’t the Common Core itself—but the whole initiative and how teachers and school districts have been trained in its implementation at the classroom level—that results in tightly controlled instructional timelines and curriculum. The Common Core, as far as it goes, doesn’t specify either a timeline or a curriculum.

It does specify the performance expectations at each grade level, though, and I expect that’s what Mr Cody is referring to, because that’s a very reasonable objection. Especially in very young children, whose rates of development show a wide variability, it’s not realistic to expect every single child in every state to be at (or above) the standard by the end of a certain grade level. By doing so, we risk shooting their educational progress in cold blood (because they weren’t genetically programmed to advance on a timeline dictated by the Common Core). We deflate their self-esteem at age 5.

Error #5: The Common Core was designed to be implemented through an expanding regime of high stakes tests, which will consume an unhealthy amount of time and money.

Depending on what “unhealthy” means, I’d say high-stakes tests already consume an unhealthy amount of time and money. The testing calendars for the Chicago Public Schools and Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland are two of the most depressing documents I have ever read.

And the trend is certainly toward spending more time taking tests and more time preparing for tests under the Common Core. Technically speaking, the tests aren’t part of the Common Core, but for all intents and purposes, they are part of the same initiative in education, along with teacher evaluations based on test scores and big data recording every subject our kids take in school and every novel they read. It’s getting ridiculous, but it’s hard to separate the different pieces.

But, with or without the Common Core and long before its adoption by the majority of states, federal law required annual testing of every single student in grades 3 through 8 in math and reading. It was the federal law known as No Child Left Behind that technically caused schools to consume an unhealthy amount of time and money on testing. The Common Core just sort of completed that federal law, and here we are. Knowing the federal law, which they cannot violate willingly, states’ governors and chief school officers came up with the Common Core idea. What else were they supposed to do?

They had hoped that pooling resources on tests would save them money individually, since they could use test questions developed in other states and not have to maintain a bank of questions, blueprints for test forms, and so on. They would share in the expenses, or so they thought. It hasn’t worked out so well, especially for states like Georgia and Illinois.

Error #6: Proficiency rates on the new Common Core tests have been dramatically lower — by design.

Mr Cody is completely correct. “Only 31% of students who took Common Core aligned tests in New York last spring were rated proficient,” he correctly points out. And even before the test was given, officials knew what the outcome would be because they had manipulated the cut scores. This is a somewhat arbitrary and totally political process. It first asks, “How many kids do we want to pass?” and then just moves the target on the raw score to scaled score conversion table.

The number will probably go up in the future, but can you imagine so many students not receiving a high school diploma because they failed a test on the Common Core standards? “Will we have a generation of hoboes and unemployables?” Mr Cody asks.

He says the use of high school exit exams has been shown to increase levels of incarceration among students who don’t pass them. In Maryland, no high school student last year failed to graduate simply because he or she failed to pass one of the high school exit exams, which were given in English, algebra I, and biology. That’s because Maryland offers students alternative pathways to receiving a high school diploma. Without those alternative pathways, the state would have denied quite a few students a diploma.

Error #7: Common Core relies on a narrow conception of the purpose of K12 education as “career and college readiness.”

In one sense, I have to ask, So what? Nobody ever said schools couldn’t go beyond the standards, although, sadly, many school leaders have interpreted the Common Core as a straitjacket that restricts teaching to a narrow focus of topics.

Furthermore, what qualifies as “college ready” depends on which college we’re talking about. What qualifies as “career ready” depends on which career we’re talking about. A kid who wants to go to Stanford doesn’t think he’s ready if he has only the same knowledge and skills as a kid who wants to attend the University of Baltimore. The Stanford-bound kid had better take more math than the algebra I, algebra II, geometry, and a little trig explicit in the Common Core. No offense to the University of Baltimore, but the school just appeals to a different type of student.

But see Error #5. If we have to devote too much time to math and reading, we neglect recess, the fine arts, and even science and social studies. Not only do we neglect great works of literature to replace them with news and history articles, as Mr Cody points out, but we also neglect band and the lifelong friendships that develop there to replace it with reading about composers. This is not an error in the Common Core, specifically, but rather in our implementation of the Common Core, which has been compared to the disastrous rollout of the Obamacare website. The implementation of the Common Core has been so bad because schools and teachers didn’t have enough time to prepare.

We can’t fault the standards because something isn’t in them, either. Think about it, Mr Cody. What if we had included in the standards more math, more literature, or things schools now do a very good job of teaching, like vocal music. Just as having standards in kindergarten invites testing on those standards, so would having standards in more advanced literature invite testing on those standards—of all students. So would having standards in physical education invite testing on those standards, and we know that not every kid is in the same physical shape. I’m sure the test publishing companies would love that.

So, yes, the Common Core reduces the vast array of human endeavor to a minimum set of standards, which is beyond ridiculous. But it is equally ridiculous to say we don’t expect teachers and schools to provide much more than what is explicitly stated in the Common Core. The Common Core isn’t like the Bible; schools can go way beyond it, especially with more gifted students who need more challenge at school. That is, I’m not saying and the Common Core doesn’t suggest we abandon anything that’s not in it explicitly. I’m only pointing out that we don’t want to enlarge the list of standards, because that will only enlarge the list of tests kids have to take. I say, enough tests already! As long as No Child Left Behind is the law of the land, the hands of our schools are tied: we cannot stop the testing on standards we require.

I encourage people to fight No Child Left Behind and move for its immediate repeal. Then, we can talk about expanding the list of standards in a national curriculum where it will actually be a more democratic process and benefit students. It will then be a cooperative rather than a punitive mission. As long as NCLB rules, though, we should try to get things off the list of skills government requires.

Error #8: The Common Core is associated with an attempt to collect more student and teacher data than ever before.

The collection of private data about children, especially to support profit-seeking corporations, is immoral and should be illegal. We have seen how data can so easily fall into the wrong hands once corporations get a hold of it. We must petition the government to address this issue, by re-tightening FERPA, at once. There will be no argument from me here. Please see my discussion of the decision of a locally elected school board in Colorado to sever all ties with the inBloom cloud-based student database.

As with testing, it’s technically valid to separate the Common Core from the collection of data about students. However, as I said above, for all intents and purposes, they are all part of the same initiative in education, and as a respected group of principals in New York recently pointed out, the association of these immoral pieces of the education pie with the Common Core standards is jeopardizing the proper implementation and effective use of the Common Core.

Error #9: The Common Core is not based on any external evidence, has no research to support it, has never been tested, and worst of all, has no mechanism for correction.

“There is no process available to revise the standards,” Mr Cody writes. I’ve said the standards need to be revised. “The standards are a good beginning, but there is a growing need, as they are implemented across a very diverse nation, to revisit them, given some of the complaints being heard,” I wrote last month. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Linda Darling-Hammond, on Diane Ravitch’s blog, said even the good things about the Common Core are in jeopardy of being badly implemented in several states.

“In short, what I would prefer and what other more deliberative countries do is a careful process by which educators are regularly convened over several years to revise the national or state curriculum expectations (typically national in smaller countries like Finland and Singapore, and state or provincial in large ones like Canada and China),” she wrote. “Then there is an equally careful process of developing curriculum materials and assessments (managed by the Ministry or Department of Education with the participation of educators) and organizing intensive professional development. The development process takes at least 3 years and the initial implementation process takes about the same amount of time and deeply involves educators all along the way.”

I don’t have a huge problem with giving something a try. That’s how we work with inventions of all sorts, and with innovations. So, with regard to Mr Cody’s comment about the Common Core never being tested, frankly, I thought that’s what we were doing with the rollout. Look, lots of teachers are testing it, developing lesson plans about it (see here and here, for example). We are testing the standards, and more importantly, we’re testing how the standards are working in our classrooms.

The question is, What are we learning from our testing of the standards, and how will we use what we’ve learned to make education better for our children? There is absolutely no process in place for revising the standards based on what teachers are discovering as they implement them in their classrooms. There’s no way to revise them based on results from standardized tests that will, I’m quite sure, show that some of the standards just don’t work.

I’m talking about standards in third-grade math, for instance, that require skills from the fifth-grade Common Core to solve any real-world problem that students might encounter on a test. Just because a standard can’t be tested, though, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be on the list of standards, but my point is, there’s no place where results of this “invention testing” will be available to educators. It’s like a tree falling in the forest: Does it really make a sound if nobody hears it? This needs to change immediately, or the Common Core, which started in an undemocratic way, will come crashing to the ground in a more undemocratic ball of flame.

Error #10: The biggest problem of American education and American society is the growing number of children living in poverty. As was recently documented by the Southern Education Fund (and reported in the Washington Post) across the American South and West, a majority of our children are now living in poverty.

Again, this error is outside the scope of the standards in the Common Core. They do not address poverty. However, they do potentially (almost certainly) divert funds away from programs that might ease poverty or its harmful effects and spend them on testing, test preparation, or punitive measures in teacher evaluation. I urge you to repeal No Child Left Behind immediately.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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