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Common Core: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Common Core standard needs to be separated from the push by publishers to sell for material, the high-stakes testing of children, and from the evaluation of teachers.
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"From our highest-performing districts to our most challenged, the Common Core lights the way along that path; the Common Core standards will help us to ensure that each of our students - regardless of zip code or family income - develops the skills and knowledge needed to graduate college- and career-ready." - New York State Educational Commissioner John B. King, Jr., New York State Education Department News and Notes, May 2013

In past Huffington Posts, I have been very critical of the national Common Core standards developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers with money from the Pearson and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations for a number of reasons. I believe they are partly a ploy by major publishers and media companies to sell new material to schools that is actually the same old stuff marketed with different labels. I think their stress on skill acquisition in reading and math at the expense of content understanding in other subject areas has the potential to eviscerate instruction in history, social studies, science, health, literature, the arts, and language. And I think pairing the Common Core standards with high-stakes tests for students and new forms of teacher evaluation has the potential to undermine effective instruction and learning. However, unlike some conservative columnists, I do not believe its is a secret federal (Obama) plan to nationalize education in the United States.

I am a big Clint Eastwood fan and I think his career is a good metaphor for Common Core. Eastwood has been good (if not great), bad, and unfortunately, very ugly. In the good category I count Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Pale Rider, and I loved Space Cowboys. There is a lot of bad in a five-decade career, but The Bridges of Madison County and Heartbreak Ridge stand out. Although "Dirty Harry" and the Spaghetti westerns probably belong in the ugly category, the ugliest moment, and certainly the most bizarre, was Clint debating an empty chair at the 2012 Republican national convention.

Despite John King's enthusiastic report quoted above, with Common Core, it is easiest to document the bad and the ugly. Students are being tested and teachers are being evaluated based on material that has never been taught and curricula that is still to be written. Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, is calling for a moratorium on high-stakes tests based on Common Core until students and teachers actually have a chance see and master new material and skills.

Jamie Gass, Director of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy in Boston has kept me up to date on growing national opposition to the Common Core standards especially from conservative groups. While People for the American Way has the Pioneer Institute on its right-wing "watch list," Jamie has certainly done an effective job of both reporting on and marshaling opposition to Common Core from the right and left ends of the political spectrum.

In Indiana, Republican Governor Mike Pence halted implementation of Common Core because of opponents who believe the standards are not as good as Indiana's old ones and others who want educational decisions made on the local level. In Pennsylvania, Democratic state legislators complained that Common Core was a $300 million "unfunded education mandate" and charged that the assessments tests required under Common Core would under mine "traditional instruction" and be "devastating to fiscally challenged schools."

In the "Ballad of John and Yoko," the Beatles reminded listeners that change "ain't easy." They were not singing about American schools but they well could have been. When right-wing conservative groups and state governments stake out a position against Common Core, it makes me suspicious. However, rather than teachers and parents just harping on the bad and the ugly, we need to look at what is good, or at least useful in Common Core. I have tried to do this in conversations I have had with teachers at Hofstra University and in local schools.

When discussing Common Core, I stress four things. Common Core calls on teachers to plan systematically to ensure that skill development is embedded throughout the curriculum. For example, in United States history classes, if a class does not get to spend time on map analysis during study of European settlement and the revolutionary era, teachers need to make sure they include a lot of map study when students learn about westward expansion and the Civil War.

Common Core calls on teachers to make conscious decisions about what to focus on in each lesson. Teachers must be curriculum planners rather than curriculum consumers. They have to design lessons that address the particular academic needs of their students rather than relying on textbooks or scripted, pre-packaged, lessons.

Common Core calls on schools to reorganize to promote vertical and horizontal integration. Vertical integration means that curriculum and skill acquisition should be coordinated so that teachers can build on prior student learning and have a sense of final academic goals. For example, in economics, normally a subject studied in the senior year of high school, students should be able to read, analyze, evaluate, and draw conclusions about articles, charts, graphs, and political cartoons from newspapers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Common Core is at its best (see below Students Who Are College And Career Ready), when it helps teachers, parents, and students understand what it means to be college and career ready.

Horizontal integration means that grade level teachers from different subject disciplines need to meet and plan regularly so they have a better understanding of where and why students are having academic difficulty, can develop material targeting the needs of individual students, and can work together to support skill acquisition and content understanding. Science teachers can give students word problems that deepen their understanding of math. English teachers should have students read historical literature that supports social studies instruction by helping students develop a sense of time, place, and people.

I think the John King statement quoted above is ridiculous. In no way does Common Core "light the way." But that does not mean it isn't useful. Common Core standard needs to be separated from the push by publishers to sell for material, the high-stakes testing of children, and from the evaluation of teachers. We need to recognize they are limited because they focus on skills while ignoring the content of what children should learn in school. In addition, teachers and school districts need time to develop lessons, units, and institutional models that support Common Core goals. But none of these things mean the goals are invalid.

Parents, teachers, and students need to fight for the good in Common Core while challenging the bad and the ugly.

An Excerpt from the National Common Core Standards:

They demonstrate independence. Students can, without significant scaffolding, comprehend and evaluate complex texts across a range of types and disciplines, and they can construct effective arguments and convey intricate or multifaceted information. Likewise, students are able independently to discern a speaker's key points, request clarification, and ask relevant questions. They build on others' ideas, articulate their own ideas, and confirm they have been understood. Without prompting, they demonstrate command of standard English and acquire and use a wide-ranging vocabulary. More broadly, they become self-directed learners, effectively seeking out and using resources to assist them, including teachers, peers, and print and digital reference materials.

They build strong content knowledge. Students establish a base of knowledge across a wide range of subject matter by engaging with works of quality and substance. They become proficient in new areas through research and study. They read purposefully and listen attentively to gain both general knowledge and discipline-specific expertise. They refine and share their knowledge through writing and speaking.

They respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline. Students adapt their communication in relation to audience, task, purpose, and discipline. They set and adjust purpose for reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language use as warranted by the task. They appreciate nuances, such as how the composition of an audience should affect tone when speaking and how the connotations of words affect meaning. They also know that different disciplines call for different types of evidence (e.g., documentary evidence in history, experimental evidence in science).

They comprehend as well as critique. Students are engaged and open-minded--but discerning--readers and listeners. They work diligently to understand precisely what an author or speaker is saying, but they also question an author's or speaker's assumptions and premises and assess the veracity of claims and the soundness of reasoning.

They value evidence. Students cite specific evidence when offering an oral or written interpretation of a text. They use relevant evidence when supporting their own points in writing and speaking, making their reasoning clear to the reader or listener, and they constructively evaluate others' use of evidence.

They use technology and digital media strategically and capably. Students employ technology thoughtfully to enhance their reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language use. They tailor their searches online to acquire useful information efficiently, and they integrate what they learn using technology with what they learn offline. They are familiar with the strengths and limitations of various technological tools and mediums and can select and use those best suited to their communication goals.

They come to understand other perspectives and cultures. Students appreciate that the twenty-first-century classroom and workplace are settings in which people from often widely divergent cultures and who represent diverse experiences and perspectives must learn and work together. Students actively seek to understand other perspectives and cultures through reading and listening, and they are able to communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds. They evaluate other points of view critically and constructively. Through reading great classic and contemporary works of literature representative of a variety of periods, cultures, and worldviews, students can vicariously inhabit worlds and have experiences much different than their own.

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