Last week Pearson lost its 40 to 50 million dollar contract to provide 3rd through 8th grade Common Core aligned high-stakes tests in New York State. A headline and article in Newsday, a major daily published on Long Island in New York, described the decision to drop Pearson as the latest skirmish in the political debate over Common Core. Laura Howe, Pearson's Vice-President for Media and Communities, tried to make light of the decision. The Newsday article quoted Howe promising, or perhaps threatening, that Pearson "will continue to serve the people of New York through our other assessment work, along with learning materials and higher education services."
While I am glad to see Pearson go, just dropping Pearson will not end the battle over the legitimacy of Common Core and high-stakes tests mandated by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. A big question is why the New York State Education Department signed a multi-year contract with Questar Assessment while the renewal of No Child Left Behind is being debated in Congress and no one knows for sure which direction the federal government will take on mandated high-stakes standardized testing.
Some commentators who defend Common Core blame opponents of high-stakes testing for distorting the public's understanding of the benefits of the national standards. But when you look at the history of the push for national standards dating back to the Clinton and Bush administrations, you realize Common Core is all about testing and shifting educational resources from teaching to test prep companies.
In May, I spoke about Common Core at the annual Left Forum conference held at John Jay College in New York City and in June at a forum sponsored by the Literacy Studies program at Hofstra University. These gave me the opportunity to rethink and formulize my opposition to Common Core and the high-stakes testing regime that makes it rotten at its core. The rest of this post is based on my presentation.
Rotten at its Core
As a teacher and historian my primary opposition to Common Core is for two reasons. It is a major part of the process of out-sourcing public education to private for-profit companies. According to Reuters, "investors of all stripes are beginning to sense big profit potential in public education. The K-12 market is tantalizingly huge: The U.S. spends more than $500 billion a year to educate kids from ages five through 18. The entire education sector, including college and mid-career training, represents nearly 9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, more than the energy or technology sectors."
But my greater concern is the way the Common Core teaching approach actually undermines student learning. Children learn to read the way they learn to talk. Reading, like speaking, is a social activity best taught by communities and through relationships. Children learn by watching older people, especially older children, read. They learn to read by discovering that important things they want to know are in the symbols. They learn to read because of the pleasure of discovery and praise from parents, teachers, siblings, and friends for their achievements. They learn to read because it both makes them part of a broader community and because they become independent of others, more grown up. Children learn to read because it gives them a private place to visit, and because in the end, they learn to love to read because it opens their imaginations to unseen worlds.
But in Common Core based instruction reading is a mechanical activity that ignores student interest and the primary motivation to learn is your test score. To raise student scores, Common Core breaks reading down into a plethora of component skill parts. In the fourth grade, Common Core has nine reading literature standards, ten reading informational text standards, two foundational reading skills standards, six language acquisition standards, six speaking and listening standards, as well as "Range, Quality, and Complexity" standards. Lost, if not missing, in the barrage of standards are qualities like imagination, sharing, creating, thinking, or more importantly, enjoying. Asking questions and having conversations are there as activities, but they are not emphasized as the core of understanding.
The Common Core approach to reading is like breaking a molecule down into individual elements. But as any science teacher can explain, once you break the molecular bonds that tie the atoms together, you lose all the properties of the original chemical. You now have hydrogen and oxygen, but you no longer have water. In Common Core students may learn skills, but they do not learn to love reading or to really understand sophisticated written material.
One reason the national Common Core standards focus on English / Language Arts and math skills and obscure measurements such as text complexity is that when you look at what content should be taught you have very sharp disagreement. In 1995, when U.S. and world history content standards were released by the National Center for History in Schools, they were widely denounced in the popular media and overwhelmingly rejected by the U.S. Senate. The content of the social studies curriculum - Common Core does not want to touch it. Since 2013, state legislators in five states, Missouri, Montana, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Indiana, considered bills to require the teaching of the Biblical explanation of the origin of the universe as science. In Georgia, the superintendent of schools demanded that the word "evolution" be removed from the science curriculum to avoid offending religious and conservative parents. Common Core has nothing to say about it.
I reviewed both the draft and revised New York State Common Core aligned high school Economics curriculum. The best thing I can say that at least the State Education Department tried to address social studies content. Unfortunately the draft framework was one of the worst curriculum outlines that I ever reviewed. I thought it read like a right-wing fairy tale. The revised framework was better, but still seriously flawed.
Start with the title - "The Economics of Free Enterprise in a Global Economy" - and the introduction, which are the same for both the draft and the revised frameworks. "The Economics of Free Enterprise in a Global Economy" examines the principles of the United States free market economy in a global context. The authors of the framework like to use Common Core action words. Students examine, analyze, study, and explore. But what exactly will they examine, analyze, study, and explore. The problem in this case is with the underlying principles, not of the U.S. economy, but of the framework. According to both the draft and revised frameworks, "Free enterprise is a pillar of the United States economy and is based on the principle that individuals and businesses are free to make their own economic choices as they participate in these markets."
But is "free enterprise the pillar of the United States economy"? I cannot find free enterprise described in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, the Gettysburg Address, or the other "founding" documents, or imbedded in the Constitution of the United States. They describe religious freedom, democratic government, rights of individuals, and the structure of government, but not free enterprise, the rights of corporations, or the influence of hedge funds.
The primary focus of the framework is on individual economic choice and responsibility. But people do not choose to be underpaid because they are Black or women or out of work because they are technologically unemployed or their company shipped their job overseas.
What the economic standards leave out is that "free enterprise" is not the same as freedom and that you only have economic choices if you have money. The 1%, maybe the .5%, have economic choices, the rest of us get to decide between Big Macs and Whoppers. Whatever you may think of the Affordable Care Act, public education, the postal system, Social Security, or government agricultural subsidies, any working economist or economics teacher on the left or on the right will tell you that the United States has a "mixed" economy, not a "free market" economy.
In the standards students are told that as individuals they must be fiscally responsible, debt is BAD, but of course without accruing debt you cannot go to college, purchase a home, or buy a car. Every level of government is in debt to stimulate the economy and to invest in infrastructure. Corporations are always in debt as they invest in new products, facilities, and markets. Not only is debt virtually unavoidable and vital for investment, but bad debt is often not the fault of fiscally irresponsible individuals.
Globalization is described as an "opportunity." Recession, depression, trade, unemployment, outsourcing, generational poverty, income inequality and the challenges of class mobility are all described as "unintended consequences" of the free enterprise system, rather than as structural components. Certainly this is an issue that high school students should be debating. The draft standards originally told students that there would always be unemployment because unemployment is essential to avoid inflation, which of course is a nearly religious universal free enterprise value, except if you or a family member is one of the unfortunate unemployed. However this assertion was dropped in the revised standards.
Common Core is so concerned with skill development that history and historical context barely matter. Instead students read important non-fiction texts in English classes. The Common Core high school recommended nonfiction reading list for English includes speeches by George Washington and Ronald Reagan, which seems okay until you realize that George Washington neither wrote or read speeches and while Ronald Reagan was an actor good at playing president, he did not write them either.
How bad is Common Core? David Coleman, the head of the College Board, is a major promoter of the Common Core Standards and appeared in a video championing the standards and the use of "informational texts" rather than fiction to develop the critical ability of students and higher levels of literacy. Unfortunately for his case, he ended up highlighting perhaps Common Core's greatest weakness - they promote skills at the expense of content knowledge which is virtually ignored.
As an example of the power of the Common Core, Coleman proposed a close and careful reading of Federalist #51, written by James Madison during debate over adoption of the new federal constitution "to teach students and teachers about carefully reading primary sources like Madison's work and how to understand concepts like 'faction' as the authors themselves understood these terms."
The problem is that while Madison does mention factions in Federalist # 51, the document is principally about checks and balances and the separation of powers in the new nation. Coleman does not appear to have even read the title of Federalist #51, The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments, very carefully before making the video. Factions, what we now call political parties, are actually the major topic in Federalist #10 which was also written by Madison.
Coleman should have been forced to resign from both the College Board and the campaign to promote the common core standards after the release of this video. Teachers should know something about history before they profess to teach it. But I guess that is not the case in the Common Core universe.
For all of these reasons, Common Core is rotten at the core.