The Tea Party and the Common Core: Right Answer, Wrong Reason

Sen. Angela Burks Hill calls for the legislature to end Mississippi's participation in Common Core, the State Standards Initi
Sen. Angela Burks Hill calls for the legislature to end Mississippi's participation in Common Core, the State Standards Initiative that established a single set of educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts and mathematics, at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014. Opponents of Common Core hope to convince legislators into ending the initiative. Lawmakers return to the Capitol Tuesday for a three-month session this year. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The new Common Core State Standards Initiative is getting a lot of attention, as states scramble to implement both the new instructional guidelines and the high-tech resources that will be required for the concurrent changes in testing.

These nationwide systemic changes have been moving rapidly with an ambitious agenda:

  • adjust instruction to emphasize critical thinking skills;
  • integrate reading, writing, and mathematics throughout the process, rather than artificially separate them as if they were oil and water;
  • implement the latest technology in the classroom and throughout the testing process;
  • incorporate the latest in data-gathering and number-crunching techniques to boost performance

-- in effect, to reboot education and to set it on a new path to success. All in all, it's a worthy cause, but its implementation has been critically flawed.

The backlash against Common Core is picking up traction in some quarters, and it has even been repealed in Indiana. The coalition of opponents has included Tea Party activists, who focus on the fact that the standards are supported by the U.S. Department of Education, and therefore an intrusion by the federal government. Unfortunately, that political hot-button has shifted the focus away from discussion about what the Common Core really is, both in theory and in practice.

Do Smarter Computers Make Smarter Students?

For years, now, teachers and administrators have been pressured to concentrate on preparing their students for the standardized tests used to determine their school's funding. Educators have had to shift priorities from arts and civics education to the subjects that will be "on the test," and students have been encouraged to develop their skills at answering multiple-choice questions.

Now, along with the implementation of Common Core, advanced technology is providing what some believe will be a new method of measuring the quality of education. Smarter computers are said to be able to assess individual students across a broader spectrum of learning. No longer is the test going to reveal only whether the student has learned this year's lessons. Now, we are told, it will check to see how well the student has integrated those lessons with all previous lessons and other disciplines.

The new testing computers will choose the next question based on the student's answer to the last question. If the student was wrong, the computer will ratchet down the level of difficulty until the student can answer correctly. When the student demonstrates a grasp of a topic, the computer will move on to check for a higher level of understanding. All this will be done behind the scenes, by the computer, based on an algorithm that will be proprietary information.

The New Tests Require Changes in Curriculum

During the last decades, to comply with No Child Left Behind, teachers have been teaching students how to select the correct answer from among a selection of possibilities. Now, as the standardized multiple-choice test fades into the past, students will be expected to develop the answers themselves, and then to explain the process they used. Math students will have to write explanations of their answers. English students will have to cite material they have read to support the positions they take.

The scope of this change in assessment cannot be overstated. On the positive side, the goal has changed from rote memorization to getting students to think critically. On the negative side, this quantum shift in assessment is being implemented before changes in instruction are in place.

Although there is still a dearth of officially approved Common Core materials available, teachers are working to figure out what Common Core will look like in their classrooms, school districts are investing in the technology required by the new exams, and the corporations that administer the new exams have begun their field tests.

Here We Go Again: Teaching to the New Test

Ultimately, Common Core may provide the right course correction for U.S. education, but the devil is in the transition. Rather than focus first on modifying classroom instruction, we have allowed the testing industry to lead the charge of implementing the new ideas. The first students to be taking the new assessments will be those who have spent their relatively short educational careers preparing for a completely different kind of test, so it won't be clear what the test is actually measuring.

Meanwhile, we are accepting on faith that the assessments -- and the interpretations of the results of those assessments -- will accurately represent the critical thinking skills we say we value. In fact, however, because we are putting the tests in place before the new curriculum, we are blindly accepting them as the standard by which we will measure our students' achievements, and educators will soon find themselves once again "teaching to the test."