The Common Core Standards: Truths, Untruths and Ambiguities

Educators in 46 states and DC are deep in the process of implementing new "common core" standards into their classrooms. But an emerging anti-core backlash may render their efforts moot in several states.
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Educators in 46 states and DC are deep in the process of implementing new "common core" standards into their classrooms. But an emerging anti-core backlash may render their efforts moot in several states.

For readers who may not know, the common core state standards are intended to define the knowledge and skills in English language arts (ELA) and math that high school graduates will need for success in college and 21st century jobs. The standards were drafted by associations representing the nation's governors and state education chiefs through a process involving experts and stakeholders and included a two-part public review. They have been endorsed by business leaders, teachers unions, and a bipartisan array of policymakers including President Obama and Jeb Bush. Within two years of their finalization, they were voluntarily adopted by all but four states.

Despite their high-profile supporters, not everyone is feeling the common core love and a handful of early adopting states are experiencing second thoughts. Some critics, like Samuel Goldman writing in the American Conservative, challenge the whole idea of national academic standards, voluntary or otherwise, as an erosion of federalism. Others, like education historian Diane Ravitch , question the wisdom of widespread investment in "untested" standards, especially when attached to real consequences for students, teachers and schools.

These are legitimate debates for us to have. Indeed, something this central to public education demands it. School districts also have real worries about meeting the timeline -- the standards are due to be tested in 2014-15 -- and getting all of the necessary pieces in place so students will be ready. Make no mistake. This is a huge undertaking involving every moving part of the education system.

Still others challenge whether the new common core standards are worthwhile targets for students. Unfortunately, this backlash is being fueled by some critics' misreading of the standards, some unknowns, and more than a few whoppers.

What follows is my attempt to clarify what is true, untrue and ambiguous regarding some of the claims made about the standards themselves so we can focus on the conversation that we need to have about their appropriate role in a national education agenda:

Not true: "The common core standards are dumbed down." My first reaction to this charge is that whoever believes this has not looked at current standards in many states. The conservative-leaning Fordham Institute did just that. Comparing all state standards to the common core, the authors determined that the core are "clearly superior" to 39 states' math standards and to 37 states in ELA. Three states had "superior" ELA standards to the core. Everything else was about the same.

Not true with a caveat: "Classic literature will be crowded out." A classic misreading of the ELA standards prompted by a common core recommendation that reading at the high school level should be 30 percent literary and 70 percent informational. On the surface that looks like a dramatic shift. But only if one assumes that all of the reading would happen in the English classroom. In fact, a distinguishing characteristic of the common core -- one I applaud -- is that the ELA standards define specific benchmarks for reading and writing in Social Studies, Science and technical subjects. There's a good reason for this: American students perform well internationally when it comes to reading literature, but their performance falls when reading for information. But this also means that teachers of those other subjects should be responsible for those particular standards. And that's the caveat: English teachers have every right to complain if they have to shoulder the full reading burden. At the same time, their colleagues in other subjects were not prepared to teach reading and writing in their subject area and will require some coaching and support.

As to the claim that great literary works will be de-emphasized or not taught at all, I refer readers to the recommended reading in the common core: Shakespeare, Twain, Longfellow, Ovid, Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Yeats, Neruda ... you get the idea.

True. "The common core does not require cursive writing." Not true. "Schools cannot teach cursive writing." This one is just silly, and I suspect it was a slow news day when this rumor got started. Just because something is not specifically addressed in the standards does not mean it is prohibited from being taught.

Not true: "8th graders will no longer be able to take Algebra 1." See "cursive writing." Nothing precludes districts from offering Algebra 1 to 8th graders. The core authors even provide a way to organize a "compacted" middle school math program for students who are ready for higher level math.

True: "The common core are internationally benchmarked." William H. Schmidt, the nation's foremost expert in international math performance, found that the common core-math standards are comparable to the highest-achieving nations. He further found that "most states have a long way to go" to equal them.

The jury is still out. "The common core will make every graduate college and career-ready." Twenty years of research shows that all young people need a high school experience that prepares them for both post-secondary education and good jobs. The common core standards seem to provide a good map for getting there. Whether or not we succeed, however, depends on whether schools can retool effectively, especially given the short deadline and tight budgets. It will require new curriculum and instructional materials; more robust assessments and technology to support them; professional development for teachers and administrators. It will not just involve school districts, but state departments of education, higher education and early education, too. It demands considerable resources to carry out.

Lastly, success will require good communication with parents, teachers and the wider community. Schools will need their support to make change happen, something they're not likely to get if the information the public gets is wrong.

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