Wait, Tell Me Again What Common Core Is?
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Wait -- Can You Tell Me Again What Common Core is?

A couple of recent polls show that support for Common Core State Standards is slipping.

Even teachers -- who have been among the strongest supporters of Common Core -- are faltering, though that doesn't seem to be because of the standards themselves.

Since most non-educators seem to be getting most of their information about Common Core from television, which (I don't think I'm overstating here) can occasionally be a tad superficial and inflammatory, it might be worth taking a breath and asking what Common Core State Standards are and why they were developed.

Let's begin with the fact that most parents assume educators have a common, professional understanding of what kids should learn and when so that by the end of high school kids are ready for the next step, whether it be college, job training, or the military.

It turns out, though, that there isn't a lot of common understanding about what kids should learn when.

Here's a very specific example of what I mean. In 2002, William Schmidt, a scholar at Michigan State University, and his colleagues Richard Houang and Leland Cogan studied what states expected kids to learn and found that one-third of states didn't expect fifth-graders to learn the relationship between fractions and decimals. In comparison, every top-performing country in the world makes that a main topic of fifth grade.

What were American students doing instead? Most states expected them to be studying, among other things, number theory, three-dimensional geometry, and geometric transformations -- topics that most top-performing countries leave until 7th and 8th grade.

Schmidt's study demonstrating the lack of American agreement on when to teach mathematical topics, contrasted with a general agreement throughout the top-performing countries in the world, is part of what framed the effort to develop a consistent set of standards that teachers can use to guide instruction.

That effort, known as Common Core State Standards, lays out, for example, when fractions should be introduced -- third grade -- and when students should fully understand the equivalence between fractions and other proportions such as decimals -- fifth grade.

By setting out a coherent set of standards focused on fewer topics taught in more depth at any given grade, Common Core standards do three important things that have gotten a bit lost in all the rhetoric:

  • They help educators all over the country focus on what students need to learn rather than getting distracted by dozens of extraneous topics.

  • They encourage publishers to develop textbooks and other materials that cover those few topics in much greater depth. Right now, math textbooks tend to be huge behemoths, covering all kinds of topics in a dizzying attempt to match all the states' standards, making them what Schmidt famously called "a mile wide and an inch thick."
  • Local schools and districts still control what curricula and materials they use, but having a common set of expectations will allow local educators, school boards, and parents to compare the quality of textbooks and materials in a systematic way.

  • They allow states to pool resources to collaborate on developing assessments more complex than multiple choice tests to provide better information to students, teachers, and parents on learning and progress. The new Common Core tests (PARCC and Smarter Balanced), paid for by consortia of states with help from the feds, were field-tested last year and are expected to be administered for the first time this school year.
  • It is the adoption of the new Common Core assessments that is giving teachers heartburn. Actually, it isn't even the assessments so much as the collision between the assessments and another, parallel initiative, which is to include student test scores in teacher evaluation -- a collision, by the way, that was predicted

    Although many teachers weren't fully on board with the general idea, they have gone into full-scale revolt at the idea that their evaluations would be based on student results on brand-new tests built upon the relatively new Common Core State Standards.

    That seems to be why teachers are withdrawing support for Common Core -- it is certainly the reason the teachers' unions, the NEA and the AFT, have been criticizing Common Core's "implementation." Now that the feds are showing a little more flexibility in timelines, teachers' support for the new standards may rebound -- though that remains to be seen.

    All of which is to say that Common Core State Standards won't make kids smarter, or dumber, or make them like school more, or put them in the grip of a totalitarian master.

    All Common Core State Standards do is set up the conditions under which teachers will have more clarity about what kids learn when and be able to collaborate with colleagues across the country.

    That's not inconsequential. But neither is it a reason to exult or panic.

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