Will States Fail the Common Core?

If the Common Core is sunk--by default or design--it will undercut our ability to give all kids access to what they need to succeed and, of course, will undermine confidence in public education.
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The Common Core State Standards are taking so many hits these days that some might wonder why so many people think they should play an important role in American education. In our competitive, fast-changing global economy, if students don't have higher-order capabilities like critical thinking and problem solving, mastery of essential knowledge, and the skill and will to persist, they will be left behind. That's what the Common Core is about.

Instruction in many wealthier public and private schools is routinely aligned to such skills, often through project-based and hands-on learning. But between budget cuts and top-down accountability laws like No Child Left Behind--whose testing fixation promotes test-prep and rote memorization--poor kids have gotten less access to the well-rounded, rigorous education they deserve. Without standards aligned to what kids need to succeed in college, career and life, and ample supports to help them get there, that chasm will grow even wider.

That is why the AFT supports the Common Core standards. They're not a silver bullet, and they're not the only thing kids need for a great public education. But they have the potential to disrupt the cycle of increasing poverty and economic and social stratification by making essential skills and knowledge available to all children, not just some. That's why civil rights groups that see public education as an anchor of democracy and a great equalizer have embraced these standards.

But even good ideas can be torpedoed by bad execution. In New York, officials rushed to impose tests and consequences way before students were ready. And Louisiana, New Mexico and other states are skimping on or simply bungling implementation. If officials are trying to make these standards unattainable, they're doing a great job. No wonder students, their parents and teachers are angry, anxious and demoralized.

Last Sunday, I spent the morning with some Long Island public school teachers who made this crystal clear. Fifth-grade teachers, for example, have been told to follow a new, scripted 500-page curriculum pretty much to the letter. It's an inexcusable information dump that, without time and training for teachers to absorb, adapt and apply the new material, won't improve student learning. As Linda Darling-Hammond has written, the Common Core standards should be "guideposts, not straitjackets."

There is no shame in midcourse corrections, as we have seen with the Affordable Care Act. This is a huge shift. That's why last spring I called for a moratorium--not on the standards or even on the testing, but on the stakes that could unfairly hurt students, teachers and schools during this transition to the Common Core. Tens of thousands have supported this moratorium. But New York State Education Commissioner John King continues to ignore it.

California, however, has not. Officials there chose this year both to drop tests tied to their old standards in order to concentrate on implementing the Common Core and to phase in new high-quality assessments. But they're holding off on consequences until students, teachers and parents are familiar with the new tests.

Speaking of testing, it is not anti-accountability to support measures of student learning other than standardized tests. That's the essence of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, 39 diverse and highly successful public high schools that have received waivers from state standardized exams and so can emphasize higher-order skills, such as crafting and defending a college thesis paper. Likewise, my students at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn engaged in prestigious statewide civics competitions year after year--which boosted their confidence and honed their critical-thinking skills.

Supporters of the Tea Party have opposed the Common Core because, done right, it will mean more resources and supports for kids, including smaller class sizes. It also makes public schools more central. Their vehicle of choice--vouchers--does just the opposite.

If the Common Core is sunk--by default or design--it will undercut our ability to give all kids access to what they need to succeed and, of course, will undermine confidence in public education. That's why we must insist it be done right--and not give in to those who are rooting for these standards, and public schools themselves, to fail.

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