Common Core: This, too, shall pass?

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I have been a strong supporter of the Common Core—at least the mathematics standards, at least in the third- through eighth-grade range. The idea of developing a minimum set of learning objectives or performance expectations that kids should master in order to receive a high school diploma in the US has always appealed to me. Also, the possibility of teachers in Maryland collaborating about the same learning goals with teachers in Illinois is one of the founding principles that led to the creation of this foundation. The Common Core is much more than a small nonprofit like Voxitatis can grasp, of course, but many of the objections to it have seemed, to me, political. And since I really don’t know how to address the idea that suggesting kids should learn how to manipulate fractions can harm our democracy, I have remained firm in my support.

But from almost the beginning, there has been a chorus of skeptics, and their voices are now rising to a critical mass. “The Common Core is a Trojan horse,” they say, suggesting that it is a very nice gift, but a bunch of evil Communists are about to jump out and attack our children in their classrooms. But the objections are much more than political: many are levied directly at the standards themselves. “The math standards in high school won’t prepare students for college at all, especially at the elite colleges parents want for their kids,” some really smart people write. They even testify to this before state legislatures and boards of education. “The English language arts standards aren’t age-appropriate in the younger grades,” other critics say, showing a greater understanding of neurobiology than I have. “We need to consider how kids’ brains learn language skills.”

School officials have turned a deaf ear to these protests. Maybe, like me, they don’t know how to address them either, which calls for politicians to step in. But not at a school-sponsored forum, of course, because you might get arrested. In Maryland, officials of the Baltimore County Public Schools, acting under the authority though not necessarily the direction of Superintendent Dallas Dance, instructed an off-duty police officer to remove, with force, one man who suggested the standards would not prepare his students for the colleges he wanted them to attend. In Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a “listening session” for people in the community to hear State Superintendent John King describe the Common Core turned into an embarrassing lesson in how not to open communication channels between the public and the schools. And in Louisiana, State Superintendent John White was accused of bullying residents, via the local newspaper, who had put up lawn signs to protest the Common Core.

And through all this unethical and inappropriate behavior from state school officers on down to parents, behavior that is guaranteed to close off communication channels even more since both ends of the pipe are being shut down, teachers in our classrooms have been trying to do their best to revamp lesson plans so that they cover the standards in the Common Core. The standards, you see, were handed to them, a sort of one-size-fits-all list of performance expectations, like whether kids in sixth grade should be able to convert fractions to percents, and so on. Their national unions, including both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, support the Common Core officially. However, when the NEA wrote on its website that a survey it had conducted led to the result that 75 percent of its members support the Common Core, the article drew almost 200 comments from teachers saying, basically, “I am an NEA member, and I don’t support the Common Core. In fact, I didn’t even know a survey was being conducted. Since I can’t find a copy of the survey accompanying the article, I don’t believe a survey was even taken, because, you know, I can count on one hand the total number of teachers I know who would even remotely support the Common Core. And I know a LOT of teachers.”

In the case of the NEA, I read the article, and it strikes me as the worst form of propaganda, which makes me question my support for the Common Core idea. Why are supporters so unwilling to hear dissenting viewpoints? This is a very defensive posture, like one a governor might assume when talking with a journalist the day after he accepted a bribe. As an educator working with the standards, I think there are problems with some of the details—for example, I can’t see how we’re going to test certain third-grade standards that require knowledge of fifth-grade standards in order to solve any actual problem—but I have always thought the details will become apparent once the standards begin appearing in tests and in lesson plans. People would soon realize that some of the standards just don’t work and move to fix them. But first of all, the closing off of communication channels doesn’t make me feel too optimistic about the chances for change down the road, and second, some people are suggesting that the ELA standards are developmentally inappropriate for young children. That sounds to me as if it can’t just be edited: they’re suggesting some standards aren’t only “nontestable,” which would be very bad, but also “not learnable” by young children. The situation may be incompatible with education.

I have explained what the Common Core is and what it is not. To read more, type common core into the search box at the top. Other school officials and newspapers have also provided some input into this argument. But somehow, we seem to be missing the point. The undoing of the Common Core, if it is to be undone, will come from teachers. Those that aren’t afraid of being found out and fired are speaking up, and they aren’t saying very many flattering things about the Common Core. One reason is that it’s not very different from previous standards in many states, especially in math, so it’s really nothing to get all excited about. Another reason is that many find the prescriptive nature of the standards—for example, devote 50 percent of reading to literature and 50 percent to informational text—to be too dictatorial and an insult to their professionalism.

But the bottom line is, even if only 25 percent of the teachers oppose the Common Core—and the NEA’s possibly made-up survey suggests that’s the number, though I suspect it’s a little higher, just a little—it’s still way too many. There’s something wrong with it, which I am missing, if one-fourth of this country’s teachers oppose it. So, over the next week, I’m going to be writing an article a day about the Common Core and addressing some of the objections. I invite comments here from both sides of the fence, though I will reject any trolling. This is no time for amusement.

Another possible undoing of the Common Core will come from the tests from PARCC. Back in August, when the first round of actual test items was released to the public, the public was promised another set in October. Here we are on Oct 29, and nothing seems to be forthcoming. Let’s get it in before Halloween, shall we? On second thought, the PARCC website still lists Florida as a member state. Maybe, if you want some amusement, head over the PARCC site; don’t post it here. If you think something I’m saying is wrong, though, or if you have any actual questions, please post it here.

In the meantime, we’re going to continue our stories about positive things that are happening in the schools, including in the fine arts and in athletics. But it’s time to speak up about the Common Core, the tests that look to accompany it, and the evaluations of teachers and schools (the whole Trojan horse idea).

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.