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Common Core Confusion

March 11, 2011

Last Friday I was writing about my good mood as the week ended.  Seven days later, I’m sorting through some confusion, and wondering how many other teachers out there are feeling it too.

one wayThe Common Core Standards are coming!  They’ve been in the news quite a bit this week, and I must admit I’m finding the debates and the process are leaving me uncertain about the future.  In this post, I look at the issues rather broadly, expressing more than a little doubt about what’s going on.  (In Part Two, coming soon, I plan to look more closely at a related discussion on the Core Knowledge Blog, and dig into some of the statements made at this week’s meeting of the California State Board of Education.  You might be surprised at my reactions).

I have never bought the idea that we needed these national curriculum standards, and wrote about my concerns in a blog post at Teacher Magazine back in 2009.  In brief, that post suggested that we might benefit from national standards articulating expectations for professional practice, but professional practitioners must retain autonomy.  That autonomy helps ensure innovation and customization that local schools and students deserve.

My skepticism on this front puts me in good company.  Professor Yong Zhao has written eloquently about the risks of over-investing ourselves in standardization.  Zhao gets to the heart of my concerns when he writes,

If thoughtfully developed and provided as a guide for teachers, students, parents, and curriculum/textbook developers, a curriculum standard can be a useful professional tool. However, when the standard becomes national or common across all states and high stakes tests are used to enforce its implementation across the nation, problems arise.

The idea of a single, national curriculum sounds appealing to some education outsiders, or those whose work in policy or research benefits from such consistency.  Soon, we’ll have common tests to go with the common core, and then… imagine the data!  We’ve seen how that plays out with No Child Left Behind.  The current work around Common Core is guided by an understanding of those problems, and I believe that many fine people and organizations involved in the Common Core effort honestly believe that they will avoid the mistakes of the past.

Last month, I had the chance to listen to two presentations about the Common Core Standards while attending the annual conference of the California Association of Teachers of English.  Both presentations included Carol Jago, the past president of the National Council of Teachers of English; to my knowledge, Jago was the only teacher involved in writing the Common Core Standards.  Jago’s participation in the project, and its endorsement by NCTE, caused some division within NCTE.  (See this NCTE Ning discussion, with links to other NCTE documents; see also Susan Ohanian’s most recent post on the topic).  The latter presentation at CATE confirmed my sense that the standards alone might, as Zhao suggests, serve  as a guide, but that teachers must be vigilant about implementation.  I asked Jago about that after the presentation.  One of my main concerns as an English teacher is that the “exemplar” texts will become a de facto national reading list, despite caveats and warnings that the list is not intended to be used that way.  I suggested that the examples on the list should change – frequently – so that the text list becomes varied enough that it can’t box anyone in.  Jago’s response to me: it’s simply not going to happen.  I responded to her: maybe we’d have better safeguards in the standards if you’d had a critical mass of fellow teachers writing them.

Advocates of the standards include many people and organizations that I respect, but whose optimism strikes me as unfounded.  In one case, the Shanker Institute, which is an excellent resource on many education issues, posted its endorsement of the standards (the common link being AFT’s involvement – which generated some criticism from teacher and blogger Michael Dunn at “Modern School”).  There are some impressive names among the endorsers of the standards, people whose work and opinions I hold in high esteem.  However, anticipating the concerns that I and many others have voiced, they felt the need to feature this clarifying text on their web page:

To be clear, by “curriculum” we mean a coherent, sequential set of guidelines in the core academic disciplines, specifying the content knowledge and skills that all students are expected to learn, over time, in a thoughtful progression across the grades. We do not mean performance standards, textbook offerings, daily lesson plans, or rigid pedagogical prescriptions.

So, is it wrong to be worried, skeptical about the motives behind the standards?  Zhao’s blog post linked to this Alfie Kohn commentary in Education Week, which features more salient criticisms of the standards movement.  I recommend reading the whole piece, but as an English teacher who appreciates close reading, I found this observation by Kohn particularly telling:

If you read the FAQs page on the common-core-standards Web site, don’t bother looking for words like “exploration,” “intrinsic motivation,” “developmentally appropriate,” or “democracy.” Instead, the very first sentence contains the phrase “success in the global economy,” followed immediately by “America’s competitive edge.”

The Common Core website has a Myths vs. Facts page to address the concerns that I and many others have raised.  I suggest you read it.  I don’t find it very reassuring, as some of answers are evasive (how many teachers involved, in what capacities), some offer distinctions without differences (federal initiative or not, we’re essentially getting national standards), and some could be summarized as “trust us” (regarding flexibility).  But take a look for yourself – don’t just trust me.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2011 6:13 am

    The entire question of the presence or absence of a reading list in the CC standards is a complete red herring. Sad to say I’ve spent too much time looking at other states’ and other countries’ ELA standards over the past year and essentially *none* of them have what amounts to a reading list. About the strictest it gets is England requiring some Shakespeare (actually that’s pretty common in the US, too).

    Which is not to say that reading lists don’t exist — they’re just outside the scope of *standards*.

  2. March 11, 2011 6:59 am

    Most people conflate “standards” with “curriculum,” which leads to a total lack of clarity on the issue. Should there be broad, general standards for learning in America? Eh, maybe–it’s a transient society, and perhaps sketching a framework for what goes where in curriculum design is probably a good idea. Michigan was the first state to adopt the CCS, and they align fairly well with the content frameworks already in place.

    But–did you notice the order of operations here? First the standards. Then the assessments. And now, a national curriculum. Which I think was the goal all along. Because once we have all three, we can determine, with exquisite precision, who is and is not learning What Must Be Learned. And punish those teachers and students with equally exquisite precision.

    Here’s the updated aphorism: To a man with a computer, every problem looks like data.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      March 12, 2011 9:00 am

      Nancy, to take that last idea a step further, I think too many people with data have an irresistible urge to manipulate it, slice and dice it, compare results and see how they stack up. In that regard, I worry that national standards and assessments feed into an impulse that serves politicians and some researchers, but diverts focus and resources from simply trying to help everyone improve. Surely any given school, district, or state should have a number of ways to examine their work and make the case for strengths, weaknesses, and needed improvements. When we talk about state rankings there are so many variables that it gets a bit ridiculous at some point. We’ve got districts in California that are larger than some states. Ranking us relative to Rhode Island or Wyoming or Vermont or New Hampshire or North Dakota… what’s the point?

    • March 12, 2011 7:45 pm

      “And now, a national curriculum. Which I think was the goal all along. ”

      Yup. On a lark, I subscribed to investor news from K12, Inc., the highly profitable, Michael Milken (yes, THAT Milken — Roi du Junque Bond) founded publicly traded purveyor of online curriculum. 68,000 full-time students (for which they receive public funding as though they are a brick and mortar school), 2,000 employees (of which something like 300 are teachers).

      In the forward looking notes from a recent SEC report? A national standard, blessed and pressed by the federal government, would allow K12, Inc. to standardize on one curriculum, lowering their costs and dropping barriers to entry all over the country. And send returns to shareholders through the roof.

      On a side note, K12, Inc. invested heavily in state superintendent races in Idaho and Wisconsin.

      • March 25, 2011 2:27 pm

        I tend to agree that K12 has a bunch of money behind standardizing curriculum, but, as a parent, I favor having the core standards. I don’t think that they will improve teaching any (they may even make things worse for the weaker teachers who teach to the test), but they will prevent school boards and politicians from claiming that they are delivering a first-rate education, when what they are really delivering is a year or two or three behind the rest of the country. Locally, I think that it will make no difference, as California already has standards very similar to the common core, and our district is pretty much run-of-the-mill for California. The problem here is money and refusal of the rich to pay any taxes, and the common core doesn’t do anything one way or the other for that problem.

  3. March 12, 2011 7:13 am

    To me it is this simple: no one has ever been able to explain to me how common standards increase the learning of the students in my classroom.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      March 12, 2011 8:51 am

      Hi Mark – is it the national/common standards that you’re questioning, or would you extend that to state or district level standards?

      • March 12, 2011 3:00 pm

        Regradless of the level, the connection has never been made clear: if my students and your students are both being shuffled toward the same standard, how does that mean that they are learning more or better? I came of age as a teacher during the standards movement, and I have no objection to their existence and to our mutual agreement that the ought to be our shared targets–but let’s not give them more power than they actually have…simply having a common goal will not fix everything. However, having that common target has been extrapolated down to enable people to form the premise that common targets should also mean common assessment, common practice, common delivery…which is exactly what will drive me out of this profession.

        I guess my issue is that the existence of the standards–and whether or not those standards are the same or different as the standards toward which another teacher works–has not made me a better teacher and has not made my students learn more or more efficiently. We spend a lot of time wordsmithing the standards, which are things which have very little impact on me, my students, or my instruction.

  4. March 12, 2011 4:14 pm

    @Mark I think Margaret Mead said it best: “All good teachers have some characteristics in common. The most extraordinary thing about a really good teacher is that he/she transcends accepted educational methods. Such methods are to help the average teacher approximate the performance of the good teacher. ”

    Paul Hawking
    The Challenge of Teaching Math
    Latest post:
    Teaching word problems (systems of linear equations)

  5. David B. Cohen permalink*
    March 12, 2011 4:15 pm

    Mark, I agree that the standards themselves aren’t going to lead necessarily to better teaching and learning. I do see some usefulness in standards to guide instruction and help ensure a certain scope and sequence, though I think those standards should be few, broad, and developed by teachers with some outside consultation, not developed by consultants with some teacher input.

    • March 12, 2011 9:28 pm

      I agree. I am not anti-standards… in fact, I’m intrigued by the concept of standards-based grading as a way of giving more effective student feedback. Maybe in this respect they will help me give clearer feedback and thus impact my students…but that’s never the reason given when people tell me why I have to do the same thing as a teacher down the hall.

      The “sameness” movement is what bothers me, and standards have been corrupted for that crusade.

  6. Kim McCollum-Clark permalink
    March 12, 2011 4:42 pm

    As usual, it’s not the standards, really, it’s the tests that follow the standards that should concern us. The CCS assessments are not yet in the works, but the plans for them are well under way. They include FOUR SUMMATIVE standardized assessments PER YEAR in grades 3-11 INCLUSIVE in both math and English/Literacy. Oh, but they are “next generation assessments!” And teachers will have results in two weeks (because the tests will be at least partially scored by computer.) And of course they will NOT create overly reductive, scripted teaching and curricula because they are going to test “higher order thinking skills”! And rainbow unicorns will deliver cookies with the results and peace shall flow from the skies!

    I jest only a wee bit. My money is on Pearson writing and scoring the tests. A summative, standardized test for English AND Math EVERY QUARTER in grades 3-11. I am still staggered at the thought.


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