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Common Core Confusion – ASCD Edition

March 26, 2011

At the ASCD Convention this afternoon, Brenda Hales of the Utah Department of Education gave a presentation titled, “Rolling Out the Common Core Standards.”  It’s a topic that I’ve been wrestling with recently, and about which I wrote a recent blog post.  I’m not convinced that the common core standards are necessary, and not convinced that they will lead to good outcomes.

But then, even setting aside concerns about the necessity or effectiveness of these standards, I’m deeply, deeply skeptical that, with politicians in charge, we have much chance of avoiding the worst possible abuses of the standards.  The potential for narrowed curriculum and punitive ratings and rankings is all too real, and the huge amounts of money that will flow away from classrooms and schools should concern any school stakeholder, or tax payer.

Brenda Hales said all the right things for someone in her position.  The Common Core Standards is not a national requirement.  It’s not a national curriculum.  It will help ensure that students in all (participating) states meet the same high standards for college and career readiness, which will… help us win the future!  (No – she didn’t really say that; her exact words were “America’s future and the economy depend on it”).

From my vantage point, Hales is offering a distinction without a difference, for most of us in schools.  Nearly every state has signed on to the Common Core Standards, the textbook companies and education consultants and test publishers are charging full speed ahead.  Many teachers are getting a super-fast introduction to new standards that were revised and adopted on a Race-to-the-Top timeline, and may be implemented before they’re fully understood.  I heard from Carol Jago, former president of NCTE and the only teacher involved in creating the standards, that the state of North Carolina rushed through a law that mandated textbooks aligned with the standards, but based on a fundamental misreading of the standards.  (Jago said that the N.C. law requires English textbooks for high schools to contain 70% non-fiction and 30% fiction, when the standards are suggesting those percentages for a student’s overall high school reading, not just reading in one subject).

Those who support the Common Core Standards assure us skeptics that the standards do not dictate what to teach or how to teach – and technically, they’re right.  Technically, states can opt out of NCLB too, if they’re willing to forego federal money.  Technically, NCLB didn’t tell anyone to narrow their curriculum or adopt pacing guides; however, those unintended consequences were foreseeable.  Now, still in the grip of the NCLB nightmare and watching Race to the Top competitors rush into a set of unproven reforms, with budgets slashed to the bone (or through it), and with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) still pending in a divided Congress with a Democratic party-ambiguous President – now, of all times, we’re supposed to trust that these new and improved standards are going to advance American public education without sinking us deeper into the testing and fake-accountability quicksand.

They tell us these tests are better, smarter, more complex instruments.  At this point, I just hear: more expensive.  It will all be computerized, they say.  Will they provide the computers, too, or do the imagine we already live in that 1:1 computing world?  And in case you missed it, some of the human beings in the testing industry have been blowing the whistle on fraudulent practices in the testing industry when humans score non-bubble tests.  How many teachers’ jobs are disappearing so we can continue to pay for fraudulent testing?

The implementation is still going to be messy in any case, in large part because of differences in interpretation.  Catherine Gewertz examined this issue in EdWeek and captured much of the confusion.

If it were up to me, I’d put this project on the shelf.  I think it’s too late for that wish.  Our governments, professional organizations, and national unions have already endoresed the move, and the change is underway in most states..

Still, we can be well-informed in the ongoing battle to keep the standards in place and not let them exacerbate our existing problems with testing and standards.  In my prior blog post on the subject, I quoted and linked some other opinions on the issue, including Professor Yong Zhao on the risks of over-investing ourselves in standardization, and this Alfie Kohn commentary in Education Week.

Mary Ann Riley’s blog post takes issue with ASCD’s participation in the Common Core implementation; she contends that the standards do not have a meaning independent of the intention of their authors, nor can they lead to authentic learning when they ignore context, and bypass teachers and learners to jump straight from theory to expected outcomes.

Ultimately, I find myself quite convinced by the critics and barely reassured by the advocates of Common Core Standards.  I am not persuaded that this approach meets the educational needs of students or the instructional needs of teachers and schools, and even if it does, only to a degree much less than it meets the political needs of government officials and the profit needs of well-positioned businesses.

What’s left to do, then?

For parents, students, and the general public, we must watch the actions more than we listen to the words.  Follow the money.  When policy makers spend at will for tests without supporting schools or teachers, make their hypocrisy known.  If the testing burdens prove to be too much, parents and students are realizing that they have the ultimate power, in their decisions about whether or not to comply with the testing.

For teachers, we must be the experts in the standards, and we must press our unions and professional organizations to stand up and protest if the implementation strays in directions I expect it will.  For example, the suggested literature selections in the language arts standards have some flaws, and in any case we’ve been assured that the list of examplars is not supposed to become a curriculum.  So, when it happens anyways, what will be the response from the education organizations that are assuring us it shouldn’t happen?  I’d call on our organizations to criticize the offending district or state for failing to understand and properly implement the Common Core Standards.  A greater challenge would be to call on our professional organizations to refrain from selling or endorsing books or educational services that abuse the standards’ supposed principles.

We didn’t fight NCLB enough when it came along – too few dared to oppose the policy, draped as it was in the idea of leaving no child behind, and the goal of having every child develop proficient skills.  This time around, policy makers may not have engaged teachers in the formation of the standards, but we’d better be willing to engage them in a fight for the quality of our students’ education if when they begin implementing these standards in detrimental ways.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2011 4:54 am

    David, I share much of your skepticism here.

    On the other hand, after taking a close look at the Finnish learning standards awhile back…

    …I don’t think that national standards are out of the question, nor inherently damaging to authentic learning.

    On a related note, I appreciate Mary Ann Riley’s perspective, but wonder how far she is willing to go down the road of personal meaning-making. I am not well-versed in post-modern philosophy, but it seems to me that any version of the argument that *all* meaning is personal is going to dead-end in absurdist relativism. Where, as educators, do we go from there?

    I’d love your thoughts.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      March 27, 2011 10:08 am

      Dina –
      There’s always a point at which theory and philosophy cross over from practical to impractical, and then I suppose to absurd too. But the thrust of Mary Ann’s argument still resonates for me and deflates some of CCS best-case-scenario arguments. I’m about to post another quick update from ASCD but hope to read the link you offered soon. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Dave Orphal permalink
    March 27, 2011 6:10 am

    Hi David,

    Boy, you are sure right that the devil is in the details and poor implementation of these new standards can be a disaster! And I’m talking as a supporter of the Common Core. I like them!

    Three years ago, our social studies department at Skyline High School, in Oakland California, realized that our sophomore history class had an enormous fail-rate. After collecting and analyzing data, we concluded that the primary reason for this was the lack of a relevant and rigorous class at the 9th grade level. In response to our conclusions, I wrote a new curriculum for 9th grade social studies, focusing on the goals of primary-document research, thesis development, and historical essay writing. Two years ago, I piloted the class for 120 9th graders. Last year, all of our 9th grade history teachers had adopted the curriculum. Today, not only vastly more sophomores maintaing at least a “C” in their world history class, but the AP World History class has expanded by 50% and is “the most diverse group of AP students I have ever seen,” according to our AP teacher.

    Our department knew that doing the authentic work of a historian would be not only more rigorous, not only a better support for our children’s writing skills, not only more closely tied with the skills our children would need in college and career, but also more fun. When our six 9th grade social studies teachers read the drafts of the new Common Core Standards last year, especial the set about “Teaching Writing in History/Social Studies,” one of us said, “It looks like the policy wonks have caught up to us.”

    As excited as I am about the ELA and Math standards, I must admit, I am a little fearful about the soon-to-be-written History/Social Studies standards. Traditionally, history standards are far more politicized as stakeholders ask the question, “Whose history will we teacher the children?” As a part of my work with the Center for Teaching Quality and the California Teacher Association, I plan to be right in the middle of that debate. My concern is that the new History/Social Studies standards are not a laundry list of names, dates and battles like many of the state standards it will be replacing.

    I am also leery about the next generation of student assessments. A teacher might argue that the current version of her/his state standards is far more relevant and rigorous that the set of sub-skills and facts that are on the high-stakes test. S/he may go on to say that the high stakes attached to the assessment have overblown the import attached to those sub-skills and facts to the detriment of higher-order (and more difficult to assess) thinking and reasoning. Finally, that teacher may critique our current system by saying the primary merit for using the particular questions that we currently do on our student assessment is not because these are the skills and facts we most value, but rather because they lend themselves to easily scored tests. I would agree with that teacher and advocate that the next generation of student assessments must serve our goals and objectives in regards to what we want to see a well-educated young person able to do and know. Our vision of a well-educated child, or an effective teacher can no longer be the servant of inexpensively administered exams.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      March 27, 2011 10:04 am

      Thanks for the comment, Dave. And for anyone else reading, here’s a link to Dave’s blog on the topic:

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      March 27, 2011 1:55 pm

      Dave, your point about history standards is key, and it came up at the session yesterday. What’s the proper version of history – what really happened, and what does the Texas state board say, or not say about it? Then there’s the politics of the science standards – hello, Kansas!
      Some of the more promising ideas I’ve heard about future assessments suggest a multi-day, interdisciplinary approach. Give students time to digest multiple pieces of information and present their understanding in multiple ways. Great, but how much would that cost? If we could get over the obsession with supposed objectivity and mandatory rankings and comparisons, we could talk about ways of actually using those assessments more effectively at the local level, too.

  3. March 27, 2011 7:58 am

    When the major testing groups comprise the largest portion of the common core standards committee – – I think we can have an idea of where this is headed. Follow the money. If I were a testing company, I’d certainly want the standards to align with my tests.

  4. Lea permalink
    March 27, 2011 11:01 am

    Not to mention that ASCD was just awarded a three million dollar grant from the Gates Foundation to promote the Common Core standards.

  5. March 27, 2011 1:17 pm

    Thanks for responding, Dave, and wanted to clarify immediately that when I use the word “absurd” I mean it only in the strict philosophical school of thought of Camus or Beckett, not as a criticism.

    Lots to say (later, after I get through these double entry reading journals :), but I am so grateful that you’ve got this on my radar again.

    I have blogged often for the ASCD, as a matter of transparency, and notably, about Common Core at their request: I’ve never experienced any censorship or editorial dialing down of my work, and it was quite critical.

    I do have some questions about the Gates grant, that being said, and will be interested to hear my editor’s answers.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      March 27, 2011 1:48 pm

      No worries, I understood exactly what you meant about “absurd”. My college courses in philosophy and literary theory come in handy once in a while!

  6. March 28, 2011 5:58 pm

    Truly, we live in upside-down land. In Los Angeles our last superintendent was scolded for receiving a handsome salary from Scholastic co, which makes wonderful testing components for kindergartners, first graders all the way up the ladder. After Mr. LA superintendent renounced his salary from that company and his time in office came to an end, in steps Mr. Gates foundation pal, who can say “Hi” to a lady who made her bones with the same group by impressing them with her ability to give away public schools to private charter companies. If anybody comments that philanthropy is not the immediate concern of these wonderful ‘reformers’, the local press slams you for corrupting the minds of the kids you teach and pushing adult agendas on them. Our role as teachers is to shut up and take it while the chicken feathers simmer in the hot tar. Why waste a step?
    If anybody questions the reputation of the charter operators, it is educational bias.
    If we dare defend the pension money that we have contributed to for twenty five years or so, we are greedy and selfish. It is so much fun driving home from school to hear the local radio pundits blast over their high wattage transmitters about how public employees are whores and lazy or just lazy whores, and that the teachers’ union is evil and won’t do a thing to remove incompetent workers. Who is the saint who is shot full of arrows? He must be the patron saint of public school teachers. I’d love to write more, but grades are due, and I’ve got to give up a little more unpaid time to put them in my computer because I’m too lazy to etch them into stone with my fingernails. Ahhhhh!

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      March 28, 2011 9:19 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to share, Steve. I have to get myself away from the computer and do my grades too. But your comment highlights an important factor in education debates. The think-tank folks, the publishers, and the pushers-of-various-agendas have full time jobs that allow them to gather the evidence (in some cases, evidence they paid for), and to work on their public relations strategies, to cultivate networks and relationships that serve their purposes. And I suppose to be fair I should say that sometimes, those are good people doing good work. But there’s one key group in education that can’t have a full-time job doing education policy – and that’s us. In theory, we have professional organizations like NCTE, NCME, ASCD and the like, plus NEA, AFT and their state level affiliates. However, the people working full time on policy in those organizations are not teachers, nor are the members of the professional associaionts exclusively teachers. It’s up to us to make our voices heard and make sure those organizations represent our views and concerns. It would be fair to say that some teachers in those groups argue that their positions are based on politics or balance sheets. Not many teachers have the time to keep abreast of all these developments, especially when they move quickly. What can we do to keep teachers informed and active?

  7. April 3, 2011 5:05 am

    So I wrote earlier that I had “lots to say,” but I realize this morning that most of it can be distilled into one question: If the new standards were NOT coming out simultaneously with the questionable demands of RttT, would that change my criticism of them?

    For me, it would– and it wouldn’t. And I think that’s important. In otherwords, there are two camps of criticism to be had against Common Core, and they are not the same.

    The first camp is about the content of Common Core itself. As I’ve argued, I don’t find the intense involvement of for-profit influences comforting, to say the least, or the lack of input from teachers or peer-reviewed research. On the other hand, they have significant strengths– a marked increase in critical analysis, logic, and argument, for example (which clearly is missing in Congress these days. Our politicians could use some lessons from kids taught well under these standards!)

    The second camp, however, is not about the quality of the content, but how Common Core would be *used*. And that’s where I share all of your arguments and concerns. Even the best, most rigorous, most holistic standards, such as Finland’s, can be bent to be “tested”.

    I had a conversation similar to this with one of the policy wonks over at EdSector last year. I had been pouring forth about the poor nature of our assessments in New York State, but she stopped me, with some incredulity, and said– “So it’s not *assessments* you’re objecting to per se, but that they’re *bad*?”

    I think that’s the name of this game, too. I don’t mind good standards. I *love* good standards, in fact, and I don’t object to national ones prima facie. But how they would be used in this current political climate… that’s a whole other ball game.


    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      April 4, 2011 7:28 pm

      You summed it up pretty well, Dina. As someone who is pretty textbook averse, I cringe when I see how much money is going out of schools for this endeavor. I don’t know if I could stay in the classroom if I were compelled to teach in a certain system with a certain language arts textbook and computer applications. My students read literature and non-fiction selected for them and purchased because of the quality of content. I wonder what kinds of backroom negotiations go into the selection process while most of us teachers are busy teaching.

      • Lea permalink
        April 5, 2011 8:48 am

        Did you read this article, David?

        It will answer a lot of your questions and not in a reassuring way. Not that it really matter…I don’t think many California districts can afford to buy new textbooks anyway. My district has delayed purchase of the new math adoption for 2 years now and Language Arts for one.

      • David B. Cohen permalink*
        April 5, 2011 9:53 pm

        Thank you for the link, Lea. I kind of figured it worked that way. I really feel for anyone who’s had to use one of those awful ELA textbooks. I’ve been in situations where I had one available for every student, and I would pick and choose pieces I liked. Hardly justified the expense. But the textbooks are just so FAKE – maybe elementary kids like them somehow, but I don’t think middle school and high school kids fall for it. The slick graphics and collages and staged pictures and pseudo-art, the lame pre-reading prompts and generic questions after reading selections… kids get it. They know that none of that stuff is about them, or for them. They not only judge books by their covers, but also by their weight. There’s nothing friendly or inviting about picking up a 4-5 pound book.

  8. Robin permalink
    April 30, 2011 3:40 pm

    Thank you for the article. Although I’m not a teacher, your thoughts on literature choices and textbooks mimic my own (English major). We have 3 public school children who are in the gifted range. How will differentiation ever occur? How is it fair to pretend all children are the same? The Common Core Standards don’t limit school districts from exceeding them, but as a practical matter how can we afford that? We can afford new textbooks, assessments, longitudinal data systems when budget talks include cutting school nurses and libraries? I wish more people would see past the controversies of union and public pensions and the philanthro-myopic push for charters (with its inherent loss of democracy as elected school boards are not a part of that picture). I’ve been trying to spread info amongst my conservative circle. Some are listening but, like your article admits, it’s too late to wish Common Core away. I fear my sophomore may be in one of the last groups of students to live the American dream of neighborhood high. The exodus continues and is exacerbated by this distancing of curriculum choices from parents and imposition of intrusive privacy violations on students through longitudinal data tracking from preschool through the workforce. Very sad.


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