fresh voices from the front lines of change







Now that ed-heads have had a chance to make their "what to expect in 2014" prognostications, it's evident that one of the most tumultuous issues – perhaps the most tumultuous – for the year ahead is the fate of the Common Core State Standards.

The Common Core – academic standards in math and English language arts the U.S. Department of Education coerced most states to adopt and use for measuring public education performance goals – has been marketed to the American people as "the first step in providing our young people with a high-quality education," according to the initiative's website.

Most states (45) eagerly took that "first step," but it's the second, third, and fourth steps that are proving problematic.

Common Core Is A "Flashpoint"

Writing for the education trade publication Education Week, Andrew Ujifusa declared the Common Core to be a "flashpoint" in the year ahead. In an election year, the new standards, and their associated tests, confront "a tricky political climate."

In 2013, a "total of 270 unique bills in all states dealt with academic-content standards in some way," compared to just 117 in 2012. In great part, the results of those bills tied all sorts of education policies – from curriculum and instruction, to teacher evaluations and school ratings, to student assessments and the sharing of their personal records – to the Common Core.

The consequences of these sweeping changes to state education policies, spurred by adoption of the new standards, are gradually coming due, and team Common Core is looking shaky.

Opposition Coming From Right And Left

Last week influential conservative columnist George Will wrote in the editorial pages of The Washington Post, "The Obama administration has purchased states’ obedience by partially conditioning waivers from onerous federal regulations (from No Child Left Behind) and receipt of federal largess ($4.35 billion in Race to the Top money from the 2009 stimulus) on the states’ embrace of the Common Core. Although 45 states and the District of Columbia have struck this bargain, most with little debate, some are reconsidering and more will do so as opposition mounts."

Opposition is, indeed, mounting.

State leaders in Indiana – a state that has been touted by Common Core proponents as an "Education Reform Idol" – seems poised to drop the standards, according to Education Week's Michele McNeil. Lawmakers in Kentucky – the first state to adopt the Common Core – filed a bill to repeal the standards. Recently, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley came out against the standards her state adopted saying, “We don’t ever want to educate South Carolina children like they educate California children.”

When state lawmakers aren't calling for outright repeal of the standards, they are expressing serious misgivings with all the trappings the Common Core entails, including new teacher evaluations and the Common Core tests developed by two assessment consortia facilitated by the federal government.

According to the education blog for the New America Foundation, "Several states have already pulled out, or scaled back, their involvement" with the two consortia that developed those tests. "Expect more to follow this year," concluded NAF's expert.

New York, one of the first states to roll out those new standards-aligned tests, has been the scene of such vocal and widespread dissent related to those tests, that Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced plans for “corrective action” on the Common Core rollout.

What happened?

Everything You Need To Know

To answer that question, education historian Diane Ravitch recently delivered a seminal speech to the Modern Language Association to explain, "Everything you need to know about Common Core."

Valerie Strauss recently posted the transcript for that speech on her blog at The Washington Post, and the entire text is well worth reading.

To begin with, Ravitch linked Common Core enthusiasm to what is essentially an old idea: George W. Bush’s "No Child Left Behind," that mandated testing of every child throughout the country and using those test results as rationale for all sorts of decisions.

"No other nation tests every student every year as we do," explained Ravitch. "Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of Education wants every state and every district to do it. Because of these federal programs, our schools have become obsessed with standardized testing … This is the policy context in which the Common Core standards were developed."

This "test obsession" Ravitch decried stems from well-meaning intentions of those who see the Common Core as a way to resolve longstanding inequity in the nation's education system.

"The advocates of the standards … believed that common standards would automatically guarantee equity. Some spoke of the Common Core as a civil rights issue."

This has been a colossal mistake, Ravitch contended. "To expect tougher standards and a renewed emphasis on standardized testing to reduce poverty and inequality is to expect what never was and never will be."

Ravitch pointed to a great many other factors that make the Common Core so controversial to their detractors on both the right and the left of the political spectrum, including their costs, their inappropriateness to the developmental levels of little children, and their entanglement with corporations that aim to make a lot of money by creating tests and materials aligned to the standards.

But most devastatingly, Ravitch warned that the false promise of NCLB – which mandated 100 percent of American school children to be "proficient" in reading and math by 2014 – have morphed into the false promise of the Common Core:

Advocates of the standards insist that low-scoring students will become high-scoring students if the tests are rigorous, but what if they are wrong? What if the failure rate remains staggeringly high as it is now? What if it improves marginally as students become accustomed to the material, and the failure rate drops from 70% to 50%? What will we do with the 50% who can’t jump over the bar? Teachers across the country will be fired if the scores of their pupils do not go up. This is nuts. We have a national policy that is a theory based on an assumption grounded in hope.

Hope For The Common Core?

As support for the Common Core waivers among the ranks of politicians, pundits, and scholars, that support seems to be gaining some ground in the most surprising of places: among public school educators who the new standards were supposed to corral and coerce.

Although there are surveys showing wide approval of the Common Core among educators, those data have to be taken with a grain of salt. After all, how can educators "approve" something before they've had time necessary to see how it works in their classrooms and with their students?

Nevertheless, the anecdotal data showing support for the Common Core among educators continue to mount. It's commonplace, for instance, to come across educators who firmly believe that the Common Core "is better than what we have now." Numerous teachers have presented their own personal uses of the standards to craft better lessons for their students – even those for those students who are the most challenged by the standards.

Writing at her blogsite for Education Week, former Michigan Teacher of the Year Nancy Flanagan recently wrote, "In my work in professional development and teacher leadership, I meet teachers all the time who say they like the CC and appreciate having a K-12 framework. Most of them are young, and find the structure, if not each individual standard, useful … When teachers say they like the Common Core, I listen."

Such teacher-led support for the Common Core is so pervasive it enabled the National Education Association, the nation's largest teacher union, to recently unveil a $7 million free platform with more than 3,000 lessons aligned to the standards.

For sure, there are also plenty of anecdotes of highly scripted lessons based on the Common Core that treat teachers as "deliverers" of canned curriculum rather than as educators capable of tailoring learning to individual student needs.

But experienced teachers can discern the difference between the two – that is, if we give them the freedom to do so.

Writing at his blogsite, again, at Education Week, Upstate New York elementary principal Peter DeWitt argued a point that doubtlessly rings true with many educators: "I want to believe that the Common Core is like a textbook. They offer a base of what educators should focus on but they are not the only thing that educators should teach. They may offer a blueprint but you can build the way you want."

What is "the problem," DeWitt concluded, is when standards advocates want to lock in rigid expectations for children that cannot be standardized. "I understand that supporters of the Common Core will say that if all teachers in all schools around every state are teaching the same standards they won't have to worry about children entering not meeting those expectations. But let's face it, that argument is just plain silly. We know that not every student will meet those exit requirements and we know that not all students come in to the next grade (from the same school or another one) meeting those entrance requirements." (emphasis original)

Is it beyond the capacity of Common Core advocates to unhitch their suspicions of teachers and trust them to do what's right for children?

Back to Ravitch, "It is good to have standards," she concluded in her speech. "But they must not be rigid, inflexible, and prescriptive. … There is something about the Common Core standards and testing, about their demand for uniformity and standardization, that reeks of early twentieth century factory-line thinking. There is something about them that feels obsolete. Today, most sectors of our economy have standards that are open-sourced and flexible, that rely upon the wisdom of practitioners, that are constantly updated and improved."

So yes, advocates for Common core should be advocates to give teachers that flexibility with the Common Core, and see what they do. Any other approach to Common Core just seems like No Child Left Behind all over again.

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