The War Over The Core

Mar 14, 2014 @ 9:28am

Seth Masket considers the latest debate roiling the education world:

By now, you’ve probably heard of the Common Core State Standards. They are a set of skills expectations for students that have been adopted by 45 states plus the District of Columbia. They require that students be broadly competent in mathematics and literacy and know how to do things like critically read a text, argue and defend a point of view, interpret data, etc. – all things that we’d consider pretty useful for students entering college or the work world. The Common Core itself contains no specific prescriptions for content or curriculum, just the requirement that students learn these vital skills. But that’s not at all what you’ll hear about it in the conservative media. For them, not only is the Common Core a massive federal intrusion into state and local education policy (a debatable point, but one roughly grounded in reality), but it’s a primary tool of President Obama and the Left (and possibly the United Nations) to fundamentally transform education, to undermine the authority of religion and parents, to track the location and behavior of children who’ve committed thought crimes (perhaps using iris scans), and to essentially impose collectivism upon America. As Glenn Beck sums up, “This is like some really spooky, sci-fi, Gattaca kind of thing.”

Peter Wood’s criticisms are more reality-based. He argues that Common Core “set a ceiling on the academic preparation of most students”:

None of this might matter if the Common Core were just a baseline and students and schools could easily move above it if they wished to.  The trouble is that the Common Core has been designed to be a sticky baseline.  It is hard for schools to rise above it. There are two reasons for that. First, it uses up most of the time in a K-12 curriculum, leaving little room for anything else. Second, the states that were leveraged into it via Obama’s “Race to the Top” agreed that students who graduate from high school with a Common Core education and are admitted to public colleges and universities will automatically be entered into “credit-bearing courses.” This is tricky. Essentially what it means is that public colleges will have to adjust their curricula down to the level of knowledge and skill that the Common Core mandates. And that in turn means that most schools will have little reason to offer anything beyond the Common Core, even if they can. In this way, the Common Core floor becomes very much a ceiling, too.

Neal McCluskey isn’t thrilled about Common Core’s relationship with the SAT:

What’s the connection between the Core and the SAT? A big one: David Coleman, who is both a chief architect of the Core and president of the SAT-owning College Board. Coleman announced when he took over the Board that he would align the SAT with the Core, and it was clear in the Board’s SAT press release that that is what’s happening. Employing Common Core code, the Board announced that the new SAT will focus on “college and career readiness.” Why is this potentially bad news for Core supporters? Because the SAT changes are widely being criticized as dumbing-down the test – good-bye words like “prevaricator,” hello toughies like “synthesis” – and that may drive attention to people who are questioning the quality of the Core.

And longtime standards proponent Diane Ravitch recently leveled her own criticisms:

The Common Core standards have been adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia without any field test. They are being imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time. Maybe the standards will be great. Maybe they will be a disaster. Maybe they will improve achievement. Maybe they will widen the achievement gaps between haves and have-nots. Maybe they will cause the children who now struggle to give up altogether. Would the Federal Drug Administration approve the use of a drug with no trials, no concern for possible harm or unintended consequences

She made similar points in new interview:

[Common Core standards] haven’t been tried anywhere, they’ve been tested — and we know that where they’re tested, they cause massive failure. So I would say we need to have more time before we can reach any judgment that they have some miracle cure embedded in them. I know, and a lot of teachers know, they’re totally inappropriate for children in kindergarten, first grade, second grade and third grade, because when they were written there was no one on various writing committees who was an expert in early childhood education… They’re also totally inappropriate for children who have disabilities — they can’t keep up. There’s an assumption in the Common Core that if you teach everybody the same thing, everybody will progress at the same speed. And that’s not human nature. It doesn’t work that way.

Apr 17, 2014 @ 7:25pm

Ctd …

With Indiana recently becoming the first state to repeal the Common Core State Standards – and opposition to the standards rising in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and several other states – Jay Greene worries that Core supporters “made some of the same political mistakes that opponents of gay marriage did”:

They figured if they could get the US Department of Education, DC-based organizations, and state school chiefs on board, they would have a direct and definitive victory. And at first blush it looked like they had achieved it, with about 45 states committing to adopt the new set of standards and federally-sponsored standardized tests aligned to those standards. Like opponents of gay marriage, the Common Core victory seemed so overwhelming that they hardly felt the need to engage in debates to defend it. But in the rush to a clear and total victory, supporters of Common Core failed to consider how the more than 10,000 school districts, more than 3 million teachers, and the parents of almost 50 million students would react. For standards to actually change practice, you need a lot of these folks on board.

And he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon:

Supporters of Common Core may draw the wrong lesson from this post and increase efforts to convince the public and train educators to love the Common Core. Not only will these re-education efforts be too little, too late, but they fail to grasp the inherent flaw in reforms like Common Core. Trying to change the content and practice of the entire nation’s school system requires a top-down, direct, and definitive victory to get adopted. If input and deliberation are sought, or decisions are truly decentralized, then it is too easy to block standards reforms, like Common Core. Supporters of CC learned this much from the numerous failed efforts to adopt national standards in the past. But the brute force and directness required for adopting national standards makes its effective implementation in a diverse, decentralized, and democratic country impossible.

Meanwhile, Rick Hess and Michael Q. McShane see a parallel to the Obamacare debate, arguing that “[ACA] critics have recognized that it’s important to offer solutions, not just complaints. Common Core critics in each state need to devise their own version of ‘repeal and replace’”:

Common Core critics must keep in mind that policy debates are won by proposing better solutions. The Core standards were adopted with a big federal boost and little public debate, but adopted they were. Teachers and school leaders have been implementing the standards since 2010, and opponents can’t wish this away any more than Obamacare critics can wish away the new landscape produced by the Affordable Care Act. … The ixmpulse to undo an ambitious reform that was adopted with little scrutiny or debate is a healthy and understandable one. But criticism unaccompanied by solutions is a self-defeating strategy. Common Core critics need to make sure they’re saying more than just “no.”

Previous Dish on the Common Core here and here. Update from a reader:

There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding around Common Core. I’ve noticed that even pundits who support it often call it a curriculum and it is not a curriculum; it is a set of standards around which states and local school build a curriculum. The other thing I hear and read often is, “Common Core standards are not rigorous AND too many students fail the tests”. What? They are saying students are failing non rigorous tests?? If the standards lack rigor, shouldn’t everyone be passing the tests? If students are failing the tests for Common Core, either:

1. The standards are too rigorous; perhaps not developmentally appropriate for a particular grade, asking too much too soon.

2. The curriculum implemented to prepare students to meet the standards is not effective

3. Our little angels are not all the gifted geniuses we thought they were.

Some states, including my own (GA) are just testing against the new standards this year. Maybe as there is more data it will become clear why students scores are going down, or if that is even true over all the participating states. Common Core advocates did a lousy job of rolling out the standards, but Indiana is unique in that they have robust state standards to go back to. Many states had less rigorous standards prior to common core so they should at least wait for some data before drafting more new standards. The most useful data point may be how kids who have been taught under the new standards since kindergarten perform on their first round of testing in 3rd grade. In our district, that does not occur until next year.


State assessments, including any created for the Common Core, aren’t pass/fail. Students receive a score on a scale. States divide scale scores into categories of achievement, such as advanced, proficient, basic, below basic. Each category of achievement represents a band of scale scores. The scores that constitute a band are set subjectively. Because proficiency is desirable, and because No Child Left Behind expects students to be proficient, some people say that any score below proficiency is “failing.” It is not, any more than a “C” grade in a class is failing. Now, here’s the thing. Under NCLB originally, each state set its own standards, commissioned its own tests, and decided upon the scores that constitute each category of achievement. As a result, NCLB created a perverse incentive for states to have low standards, easy tests, and a low score for proficiency. States are free to continue to do this. NCLB came up for reauthorization in 2007, long after it was much reviled, but Congress has been unable to agree whether to kill it or change it. NCLB contains a provision allowing for waivers. In the absence of Congressional action, the U.S. Department of Education has created a comprehensive waiver that amounts to its own version of NCLB. Many states wanted these waivers because the waiver allowed them to set up a more sensible accountability system for schools. Conditions for receiving a waiver included adopting rigorous standards and assessments. The standards and assessments do not have to be Common Core-related. But states with a waiver must still categorize students as proficient or not, and still deal with low-performing schools. The Common Core and its assessments are more rigorous than most previous state tests. The new standards require closer reading of texts in all subjects , better writing and speaking skills, ready knowledge of math facts, understanding of math principles, and application of math to real-life problems. The assessments will require students to think. With teachers and students just gearing up for this, we can expect that fewer students will score proficient on the new tests, for at least a few years — probably longer. Unfortunately, people categorize this as failing the test. Imagine that you used to require students to jump two feet high and now students must jump four feet high. They will need to be trained to work up to this. America is not a patient culture.

Apr 24, 2014 @ 11:25am

Ctd …

Jennifer Rubin sighs over growing right-wing distrust of the Common Core:

The rationale for Common Core is that state standards, even the best of them, are far too low, leaving our kids in the dust behind international competition. (“A 2009 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found no state had reading proficiency standards as rigorous as those on the highly respected and internationally benchmarked NAEP 4th grade exam. Only one state, Massachusetts, had an 8th grade test as rigorous as the NAEP exam. Worse still, a large number of states had reading proficiency standards that would qualify their students as functionally illiterate on NAEP.”) At a dinner with a group of journalists a year or so ago, [Jeb] Bush explained to us that while middle-class families in good school districts may think they are getting a good education, a significant percentage of their kids are not college ready and, in any case, match up poorly against foreign competition.

Jamelle Bouie, who doesn’t agree with Rubin very often, describes the opposition from conservatives as “near-senseless”:

Common Core was a bipartisan initiative, with support from the vast majority of governors, including Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, who has since reversed course as he preps for a potential 2016 presidential run. What happened to make Common Core an object of hate for conservative activists? The answer is easy: “The Republican revolt against the Common Core,” noted the New York Times on Saturday, “can be traced to President Obama’s embrace of it.” This near-senseless Republican reaction is just one part of a growing tribalism that’s consumed the whole of conservative politics.

Steve Benen points out:

It’s become so bad that in January, Common Core supporters practically begged the White House not to mention the standards in the State of the Union address, fearing it would necessarily push Republicans further away. “It’s imperative that the president not say anything about the Common Core State Standards,” Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said at the time, adding, “If he cares more about the success of this initiative than credit-taking, he will skip over it.” Obama obliged, but it didn’t help.

But as Catherine Gewertz observes, the Common Core is a fait accompli in most states, “all but a handful” of which are set to administer exams based on those standards for the first time next year:

The two state consortia designing new tests for the standards – with the help of $360 million in federal aid – have sought to fundamentally reshape the way learning is assessed. And yet, over time they have scaled back some of their original testing plans in the face of political, economic, and technical constraints. Those realities have led consortium officials – who once made lofty promises about the revolutionary nature of their forthcoming tests—to represent them more humbly as “version 1.0” of assessments that are a vast improvement over what most states currently use, and will keep getting better in the coming years.

Meanwhile, Stephen Sawchuck reports that college education programs are not all on the same page when it comes to integrating the Core standards into their teacher training:

Teacher education has been under many pressures of late, including calls to improve student-teachingclassroom-management courseworkinstruction, and program outcomes. The addition of the Common Core into that mix promises to be especially volatile, because it stands to reshape teacher education curricula to a greater degree than the other efforts. And that fuels concerns about academic freedom, as well as long-standing debates about whether programs’ main duty is to prepare teachers capable of carrying out specific, state-approved courses of study – or, as others argue, to prepare teachers to be knowledgeable about competing theories and to be critical actors in education policy.

Update from a reader:

Not only right-wing people are opposing Common Core. I am a former public school teacher and as liberal as they come.  I put my kids into school this year, after home schooling them for many years. I have to say that the Common Core math instruction is truly insane.  Parents can’t even help their child with homework half the time because getting the right answer is not enough.  You have to do it the “right way”. And the right way is often crazy and filled with multiple steps well beyond anything needed to get to the answer. I have friends who are teachers or just parents and vote Democrat or even Green that feel the same way. I am waiting to see if it gets better or improvements are made, but we might be going back to home schooling in the future.

May 5, 2014 @ 9:02am

Ctd …

Last week, Louis C.K. became the most high-profile critic of the Common Core, setting off a Twitter firestorm in the process. Alexander Nazaryan slams the comedian for “malign[ing] an earnest effort at education reform, one that is far too young to be judged so harshly”:

The [Common Core] tests are thus far imperfect, as is how we prepare for them. With that I agree. But staging scenes from Of Mice and Men isn’t going to catch us up to China anytime soon. Nor are art projects or iPads. It was dismaying to hear the new New York City schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, recently complain that our students are deprived of “joy” in the classroom. Joy, our twerking young ones know. Trigonometry, not so much. Louis C.K.’s frustration doesn’t pass muster as a critique of educational reform. Yes, the problems his daughter was given are tough. That’s as it should be.

But Rebecca Mead finds herself agreeing with him:

[T]he issue identified by Louis C.K., and by other less well-known but equally furious parents, is not that the material children are expected to learn is too hard. It isn’t unreasonable to expect kids to have learned to multiply and divide numbers up to a hundred by the time they leave third grade—and in all likelihood, Louis C.K.’s child will have done so by June, if she hasn’t already, and be the better for it. The greater problem lies with the ways in which the achievement of those standards is measured. An emphasis on a certain kind of testing has become a blight upon the city’s classrooms. “The teachers are great,” C.K. tweeted. “But it’s changed in recent years. It’s all about these tests. It feels like a dark time.” Plenty of parents and educators agree with him.

Libby Nelson argues that Louis C.K. should be blaming NCLB, not Common Core:

No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal education law, required all states to develop academic standards. It also mandated standardized testing every year from third grade through eighth grade to see if they meet those standards. The idea was to hold schools accountable for whether their students were learning. So students started taking a lot more tests: when No Child Left Behind was passed, 19 states had annual standardized testing in reading and math, according to the Center for Education Policy. By 2006, every state was testing its students every year from third through eighth grade. No Child Left Behind is still the law. And the Common Core state standards don’t change those testing requirements. They just change the exam that students are already required to take.

Meanwhile, one of our readers – who happens to be one of the lead writers of the Common Core State Standards for mathematics – sends in a response to the parent who wrote, “The Common Core math instruction is truly insane. Parents can’t even help their child with homework half the time because getting the right answer is not enough”:

I agree wholeheartedly that parents should be able to help their children with their homework. My own daughter’s kindergarten teacher handled this well. The teacher gave the children workbooks for practicing the nuts and bolts of math. My daughter was responsible for completing a minimum number of pages each week, and that was where my wife and I came in. We took it as our job to enforce the minimum, assist our daughter if she got stuck, and ensure that every answer was correct. The problems in that workbook were in the nature of exercises – nothing my wife and I would have to scratch our heads over. That approach made sense to us. If a curriculum series is expecting too much of parents, then I’m not sure schools should be buying it. The curriculum market is in a state of flux right now. At the risk of overgeneralizing, in the time since the standards were developed, some textbook publishers have rushed out with half-baked materials, while some others have basically slapped a “Common Core” sticker on the same books they had been selling for years. The situation won’t last, but quality takes time. Generally speaking, US math textbooks have been terrible for decades – just not in ways that tend to go viral on Facebook.

Another reader objects to the idea that getting the “right answer” is enough:

In fact, learning math is not about just getting the right answer. It is about understanding the math behind the answer, which is why doing it the right way is important to developing good math skills. That many have gotten by just memorizing formulas that produce the right answer is part of the reason they aren’t good at math, don’t understand math, don’t like math, and are unable to extend their math knowledge to anything beyond memorized formulas in stock quiz problems.

And an educator wonders how well schools will put the standards into practice:

I’m a high school science teacher and my colleagues and I are wrestling with implementing the new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). In California, they’ve designated $1 billion to implement the standards. Many states are not making this type of commitment. Therefore, you have veteran teachers who have often placed emphasis on the content of a course having to now focus on the process and skills within the material. I’m personally a fan of the new standards in both the Common Core and the NGSS, but the implementation and professional development for our teachers has been severely lacking. As alluded to by other writers, test scores will dip drastically as well. I was just explaining to my class that next year’s sophomores will take the new PARCC assessment, yet have only had a year of instruction in the Common Core methodology. While some schools and students may be able to adapt in this short time and perform well on the tests, schools that haven’t had the funds to train teachers and purchase instructional materials that reflect the new emphasis on skills and process will lag behind.

May 8, 2014 @ 8:52am

Ctd …

A reader sends the above video:

It occurs to me that this isn’t the first time parents like Louis C.K. have been upset about not being able to help their children with their math homework. Remember the New Math movement? Tom Lehrer wrote a song about it. As he sardonically says in the introduction, “The important thing is to understand what you’re doing, not to get the right answer.”

But another reader takes the idea of problem solving more seriously:

I don’t know a whole lot about the Common Core, nor about NCLB. But I am a scientist, so I know that Louis CK is complaining about the form of the questions. No longer is math addition and multiplications, like it was in his school days. No more: 34+98=, 102/3=, or 21×5=.  Currently, questions come as paragraphs full of words with the numerical issue hidden in them. So the current math questions are riddles in words that sometimes barely seem to contain numbers. Before getting to the numerical question, kids needs to decipher the question and reduce it to numbers. This adds a layer of complexity to the problem. It also requires problem solving, a life skill much more important than arithmetic. Incidentally, it is a skill that academics have been screaming for for years to get into pre-academic education.

I have taught basic physics at a university. A major frustration is that most students consider physics a numbers game. Get the formula, find the numbers, punch them into your calculator and tada!: an answer. That is not physics. Academics of all stripes face such oversimplification issues. Science and other complex issues are not simple. In modern society, we need people who can tackle complex problems – be it filling out a tax form, evaluating complex personal relations, getting ahead in your job, or redefining the way (paid) news is brought. We need people who can think critically.

Another is on the same page:

My younger son, who at 8 has been taught under Common Core standards since kindergarten, loves math. He loves all the different techniques they are teaching him and has a deeper understanding of math than his older brother, who was taught to memorize math facts. That I don’t know what he is doing half the time is a feature for him, not a bug.

Also, my Ph.D husband just “took” the NY sixth grade Common Core math test posted online and said it is absolutely the way math should be taught, with multi-step problems that require critical thinking. He was just concerned about how it is scored – in his mind, multi-step problems should be graded for partial credit – and if it was perhaps too much to expect of a sixth grader. But he wasn’t sure. He certainly thought the adults who claim they can’t answer the problems are either lying or were woefully unprepared by their schools.

But another reader is worried about how students with disabilities will fare under the new standards:

I don’t like the insinuation by your reader that merely getting the right answer isn’t enough, and that you have to show your work to show you “understand the math.” For someone who struggled to “do well” in math, even though I was very good at it, this makes my blood boil.

Allow me to explain: My fine motor skills are crippled to the point that I can only write by hand at a very slow speed. I remember taking an extra hour or skipping recess just to complete a paper or test – not because I was verbose, but because it took me that long to just to write the same amount of material. After getting this documented and implemented into an IEP/504 plan, I was able to get some accommodation in all my subjects through use of a word processor … except in math.

Math was hell to me, but not because I had problems doing it. In order to compensate for my disability, I learned the formulas enough to calculate the math in my head and use the space provided as scratch paper. I was thus able to get high SAT scores in math (in the 700 range, pre-2004 tests). But math teachers, very similar to your reader, did not like that. They wanted me to “show my work.” The problem with “showing my work” is that it turns what is supposed to be a 30-minute-long assignment into a 90-minute assignment (or sloppy 45-minute one), and made an hour-long homework assignment two and a half hours long, chewing into other subjects. It also made it very hard to stay focused, which made it difficult to get problems right.

Efforts to accommodate me were often ignored, not least because the math teachers had no idea how to handle a disabled student who was actually good at math, and doing it by computer was obviously out of the question. I was a C student for the most part, except in the two years I had one teacher who did accommodate me, and my first-year calculus course in college, which was taught by a disabled professor.

Common Core tests will be administered by computer, so maybe that will make life easier for a new generation of disabled students. Or maybe that will create new problems; a reader who graduated from high school in 2006 says his experience with proficiency exams left him skeptical:

One day in my 11th-grade AP English class, our teacher had us read a few essays other kids had written for our state assessment exams. We were provided with the definitions of the scoring structure and asked to apply the correct label to each of the four essays. We all easy identified the “needs improvement” and “advanced” essays, but when it came to identifying the “basic” and the “proficient” essay, almost all of us switched the two. Why? Because while both of the essays showed about the same level of comprehension, the “proficient” one was overly complicated in a way that detracted from the content, while the “basic” essay was straight to the point. With these Common Core standards, it looks like the feds and the states are doubling down on useless confusion.