Common Complaints, Common Sense, and the Common Core

Few topics in education are as hotly debated as the adoption of the Common Core State Standards and corresponding assessments. Educators and parents have formed alliances over their opposition to this latest iteration of a decades-old standards movement. Popular resistance to the Common Core is grounded in familiar thinking. Although some of this thinking might be near-sighted, criticism of the Common Core and related tests is too widespread to ignore.

Throughout my career, resentment for educational initiatives felt ubiquitous among teachers. Whenever policy makers enacted a plan, educators tended to ridicule and dismiss it. Distrust and doubt were typical responses as teachers lamented the failures of previous programs. The prevailing sentiment was policy makers couldn’t create anything worthwhile because they weren’t educators. I felt this was unfair to policy makers and overemphasized the status of teachers.

To me, uniform resistance often seemed unnecessary and poorly reasoned. Too many of the teachers who complained about policies simply borrowed snippets from popular critiques rather than forming their own positions. This was rampant among special education teachers, many of whom balked at initiatives involving standards. I sensed that many teachers opposed for the sake of opposing and subscribed to whatever contrarian rhetoric was popular.

Even if a herd mentality still influences criticism, much of the perennial and current anti-standards rhetoric makes sense. The most popular arguments might not be the most sensible ones. The problem with the Common Core as with previous standards isn’t the standards themselves, but how states use these standards. Before addressing this, I’ll address some of the decoys.

A popular criticism of the Common Core is the lack of educator input in their origin. No career educators were involved. Critics assume educators have superior insight regarding what students should know and be able to do. Actually, this should be determined through the cooperation of industry leaders who understand needed marketplace competencies and developmental psychologists who understand how abilities correspond with age. Educators should design programs for conveying the standards, not the standards themselves.

Another common criticism concerns the vagueness of the standards. Stories circulate about parents who can’t understand their children’s Core-based homework. Such complaints are misplaced. They’re about curricular design, not standards. The standards aren’t curricula. They’re guides for curricular development. Standards used prior to the Common Core were purposely vague. No set of standards can be too specific or encompassing. Only so much can be covered and assessed. Clarity of language and pedagogical sense are other issues, but standards alone can’t be blamed for bad curricular design.

Special education teachers who attack the inappropriateness of standards overlook the necessity of standards in their work. Students qualify for special education services based on discrepancies between expected and actual performance. The expected performance comes from existing age-based norms. Maintaining services requires  proof that discrepancies still exist. Performance according to standards is thus invaluable. Most students who receive services follow the general education curriculum with accommodations. If this curriculum is written to help students reach standards, than those competencies become the aim of special education for most qualifying students. Even if the standards seem unreachable, seeking approximations should be imperative. IEP teams should design goals aligned with standards. Special education teachers have to be the standards experts on these teams.

The growing opt-out movement led by parents is extraordinarily vocal. Its ranks claim standards-based curricula confuse their children. They claim standardized tests create undue stress. All of this might be true. Although the movement has well-informed allies and borrows sound criticisms, it also dilutes itself somewhat by using emotional appeals. It has the trappings of a bandwagon. To outsiders, it appears to be an extension of parents seeking ever-increasing control over their children’s education despite a lack of expertise in pedagogy or child development. This is less a refutation of the movement’s aims and more a critique of its motivations. Whether or not it has legitimacy, the movement is loud and effective. Families are opting-out, even if not all of them know why.

Opponents attack the Common Core from other angles. Conservative critics view the initiative as a coup to impose federal control over states. Liberal critics fear an ill-conceived attempt to homogenize a diverse nation of learners. Cynics (or clear-thinking pragmatists) wonder what difference the Common Core will make. Many students have excelled without them while others have faced issues too profound for updated standards to fix. These opponents should redirect their focus. Again, the problem isn’t the standards, or even the tests aligned to them. The problem is how the standards are used.

I’ll defend the idea of standards. They aren’t inherently negative. Using benchmarks to gauge instructional effectiveness is crucial. A set of realistic and reliable age and grade-based competencies is helpful for designing instructional goals. A problem with anything norm-referenced is the norm can change with time. What happens to a 10th grade reading level when most 10th graders can’t read at that level? Standards, however, can be absolutes. They are what cohorts of students need to know and be able to do. They can be altered over time, but based on changing needs in society rather than on changing student abilities.

General education is supposed to transfer requisite skills and knowledge to the greatest number of students. The point is to have a functional citizenry. Critics claim the standards that define what is requisite devalue teacher creativity and flexibility. The resulting dry instruction stifles the joy of learning for students. Phrases such as “teaching to the test” describe this atmosphere. Having generations of inspired young people who love learning would be ideal. Having citizens with basic literacy and numeracy is more pressing. Some careers do require lateral thinking and intuition. Far more require basic skills. Adherence to standards provides a threshold of competency for which to aim.

Much of the criticism of standards is thin. The standards do have merit. The problem remains their use, which begins at the state level. States adopt standards as part of nationwide initiatives, but generally school districts develop (or borrow, or purchase) curricula that incorporate them. Curriculum specialists and teachers then design the proper instruction. Standards-based instruction need not be narrow or dull. This doesn’t have to be an issue. The real problem emerges when states use the standards and corresponding assessments as gauges of program or instructor value.

Suddenly, assessment results become vital. Administrative obsession develops and incites performance pressure among teachers and students. Instruction under these circumstances does reduce focus on critical thinking, but emphasis gets distorted in other ways. Assessment results are misguidedly used to evaluate teachers without regard for outside factors affecting student performance. Instead of using assessments solely to guide future programming or verify student achievement, results continue to be tied to funding or school management. The Common Core still aren’t the cause of any of this.

Looking past applications, possible motivations for adopting the Common Core almost feel like conspiracies. Curricula written according to new standards demand updated text materials. Publishers and investors profit from this. The standard-aligned tests states adopt aren’t free. The test makers stand to profit. The focus on test preparation continues the marginalization of vocational education rampant under NCLB, thus forcing students to pay tuition for it after graduation. More profit. Using test performance to determine school effectiveness is likely to convert more poor-performing schools to privately managed and publically traded charter schools. Insert cash-register sound effect. Finally, using scores to evaluate and possibly remove teachers can undermine union power, especially where unions are weak and remain a barrier to privatization. Such speculation might not be paranoia.

Complaints abound regarding the Common Core and related tests. National dialogue is filled with distractions but peppered with good sense. Too many critics focus on emotional issues (my son doesn’t have time to make dream catchers in art class) rather than anything practical (how valuable are assessment results for disenfranchised students in states that put no student stake on assessments?). Standards—even if strangely authored—are not the enemies of education. Misinterpreting their application or using standards-aligned assessments to forward political and financial agendas ranges from negligent to nefarious. The coming years will be intriguing for those with any stake in the field. Questions about the legality of the standards and the funding of standards-aligned tests have already surfaced. The Common Core could become another forgotten initiative veteran teachers reference when complaining about whatever comes along to replace them.

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Common Complaints, Common Sense, and the Common Core

4 thoughts on “Common Complaints, Common Sense, and the Common Core

  1. Common core standards definitely need a bit of reworking, but if given a chance to improve, it may definitely be a great program for students.

    I recently took the common core test for English last week and I noticed that most everyone in my testing room recieved a different test. My only concern was that the prompts seemed to all be of different difficulties and randomly selected, resulting in some students finishig early and others struggling to finish

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    1. Test makers face a problem when designing open-ended test items that ensure test security. Giving so many different prompts to a cohort reduces the reliability of the assessment. The stakes involved in these tests have increased the need for test security (the recent Atlanta teachers trial highlights this). A byproduct of the emphasis on such tests is a possible loss of reliability.

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  2. You write very well and clearly outline the arguments. The real issue with all of public education that is manifested in the decline of student performance is the decline of our society. We are, simply put, a mirror of society. We need to be the shepherds, not the sheep and lead changes. While I agree that non educators need to be involved in the process, the educators are the ones responsible for implementing any plans. I believe one of the primary drivers is public education is, simply put, the willingness and ability of our young children to learn and focus. And that is a direct result of how they are raised in a literate rich environment or a technological cocoon that stymies the mind’s ability to truly learn.

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    1. School performance is a function of the caliber of students passing through its doors. Exceptions exist, but generally the quality of a school is shaped by its community, not the other way around. This sentiment is unpopular, because it emasculates schools and undermines the mission of education professionals. Such sentiment isn’t an admission of defeat, though. Teachers occasionally can put some cracks in the cocoon you describe.

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