The Craze and Craziness Behind the Common Core

When Indiana backed out of the Common Core, it made the right choice for the wrong reasons

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The Craze and Craziness Behind the Common Core

Sasha Rae-Grant

Sasha Rae-Grant

Sasha Rae-Grant

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As I scrolled through my Facebook March 24, my eye caught the briefest blurb on the side of the page. Indiana, I read, had become the first state to back out of the Common Core State Standards.

I cheered out loud.

I have reported and written two articles about testing related to the Common Core. One is 1,778 words long; the other, 2,793 words. In the course of writing those articles, I have read Ohio Revised Code 3301.0712 and Ohio House Bill 1. I’ve interviewed Lesley Muldoon, the associate director for state engagement and policy from PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a coalition designing Common Core assessments; John Charlton, the Ohio Department of Education’s assistant director of communications; and C. Todd Jones, chairman of Ohio’s Board of Education’s Graduation Committee, which devised Ohio’s plan to replace the Ohio Graduation Test with PARCC tests. In addition, I’ve spoken to Dale Whittington, Shaker’s director of research and evaluation; Principal Michael Griffith; and several other Shaker faculty members.

Throughout my research, as I have learned more and more about the Common Core and its effects on schools, I have refrained from publishing my opinion. As you can probably guess, now, I’ve changed my mind.

The Common Core standards for math and English language arts were designed by the National Governors Association, the bipartisan organization of America’s governors, in 2009. According to the Common Core’s website, the standards reflect “the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers” and “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.” (Just how ignorant were our nation’s adults beforehand?) Unique standards exist for different categories within the two subject areas, from different grade levels in math and to sub-categories such as “Writing” and “Reading: Foundational Skills” in English language arts.

The stated goal of the Common Core State Standards is a noble one: to close our country’s achievement gaps. As stated by the initiative’s website, the standards “ensure that all students have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life upon graduation from high school, regardless of where they live” and “promote equity by ensuring all students are well prepared to collaborate and compete with their peers.”

At least, that is the standards’ goal — one that I support wholeheartedly. Whether it will be achieved through the Common Core is the reason I’m writing this column.

Until a matter of days ago, 45 states had sworn loyalty to that aim by adopting the Common Core. Indiana’s departure from the group brings the number down to 44. The midwestern state’s shift began last year, when Indiana’s lawmakers halted the standards’ implementation. Gov. Mike Pence’s March 24 announcement came as a surprise, then, but not a huge one. Still, it excited me: I thought that maybe, Indiana would set off a wave that “many other schools around the country” would fall into, as Pence suggested in a Fox News article.

Unfortunately, the more I read about Indiana’s decision, the more disillusioned I became with it. I still agree with the decision itself; rather, I reject the reasoning. Pence’s rationale for backing out is that through the Common Core, the federal government is exerting too much control over states. He told “The Star,” the main Indianapolis newspaper, that he believes Indiana’s “students are best served when decisions about education are made at the state and local level.” And maybe they are — I don’t know enough about Indiana to judge that. However, Indiana’s replacement standards seem too similar to the Common Core to serve students much better.

According to Sandra Stotsky, a retired University of Arkansas professor who conducted an analysis of Indiana’s new standards, the Common Core has not truly vanished from the state. In an internal Indiana Department of Education report, Stotsky found that for sixth- through twelfth-graders, more than 70 percent of Indiana’s new standards come directly from the Common Core, while 20 percent are edited versions. Standards for kindergarteners through fifth-graders reflect the Common Core’s influence, too, albeit less dramatically. About 34 percent of Indiana’s standards mirror the Common Core, while 13 percent are edited.

It appears, then, that Pence has no problem with the standards themselves, only with their implementation. He is wrong. The implementation has many flaws, but the substance of the Common Core has more. Here are my reasons for opposing the Common Core.

 

Voluntary, But With an Asterisk

Remember how I said, about three lines ago, that the implementation of the Common Core has many flaws? Here’s why.

Adoption of the standards is voluntary: state governments make that choice. In accordance with the principles of states’ rights, the federal government cannot technically require adoption of the Common Core.

The government is excelling, so far, at getting around the technicality of states’ rights.”

However, Pence is not entirely wrong about the federal government’s imposition. The government is excelling, so far, at getting around the technicality of states’ rights. Adoption of the Common Core isn’t required — unless, that is, you want federal funding for your schools. Common Core adoption and implementation is required for states to receive federal funding from Race to the Top, the government’s competitive, $4.35 billion grant program for public education. The way Race to the Top works, states can receive as many as 500 points for meeting six different criteria. “Standards and Assessments,” which entails “developing and adopting common standards” — the Common Core — counts for 70 points.

For some schools, the funding contributed by Race to the Top amounts to little. Shaker, for instance, has only “received $100,000 for each of four years under Race to the Top,” according to Peggy Caldwell, district director of communications. “In the context of a $90 million annual operating budget, it is a small amount.”

However, not all districts are as fortunate and well-financed as Shaker. Some states’ school districts receive more money from Race to the Top than Shaker does, and for those districts, the funds matter more. The Cleveland Metropolitan School district, for instance, will receive $29.5 million over four years from Race to the Top. In the context of the Cleveland school district cutting $21 million from schools’ budgets during the next school year, that matters.

Ohio, therefore, and other states with school districts that need all the funds they can get, must adopt the Common Core, or else see their schools deteriorate.

Additionally, Texas’ former education commissioner, Robert Scott, asserted that he and other state officials were encouraged to sign on to the Common Core before the standards were written. Common Core advocates have, predictably, disputed Scott’s statement, and I can’t say which party is correct. However, the assertion raises questions about the government’s motives in fashioning the standards.

Texas has not adopted the Common Core. In 2010, Gov. Rick Perry told U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a letter that he would not force Texas taxpayers to pay for “the adoption of unproven, cost-prohibitive national curriculum standards and tests.” Similarly, the state board of Virginia announced it was “committed to the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) program and opposed to adoption of the newly developed Common Core State Standards” in 2010.

Minnesota, Nebraska and Alaska round out the list of states that have opted out of the Common Core. At least, Minnesota sort of did: it adopted the Common Core’s English language arts standards, choosing to keep its own math standards because they are “more rigorous,” according to Minnesota Public Radio. Both Nebraska and Alaska have expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of Common Core standards, with Jim Scheer, former vice president of Nebraska’s school board, seconding Scott’s assertion about being pressured to adopt the Common Core standards before they were written. However, in April 2013, Alaska joined the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, PARCC’s chief rival in creating Common Core tests, to assure its own standards would align with the Common Core.

By making their state standards echo the Common Core so closely, Indiana’s legislators have kept federal funding for their schools; sneaky, sneaky, Gov. Pensey. By rejecting the federal government’s imposition while keeping their money, he presents himself as a proactive states’ rights supporter, braver than his governing counterparts, without losing Indiana’s necessary education funding. I wouldn’t be surprised if Alaska’s legislators aimed to pull off the same trick. And honestly, I wouldn’t blame them.

It is unfair for the federal government to require Common Core adoption for states in financial trouble. The federal government has a duty to its people, and therefore to its states. I hope our politicians mean well and do, in fact, aim to improve our nation’s education system. Despite any good intentions, however, tying the new standards to schools’ funding is a devious move. Although technically legal, it threatens states’ autonomy and squeezes state governments between a rock and a hard place.

I worry about Indiana’s method being repeated by other states in the future. It would keep federal funding, a goal of appreciable importance, but at students’ and teachers’ expense.

 

Too Much, Too Far

“Too much of a good thing” applies to the Common Core. A place exists for national education standards — our country indeed suffers from achievement gaps, and I personally believe many people could be hoisted up to higher learning with the right standards. Look at many European countries: nationalized standards make sure all public school students receive at least a bare minimum of education. However, in my view, Common Core takes its standards a few steps too far.

In English language arts alone, there are eight subcategories of standards, of which six apply directly to grade levels. “Reading: Foundational Skills” ends in fifth grade, but the other five grade-related subcategories extend throughout a student’s school career. Each grade, within each subcategory, has 10 standards to meet. Of the final two subcategories, “Anchor Standards” is divided into four branches of “college and career readiness,” while “Standard 10: Range, Quality & Complexity” gives precise reading and teaching suggestions in six sub-sub-categories.

LoftyGoalsSketchyBase

Graphic by Sasha Rae-Grant.

Although the Common Core professes to set standards only for math and English language arts, for grades six through 12, it has set 10 standards each to be met for “History/Social Studies,” “Science & Technical Subjects” and “Writing.” These standards should be achieved through the English language arts curriculum — because clearly, English teachers don’t have enough to do already.

The Common Core’s standards in math are still more extensive. There are two sections: “Standards by Domain,” which includes 11 subcategories, and standards for “Kindergarten-Grade 12,”  comprising 15 subcategories. Each of the latter 15 subcategories includes between four and six sub-sub-categories of standards.

It is necessary to expect high levels of achievement from our nation’s students. However, the Common Core’s regimented system of standards warps that goal. It’s not as if teachers taught random lessons every year anyway; up to this point, teachers have simply developed their own objectives by department, in Shaker’s case. The Common Core forces many more standards onto teachers and students — ones that they have no say in — without specifying how to achieve those standards. Furthermore, it requires teachers to develop lesson plans according to the standards, produce documentation of the standards’ use and to spend school days testing their successful achievement instead of teaching. (More on the testing later.)

By imposing so many new tasks and requirements upon schools, the standards make learning into a check-list. Have I learned to “interpret expressions that represent a quantity in terms of its context?” Check!  Am I competent in my ability to “analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work?” Whoops, forgot that one, gotta go back to aisle four!

Learning isn’t supposed to constitute completing a checklist. Even if the standards are good — and it’s very important that we be able to solve algebraic equations and analyze different aspects of literature — going to school should not be the same as buying groceries. Learning is about more than filling the cart with brand-name skill sets and Core-approved information; it is about understanding knowledge, comprehending its implications and applying them to the real world. We should learn because learning is important in and of itself, not because we need to meet standards imposed upon teachers from afar and by coercion.

 

WWOS?

A particular requirement that wounds me involves reading requirements. The Common Core requires that half of all elementary schools’ reading be nonfiction; by 12th grade, a full 70 percent of students’ reading must be nonfiction.

From what I’ve observed, elementary school students do not like nonfiction. Children learn to love reading through fiction: tales of magic and mystery, mortal and immortal alike, from the sagas of feeble Earthlings to those of alien superheroes. Stories of boys and dogs find their way in the mix as well, not to mention the numerous, charming picture books I still keep stowed in my basement. There is merit to having young students read nonfiction, but I believe it must be done in moderation. Requiring that half their reading be nonfiction is, in my opinion, absurd.

As for high schoolers, the Common Core suggests, but does not require, spreading the burden of reading 70 percent nonfiction to math and science classes as well as history and English. That’s fine in theory, but in the real world, the likelihood of math and science classes sacrificing their regular curricula — which are already being complicated by the Common Core’s standards — to read Euclid’s “Elements” or the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Recommended Levels of Insulation” (both are suggested readings) is slim.

Moreover, I reject the Common Core’s implication that fiction is all but worthless. Good fiction can teach us just as much as thorough nonfiction. Reading Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and Alan Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country” illuminated Africa’s diverse, difficult history for me. Those books, written in prose much more pleasing than anything found in textbooks, taught me not only truths about a continent but also, as fiction often does, truths about character. Similarly, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” made vital, eye- and mind-opening points about the elusiveness of the American dream and the fragility of humanity.

And then there’s George Orwell’s “1984,” the famed dystopian novel of Newspeak and excessive government regulation. I can hardly think of a book more applicable to our times. Sometimes, I can’t help but ask myself: WWOS? What would Orwell say?

I expect it would be scathing.

 

Tiresome Testing 2.0

The Common Core’s standards pose yet another problem: assessment. Districts must administer tests to judge whether their students have met the set standards. Because the Common Core offers dozens of standards, it necessitates excessive assessments.

Using federal grants, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, two testing organizations, are creating exams to assess how well students meet Common Core standards. States that have adopted the Common Core must join one of the two coalitions. Ohio has joined PARCC, leading to the 325-minute pilot test some freshmen will take this April, as well as the flood of assessments to follow, including 10 end-of-year assessments that will replace the Ohio Graduation Test.

Such a testing-focused environment can prove destructive to learning. Carol Burris, an award-winning New York principal, wrote about that issue in a 2013 column for the Washington Post. Burris, a former Common Core advocate, wrote that her teachers “come into [her] office with horror stories regarding the incessant pre-testing, testing and test prep that is taking place in their own children’s classroom.” Her own school’s music teacher, in a second grade class, had to give a vocabulary test (“Kings and queens COMMISSIONED Mozart to write symphonies for celebrations and ceremonies. What does COMMISSION mean?”) instead of making and listening to music.

Administering so many assessments threatens to blow a hole in The Shaker Way by forcing teachers to teach to the test.”

In Shaker, I fear the same dilemma will arise. Third- through eighth-graders, in addition to high schoolers, will face increased testing with implementation of the Common Core. The PARCC English and math assessments are both administered in two parts: one in March, which will be handwritten, and one in May, which will be taken on computers. Each section of the assessments takes two hours to complete except for the March component of the English exam, which will stretch to two and a half hours for third graders and three and a half hours for fourth- through eighth-graders. The state of Ohio is developing its own science and social studies tests for third- through eighth-graders independently of PARCC to fit with the new system of assessments.

Let’s be generous and pretend, for the purposes of estimation, that the science and social studies tests will comprise just one section each, which will probably take about two hours to complete. Any given Ohio third-grader, then, will have to take more than 12 hours of assessments. For fourth- through eighth-graders, that number will be even higher. Not only will this diminish valuable teaching time, but it also drains the fun out of learning. In my 10 and a half years of attending school, I have yet to meet someone who enjoys taking tests, especially when those tests exceed an hour. I was a voracious reader and dedicated student in elementary school, and even I hated tests. I doubt many current elementary school students would disagree with me.

Already, teachers struggle to make sitting in a classroom for six hours appealing to children with short attention spans and the constant urge to run around outside. This flood of tests will not help them in the least.

Furthermore, administering so many assessments threatens to blow a hole in The Shaker Way by forcing teachers to teach to the test. I have the utmost respect and admiration for Shaker’s faculty, and I doubt any of them would want to plan their lessons based on PARCC exams. However, the more Race to the Top criteria states meet, the more Race to the Top funding they receive. As such, the Common Core standards cannot be ignored. Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy resources and security for faculty and families alike, which comes pretty darn close.

 

An Unsafe Operating Table

I’ve saved the best for last.

Forty-four states, the District of Columbia and four territories have committed themselves to the Common Core State Standards now, overhauling all of their public education systems. The College Board has announced substantial changes to its SAT based in no small part on the Common Core standards (David Coleman, the College Board president behind the revised SAT, helped devise the Common Core). Yet not once have these standards been tested. From the Obama administration to the United Federation of Teachers, the Common Core has found bipartisan support, despite the fact that the standards’ effectiveness has only been hypothesized.

That’s like devising a new surgical method to fix a man’s heart condition, not testing that method, and going ahead with the surgery anyway. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I would never act so rashly. Sure, the new method could work; it could also kill the patient.

The Common Core State Standards are changing the face of America’s education for approximately 50 million students, teachers and other public school faculty — not including parents. Imposing such a huge change with no gauge of its effectiveness is downright irresponsible. Our education system is the patient, and we have no guarantee it won’t die on the operating table. In fact, right now, I don’t think its chances are good.

 

Indiana made a bold move in rejecting the Common Core, even if its own, new standards lack much dissimilarity. In the coming months and years, I hope to see other states make the same choice. However, I hope they make their decisions for better reasons. Don’t reject the Common Core because you feel threatened by the federal government. Reject the Common Core because it is an untried, foolhardy imposition on America’s public education systems. Reject the Common Core because theory is different from reality. Reject the Common Core so that maybe, just maybe, our nation’s children of the present and future will still love learning.

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