Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Myths and Misunderstandings about the Common Core

(originally published at
“Certain things, they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”
― J.D. Salinger,
The Catcher in the Rye
All of us feel like Holden Caulfield at one time or another. We’re exhausted by change. We’re tired of This Year’s Important Reform. Change can be frightening. Change can be threatening. And change can sometimes be downright wrong-headed. Can’t we just leave well-enough alone?
Quoting from Salinger is especially apropos when discussing the Common Core State Standards, because one of the laments I hear from high school teachers is that they will no longer be allowed to teach literature like The Catcher in the Rye.  Statements like this are worrisome, because they demonstrate a lack of understanding of what the Common Core State Standards are all about.
There is a tremendous amount of misinformation about these standards and what they require of us as parents and educators. The confusion and fear-mongering are creating real problems for school administrators trying to implement these standards and raise student achievement.
So here, in no particular order, are some of the “common myths” I’ve been hearing about the Common Core, with what I hope are some helpful explanations of what’s really going.
1. The Common Core State Standards have created a federally mandated, federally controlled curriculum.
The impetus to create rigorous, new learning standards at a national level came from state government and the business community, not the federal government. The National Governors’ Association, working with the Council of Chief State School Officers, undertook the mission, in part as a response to complaints from employers that entry-level workers didn’t have the math, reading, and writing skills necessary to perform their jobs effectively. The federal Department of Education did not manage the writing of the standards, nor do they control them. The standards were adopted voluntarily by the states, and each participating state has been allowed to make additions or alterations to the standards, as long as those alterations remain under 15% of the whole. Once adopted by a state, the standards become the “property” of that state, managed and overseen by its department of education, just as its previous set of learning standards were.
However, the federal Department of Education has definitely lent its support to these standards, and has tied significant amounts of money to adoption of “college and career readiness standards” like the Common Core. And we know that federal money can be hard to resist. But enticing as that money may be, it falls short of being a “mandate.”
The standards also fall short of being a curriculum. The standards are grade-level goals, and they are aggressive. But they are not a curriculum, a textbook, a pacing guide, or anything else that limits, shapes, or controls how a teacher teaches or what a teacher should teach from day to day. If a teacher wants to deliver her math instruction entirely through the use of hand-puppets, nothing in the Common Core is stopping her. In fact, these national standards may give us a real opportunity to compare teaching practices on a grand scale and find out what works best.
2. The literacy standards are hostile to fiction, poetry, and drama.
There has been a lot of confusion about the relative importance of literary and informational texts in the Common Core. The standards definitely do ask for teachers to include more primary and secondary source texts in their curriculum—in English language arts, certainly, but also in the areas of social studies, science, and the technical arts. In fact, from sixth grade on, teachers of those subjects have a separate set of literacy standards just for their disciplines.
Does that mean that high school English teachers have to give up The Catcher in the Rye? Not at all. The standards do ask us to increase the amount of informational text our students read, so that by the end of high school, those texts account for 70% of what they are reading. But that 70% is meant to represent the sum total of what they read across their entire school day. The goal isn’t to remove literature; it’s to add other kinds of texts within Language Arts, as well as in World History, Civics, Geography, Physics, Biology, and so on.
3. The math standards focus too early on critical thinking and don’t put an emphasis on calculation and memorization.
Not true. In fact, the standards have done an admirable job of trying to end the “math wars” and find a middle ground that includes both fact fluency and concept comprehension. The “instructional shifts” that authors have identified as being a major part of the standards include both fluency and deep understanding, and the structure of the standards supports this two-pronged approach, providing teachers with grade-level content standards and a set of overarching “practice standards” that speaks to certain ways of thinking, habits of mind that proficient mathematicians display. The challenge for teachers is learning how to incorporate both sets of standards in their instruction—to make sure students learn their math facts and become fluent in computation, but also that they learn to “think in math,” rather than blindly executing procedures they don’t truly understand.
4. The standards have a liberal, left-wing, political agenda.
If anything, I find the standards rather conservative and old-fashioned. The literacy standards emphasize things like obtaining real knowledge about the world through reading (rather than simply practicing how to read), the inclusion of primary source documents in all subject areas, and text-based questions, like “What is the author doing here?” over text-to-self questions, like, “How does it make you feel?” The math standards emphasize real knowledge and fluency, rather than saying things like, “they can just use a calculator.” In fact, I find nothing in the standards that would contradict what Thomas Jefferson laid out as the goals of public education for Americans as early as 1818.
However, that doesn’t mean that the textbooks, workbooks, and other materials being designed by publishers and sold to schools are free from bias. A textbook could easily be “aligned to the Common Core Standards” and betray a political bias that has nothing to do with those standards. Some published materials have a clear bias and point of view. Others can fall victim to unwitting bias that results from editorial decisions—what to leave in, what to take out, what to emphasize, what to ignore—that may be deliberate or quite unconscious. It is extremely important that schools and parents review and analyze new text materials to ensure they are well-designed, well-aligned, and acceptable to the community.
5. The standards mandate collecting and sharing detailed and unnecessary data on students.
The standards are simply learning goals. The fact of having national standards, however, has definitely led many people to seek new ways to collect and analyze data on student performance, to provide the best possible education to each student and to study which states, districts, and schools are performing well—not to punish those that fall behind, but to learn what really works for students and share the knowledge more widely.
This is not limited to our K-12 schools. It is exactly the same discussion that is happening in our health care system. It is exactly the same discussion we are having about businesses mining data from social networking systems to target advertising to people more effectively. It is a real challenge facing us in pretty much every facet of our 21st century lives. In each case, we need to weigh the potential benefits in service with the potential risks in losing privacy, and make decisions about what we find acceptable. I think people are absolutely right not to place blind trust in school administrators or academic publishers, and simply have faith that data being collected will not be abused. A healthy skepticism will help us all in the long run. But a healthy skepticism is not the same thing as panic or conspiracy-mongering.
Change may be challenging and frightening, but that, alone, doesn’t make it wrong. Holden Caulfield wanted to stop the world from turning. We sympathize with his feelings. We’ve all shared them at some point in our lives. But we also know what happened to Holden, and it wasn’t pretty. The world turns whether we want it to or not. The times change, and the needs of the times change.
Weighing the benefits of change against the risks is something we all have to do, and we cannot do it—not for education, not for healthcare, not anywhere—without having objective facts at our disposal and knowing how to analyze and assess those facts. It’s a skill that is absolutely necessary for the continued health and strength of our democracy. And it’s a skill, by the way, that the Common Core is working hard to build in our students.