The Common Core Brouhaha

These days one needs a scorecard to keep track of the politics of education: The Common Core, the two national tests now being piloted, bubble test fatigue, the opt-out movement, opposition to top-down technocrats, and the ‘commodification’ of education–all are factors in a serious brouhaha.

The New York Times recently acknowledged that the right wing is making political hay out of the Common Core State Standards. Earlier in the same week, conservative columnist David Brooks attacked the attackers, likening them to the occupants of a clown car. Like the Times’ reporter, Mr. Brooks wrote as if all the opposition were coming from the right fringe.

The left, feeling left out, wants it known that it too belongs on the list of the disgruntled. From that side, Diane Ravitch and others are doing their best to be heard. A central complaint: teachers were not part of the development of the new standards, which, they maintain, treat education and children as commodities. More about that later.

The glib analysis, which is is actually kind of clever, goes something like this: the right hates the CCSS because they are ‘common,’ and thus denigrate individualism and limit choice, while the left detests them because they are ‘core.’ (Or maybe it’s the other way around.)

When left and right find common ground, something big is happening. In fact, we may have a perfect storm brewing, where forces upset about a variety of controversial issues create enough noise, rancor and controversy to reshape public education. These groups may not be against the same things—and they definitely are not for the same things, but the weight of their outrage may be enough to topple the Common Core State Standards and the accompanying national testing.

At least two other issues are at play: bubble test fatigue and concern over top-down ‘technocratic’ control of what most Americans think of as a local enterprise, public education.

And lurking in the wings are profiteers hoping to grab a bigger share of the trillion dollars we spend on education, and ideologues determined to break apart the public system (and teacher unions), whatever the cost.

It’s the essence of drama that we can push a boulder down the hill but are powerless to control what happens next. That’s what seems to be going on here, and at some point we are going to find out what and who will be crushed. As often happens when adults do battle in education, some children’s futures will be ‘collateral damage.’

From my vantage point, the Common Core State Standards and the two largely computer-based national testing programs are on a collision course that the planners should have anticipated and could have avoided. Here’s what I mean: The CCSS call for developing ‘soft’ skills like working cooperatively and speaking persuasively. However, those cannot be assessed by a computer-based test, or by any sort of bubble test, but machine-based testing is what the powers-that-be have invested in. They did this because they want data that can be used to hold teachers accountable. The bottom line is pretty clear: the decision-makers do not trust teachers.

You do the math: Scores are going to be used to evaluate (and possibly fire) teachers, and the soft skills mentioned above are not going to be tested. Will teachers focus their instruction on ‘speaking persuasively,’ ‘working cooperatively,’ and the like? Some will, because they genuinely care, but most will probably act in their own self interest (as they should). Bottom line: those essential skills will be cast aside, and kids lose, because possessing those skills would make them more employable.

The digital divide between poor kids and well-off kids guarantees that computer-based testing is not going to go well. Even schools with an ample supply of computers do not have enough of the machines to allow the testing to occur in a single week; instead, we are hearing reports that the testing will take as long as a month or even five weeks. That’s time taken away from teaching and learning.

Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas, who sits firmly on the right in most education debates, is very upset about the role of ‘technocrats’ in education. His blog is worth your time.

The opt-out movement may become a force to be reckoned with, if and when it organizes effectively. What has to happen, it seems to me, is that the movement must also be FOR something. I suggest a straight trade: two weeks of project-based learning for every day of testing AND test-prep! In other words, don’t just stay home; fight for positive changes.

Come to think of it, why would any school board agree to add more days of testing, instead of insisting on a subtraction for every addition? American kids are already the most tested in the world. (Sick joke: We could drop a test or two and still beat our chests and shout, “We’re Number One!”)

The critics scored a major victory when Inbloom, the data collecting effort strongly backed by the Gates Foundation, threw in the towel. Emboldened by this triumph, the critics are energized. The center is fighting back, of course, with advice and encouragement. Because I am an education reporter, I’m now receiving press releases letting me know that supporters of the Common Core are available for interviews. I take this as evidence that those folks are worried.

Perhaps the chickens are coming home to roost. As Rick Hess and Michael McShane of the American Enterprise Institute reported recently, media coverage of the run-up to and development of the Common Core State Standards was close to non-existent, and even now most Americans know nothing or very little about the standards. Into that near-vacuum the opponents have ridden, taking the supporters by surprise.

Higher and more challenging standards are a good idea, in my view, but whether the Common Core State Standards are good enough probably doesn’t matter now. This is now a political fight, and the quality of the standards will not be the determining factor. Expect the opponents to seize on every stumble going forward. For example, the Common Core tests are now being piloted in schools around the nation. There will be glitches{{1}}, because every new thing has glitches, but don’t be surprised if the opponents make each misstep sound like the end of the world.

If we end up starting the higher standards process all over again, let’s agree that teachers must be well-represented at the table. Education is, at the end of the day, about relationships. It’s not a commodity to be acquired, and children are not objects to be weighed and measured. Teachers have to be trusted, because the enterprise cannot succeed without them, no matter what technocrats may believe or wish.

Last night at Stanford Anna Deveare Smith, the multi-talented artist, reminded an audience (mostly education types) that learning is about “I-thou” connections, and not “I-it.” Unfortunately, the testing industry and many decision-makers approach students as objects, as commodities to be weighed and measured. That’s the problem that must be addressed, in my judgment.

[[1]]1. And speaking of glitches, I visited two testing classrooms this morning. One teacher told me that, if students hadn’t logged on in a precise sequence, the volume control stayed at ‘zero,’ meaning no sound at all for the questions that required listening. Another teacher told me that the tool bar for creating math answers did not allow students to provide a fractional answer, such as 8 ⅓, and so, she said, she ended up helping almost every student give their answers as improper fractions (25/3, in the example above). Two classrooms, two glitches.[[1]]

23 thoughts on “The Common Core Brouhaha

  1. Brilliant analysis, John. So many teachers embrace the Common Core because of their potential to transcend the narrow curriculum that defines their too much of their teaching. Lori Nazareno, writing for Chalkbeat Colorado, informs policymakers how to Find common ground on Common Core and Nancy Gardner and Rod Powell, writing for the Kappan, inspires educators to see how The Common Core is a change for the better.

    But they know, as classroom experts, the Common Core to realize the possibility of deeper, more personalized learning for all students, teachers must lead in bold ways. We need Teacherpreneurs: classroom experts who teach part of each day or week and spread sound practices and innovative ideas beyond their schools, districts, and states.

    But is reform about controlling teachers or unleashing their potential to do what is right for students and communities?


  2. This is the most balanced treatment of the Common Core I have seen. The core is a set of standards and is being judged one on hand because of in the frame of over testing and on another because of political agendas. It would be interesting to have been able to see what would have happened if the Common Core could have happened with the prejudicing of NCLB preceding it.
    It also has the significant baggage of Race to the Top being tied to it in some states. This has led to accusations of a federal takeover of state and local education systems, which is anathema to many.
    Can we get past the glitches, the lack of technology, and the ideological forces or will the whole thing collapse under its own weight of political and corporate agendas?


  3. Would the “authors” and architects of these tests and curriculum consciously choose this way of being educated themselves or educating their own children?


  4. As always, your writing is clear and researched. My concern is an inconsistency.

    “They did this because they want data that can be used to hold teachers accountable. The bottom line is pretty clear: the decision-makers do not trust teachers.”

    Why is testing students acceptable, but testing teachers is not? Wouldn’t testing a student be a sign of distrust as well?

    “If we end up starting the higher standards process all over again, let’s agree that teachers must be well-represented at the table.”

    Really? What about students? They have no representation whatsoever and to suggest that parents reflect the thoughts and opinions of students is akin to some arguments in the early 20th century for why women should not have the right to vote.

    The more people who are at the table who are not students assure that whatever decisions are made will reflect the desires of special interest groups and not the party that is supposedly served by the system. What a joke this all is.


  5. I have not entered this debate because as a student of NCLB I was long convinced that 50 different sets of standards and tests, mostly badly done, made no sense and could be easily manipulated with seriously misleading results. I do believe it is very important to know how we are doing and which students and schools need help. As a college teacher I often see very talented students who have not been exposed to a rich educational program so I certainly affirm the goal of more challenging curriculum. I don’t like the narrow way in which the standards were evolved–it was far too top down and ideologically limited. I strongly fear that the too many of the test and accountability advocates will use the results in unfair and scientifically illegitimate ways to continue to punish teachers and schools serving our profoundly unequal and deeply separated communities. I think that the central need is to separate the idea of stronger goals and content from sanctions and to assure that any use in accountability be done in a ways that fairly reflects the extremely unequal external conditions that schools and teachers face not the kind of truly idiotic assumptions that made NCLB a completely predictable failure.


    • The testing that was rushed into place (e.g., in NY) — even before teachers and students had adequate curriculum to support the Common Core — was an obvious mistake, as John Merrow noted. Yet, the long history of testing continually reveals that when high stakes are applied, we lose the ability to make appropriate inferences from the test results and genuine learning is undermined. Current efforts to align NAEP and the SAT to the Common Core, if successful, will also cloud the public’s ability to know whether students can apply what they’ve learned beyond a system aligned to the Common Core.

      Focusing on understanding, creating, and sustaining cultures of learning (I-thou) is likely messier than creating a totally aligned system. But why not field test efforts at that and compare them to the alignment model? Matrix-sampled, low-stakes, district-wide tests and school visits/inspections might provide data for such a study.


  6. This is no political dust up. There are three federal laws that clearly prohibit any federal role in national standards and tests. It’s really a shame your reporting isn’t more balanced and objective here. What is also clear is that the players driving Common Core are the same players who got public education into this mess.


  7. Once again, the education battles are being waged between adults and they are mired in 20th century issues. The purpose of the NCLB Act was to shine a light on the lack of results supplementary programs for underserved children were having. The testing regimen that was imposed was meant to hold schools (and teachers) accountable and to spur reforms that would close the achievement gap.

    But in the last century, we had no other way of evaluating the performance of students than to administer end-of-the-year summative tests that are essentially an autopsy: too late to help anybody, the teachers in delivering whatever interventions are necessary and the students in taking control of their own learning by getting constant feedback on how they are doing.

    In the 21st century, we have an opportunity, no, an obligation to use the technological tools now at our disposal to eliminate the need for tests altogether. Common Core standards, as flawed as they may be, are the beginning of a necessary shift from our traditional education model based on Carnegie units and seat-time to master-based learning. Once students are evaluated on an ongoing basis on what they know and can do, once they operate in a continuous improvement progression, there will no longer be a need for the kind of punitive, uninspired testing that plagues our education system.


  8. Brilliant post! Great comments! High-stakes testing and the technocratic top down reform has failed. But, who can control a boulder rolling downhill?
    So, as we defeat bubble-in accountability and the teacher mistrusters, we need to continue to offer the olive branch.


  9. John — ‘Thoughtful post, as usual, and helpful for those of us working with teachers and principals around the country. Thank you for taking the time to compose and post it.

    I work with teachers/principals to improve instruction, assessment, and grading practices, particularly for diverse classrooms, and one thing I’ve noticed is how few teachers and building leaders have skills in vetting evidence of standards, Common Core or not, with one
    another. This is not a skill set taught at many schools of teacher preparation, though this is very understandable: We really can’t identify what is mastery and almost mastery of a standard unless we are intimate with all that we are teaching, and we usually don’t come to know our curriculum content well until we are teaching it. There is serious need, however, to
    train teachers on how to break down whatever curriculum is handed to them or created by them into demonstrable evidence, and we can provide pre-service teachers with insightful practice in this skill. For example, when assessing whether or not students understand fact versus opinion, teachers are wise to identify verbs that when employed, reveal mental dexterity with fact versus opinion: Students can discern between fact and opinion, but can they also create both fact and opinion? Can they revise something that is too opinionated and
    make it more factual? Can they manipulate someone’s opinion by omitting or including certain strategic facts, and is this even desirable, or do we want to make sure only that they can perceive when they are being manipulated by a speaker’s choice of verbs? And, of course, which of these skills constitutes and A, B, C, D, or F for this particular grade level we teach?

    Many of the educators I encounter across the nation lack the skills to break down the Common Core standards into clear evidence of mastery and calibrate that evidence with subject-like colleagues constructively. They tend to get divisive, and maybe even myopic,
    thinking their version of what’s important is the only correct one. Some feel threatened by colleagues’ alternative interpretations of what’s important to teach. Some teachers will spend weeks on direct/indirect objects, transitive/intransitive verbs, and participles as vital tools of successful writing, while others in the same English department mention them only briefly as something to know for cultural literacy. Even rarer is a team of English teachers sitting down with one another and clarifying with the department what exactly we want students to know and be able to do regarding each of these topics. Schools claim their grades are consistent and have integrity, but absent this collaboration on content, they are inconsistent and lack integrity. I’ve encountered this in all departments, not just in English. As a result, grading continues to fester as a game to play rather than as meaningful reporting of student progress regarding standards. And the public is no more assured regarding their children’s progress with an identified Common Core than it was with its former curriculum.

    At any rate, this seems to be a big hiccup in Common Core State Standards implementation and assessment in general. We need to teach educators how to identify this evidence of a standard, calibrate it with colleagues, and employ methods of complete transparency in its
    reporting to students and their parents. The critical mass is rising for students to really learn the curriculum, not just follow a few simple teaching algorithms and take a test, regardless of whether or not they carry the learning forward. The stakes are high — grades have to mean what we say they mean; they must be accurate. We can’t report the Common Core State Standards accurately, however, if teachers don’t have time and skills to analyze the evidence for each one’s mastery.

    – Rick Wormeli, Herndon, VA


    • One thing to consider here is that higher ed has become a business. Numbers have become more important than standards and faculty feel pressured to pass students in order to keep students happy, number high, and profits big. Education at any level, should not be tied to profit. There is profit to be made with CC and is the driving force behind the standards.


  10. Great writing an insightful post. If the best idea education “leaders” can come up with is finding more objective ways to fire bad teachers, then these leaders need to read some leadership books. These decisions were made with this fire bad teachers lens. Now we see the consequences.


  11. Common Core, state standards, who really cares? The debate over which standards to use is moot if we can’t find effective ways to teach them and assess students. Trying to write new standards to fix the problem is akin to trying find a new meatloaf recipe when the oven is broken. I am afraid it just serves as a distraction from more pressing issues. I would be willing to bet my paycheck against a soda that if you ask a thousand people in and outside of education what the most pressing issues are with education, very few would say that finding the right standards is high on the list.


  12. As a PreK-2 school, we have embraced the common core standards and are working to give our students the firm foundation they need to become ready for the future. However, we have the advantage of no year end summative assessment at this point. So the technology glitches and high stakes testing haven’t affected our ability to fully immerse ourselves in working with kids. That, I believe, has made us more able than most to truly see the benefits of the new skills involved in the common core. Because we aren’t testing, we can spend more time collaborating as teams to see where our students are, where we want to go, and how to get there. Now that doesn’t mean we aren’t getting reminded regularly that we need to have them ready for testing at 3rd grade!

    Thank you very much for a great read and the opportunity to participate in this conversation.


  13. You know what I want for my children who opt out? Very easy. Please go to Sidwell and Friends website and read their philosophy. THOSE children aren’t tested ad nauseum, THOSE teachers are trusted and aren’t evaluated based on CHILDREN’S test scores, THOSE children aren’t deprived of arts, p.e., libraries, degreed teachers, nurses, etc. Those teachers create the curriculum, not based on silly standards created by test companies and some idealogue who is making millions off these developmentally inappropritate standards. I want what I had pre-NCLB. A well rounded curriculum and teachers who were responsible for curriculum, lesson planning, and assessment based on the kids in front of him/her. If it’s not good enough for the president’s kids, it’s not good enough for mine.


  14. Last year the teachers at one of our top high schools voted use their small discretionary budget to hire an IT specialist to help them with the inevitable, daily glitches in their classroom technology. Instead, the specialist now spends the bulk of his time preparing and fixing library computers for standardized tests.

    I keep asking, you want to test so much? What’s wrong with paper?


  15. 5 weeks of testing? seems like the school year will get longer. summer vacation shouldn’t last more than a week anyway. that is, to compete globally


  16. John, I am no longer in the classroom, but what you have shared here confirms much of what I thought about how Common Core is playing out. I do think corporate interests have gained way too much control over testing and therefore curriculum (regardless of what Arne Duncan says, when you have this much focus on very rigid tests, it will dictate curriculum). This has had bipartisan support, unfortunately, and so even though political gridlock is frustrating, so is having so few on either side willing to stand up against this. I shared your write-up publicly on my FB page and got some input on it from 4 teachers (1 in So Cal, 1 in Nor Cal, 1 in Central Cal and 1 in Vancouver, CA). You can see the variation just within one state from district-to-district. I thought you might like to see the feedback:


  17. I’m all typed out but what I will say, short and sweet is that my upcoming book gives talking points about what John is saying here. And in greater detail Look for it in a couple months or so. Brainstorming the Common Core: Salvaging the Fiasco of Reform


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