Core Value

At my daughter’s junior high school’s September Open House, we parents were inundated with how the Common Core standards have impacted the curriculum.  For example, in two classes, workbooks based on the Common Core were replacing previously used texts.  My older daughter’s high school’s most-recent newsletter featured a front-page story explaining how the Math Common Core will, “show students how math is relevant to the real world.”    And with its full implementation set for the 2013-2014 school year in Illinois, you can be sure that the Common Core standards will be dominating our schools in the near future.  The question, of course, is whether or not this is a step in the right direction for schools and students.

The Common Core got its start in 2009 when the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers started working on standards in English and math, trying to cull the myriad of skills most school systems were attempting to teach down to a more manageable number.  They also strove to increase the rigor of these standards to push students to achieve more in-depth knowledge earlier in their school careers.  The federal government has encouraged the move to the Common Core by doling out funds from Race to the Top grants and waivers from No Child Left Behind laws to states which adopt the Core.  There are also hundreds of millions being spent on the development of standardized, computer-based tests which will assess student achievement based on the standards of the Core.

This focus on standards is a positive development.  Standards need to be in place at each and every school in order to give teachers and students goals.  Without something specific to achieve, we all tend to waver and waffle in our resolve to get anything done.  Just “losing weight” isn’t enough for most of us; we want to drop ten, twenty, or (“None of your damn business!”) pounds.  Clear, explicit standards, then, are one of the cornerstones of any school system, and the Common Core certainly emphasizes them.  Placing standards front and center is a solid achievement for the Common Core.

And most of us would be hard-pressed to find fault with those goals.  These were taken from the English Writing standards for 9th-10th grades (my area of expertise having taught ninth graders English for twenty-five years):  “Introduce precise claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that establishes clear relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.”  Then there’s, “Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the usefulness of each source in answering the research question; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.”  No English teacher I ever knew would question whether those standards (or the dozens of others which have been created) were worthwhile and useful. 

Now I am not an expert on teaching arithmetic, but the math standards also sound good, at least to the untrained ear.  Here are a couple, also from the 9th-10th grades section:   “Explain each step in solving a simple equation as following from the equality of numbers asserted at the previous step, starting from the assumption that the original equation has a solution. Construct a viable argument to justify a solution method.” And, “Represent a system of linear equations as a single matrix equation in a vector variable.”  My math qualifications cause me to question whether I even picked a decent subcategory from which to take those two standards, but the number of categories from kindergarten through twelfth grade makes it very clear that we’ve got some serious standards here.  The National Governors Association (NGA) Center for Best Practices, Education Division, has done good work in creating both publicity around the need for standards and excellent model standards for schools. (You can check out all the standards for yourself at http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards).

And that’s pretty much where my praise for the Common Core ends.  Everything else about it—including Education Department Secretary Arne Duncan’s self-serving appearance during The Colbert Report on September 18—is designed to remove control from teachers and place it in the hands of those who don’t know or understand the very classrooms they are supposedly improving.  Sure it’s a laudable objective for students to “assess the usefulness” of their sources for a research paper, but once you’ve established that subjective standard, you have to empower your teachers to make their own determinations on how well students achieve that goal—it simply cannot be done with standardized tests, much less standardized tests developed by corporations which will be used to evaluate teachers, to allocate school funding, and to rank a school system as good or failing.  (Not to mention the $350,000,000 which has been given to two companies to develop these tests.)

By tying these standards to grants and funding through its Race to the Top initiative, the federal government has essentially pushed the forty-plus states (including Illinois) that adopted the Common Core to assess these standards in inappropriate ways.  How could any standardized test possibly determine in an objective manner whether or not millions of students are “using advanced searches effectively” for a research paper?  There are many idiosyncratic or impossible-to-observe factors which would render any test on this fragment of a single standard virtually useless. (The quality of the student’s thesis, the availability of information on that topic, the access the student had to on-line sources, and how many bogus or biased sources the student had been able to recognize and reject would be a few of the assessment challenges I would raise based on this one phrase.)  And realize that I enthusiastically endorse this standard as a good one for students to strive to achieve.  We’re just not able to assess that type of goal on a “macro” level, and to pretend we can creates a fatal flaw in the whole endeavor. 

Once the “experts” absurdly claim to be able to assess that which can’t be assessed with a standardized test, they cast a shadow on those terrific standards themselves:  “How can we take this thing seriously?” many educators, who have seen this kind of thing over and over again during their careers, reason.  “If they are delusional enough to force us to test millions of students’ ability to ‘establish clear relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence,’ using a single objective test, obviously they don’t understand what their standards are requiring students be able to do.  If the disconnect between the standards and competent assessment of those standards is that large, this must be another of those ‘can’t miss’ educational reforms doomed to crash and burn.  Eventually it will fade away, just like ‘Back to Basics,’ ‘Whole Language,’ ‘Authentic Assessment,’ ‘Portfolios,’ or countless other expensive ‘can’t miss’ initiatives slowly disappeared.”

And to harass the very teachers we want to educate our children with evaluations based on how well their students score on standardized tests is idiotic.  We’ve got to get beyond seeing teachers as these low-level, easily replaceable technicians who simply need to work harder in order to make our demands a reality.  Teaching is difficult enough without having outside experts looking over teachers’ shoulders as if those experts were the only ones who have any answers to the challenges our schools face.  Unless teachers are included as partners, not underlings, in any reform process, the Core will never have any significant impact, except for wasting teachers’ time and billions of dollars (much of which will wind up in the pockets of…that’s right, the experts).

I understand that everybody wants to hold schools and their employees accountable since we spend so much money on education, but we also have to hold ourselves accountable for understanding our school systems and expending effort to become involved in them if we really want accountability.  It has to be a two-way flow, with community members learning about their schools so they can comprehend the challenges each unique situation presents.  Currently, most of us sit back in ignorance, insisting schools perform at levels set by outsiders who know nothing about specific schools.  Nobody would accept this detached arrogance in any other profession.

Imagine if doctors were treated the same way:  Some outside agency would create ideal health objectives for everyone, and we would evaluate how good a doctor or hospital was based on whether or not patients achieved those ideals.  Never mind that the patients were subsisting on diets of Cheetos, donuts, and tobacco or if they were living in a country which devoted few resources to health care; if they had excessive cases of heart disease, lung cancer, or malaria, it would be the doctors’ fault.  If physicians had done a better job, fewer people would have suffered.  But since they (the doctors) didn’t conquer these problems, despite no effort from the patients or governments (or input from the doctors), we would rank the doctors as deficient, no matter how hard they were actually working. 

Much better would be to recognize that we’re all partners in this enterprise, that we all have to participate in cooperative, congenial ways to help everyone do better.  Of course we have to make sure our teachers work hard to help their students achieve important goals, but we can’t create idealistic standards and criticize from the sidelines as teachers scramble to meet them.  There has to be a more holistic approach that involves all the players:  students, parents, community members, teachers, administrators, schools boards, and local/state/federal governments.  “It takes a village to raise a child,” has become a truism we all like to espouse; but when it comes to educating our children, we expect teachers to leap obediently through any and all hoops experts hang while we do little besides critiquing their efforts should a test, created by people who have never been in our school based on standards written by still others ignorant of our situation, determine the students haven’t learned enough.  With something as important as educating our kids, that approach won’t cut it.

The Common Core has characteristics that we should applaud:  Its focus on standards and the standards created could assist schools in seeking more positive outcomes for students.  But using standardized tests to assess things they can never assess, ranking schools and teachers based on those faulty tests, and ignoring the importance of the larger community’s need to participate as partners with the schools in achieving those standards undermine the positives in fundamental ways.  If we don’t change the accountability-heavy bias of this program with its treatment of teachers as peons to be ordered about while the pharaohs of governments and experts act as judges on America’s Got Talent or Hell’s Kitchen, the Core will rot as so many other reforms have.  The kernels of positive change lurk in this misguided plan, but we must rescue those seeds before they are all scattered on the expensive, infertile ground currently being tilled.

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