The Idiot’s Guide to the Common Core

How much do you know about the Common Core Standards?  Choose all that apply.

The Common Core is:

a)     a new set of nationwide standards that will encourage deep thinking instead of rote memorization

b)     a new round of edu-bullshit like No Child Left Behind

c)     replacing state standards in 47 states including California

d)    causing surprisingly large numbers of students to freak out and start weeping uncontrollably during initial tests all across the East Coast

e)    causing Arne Duncan to infuriate opponents by dismissing them as “white suburban moms”

f)      going to push fiction out of English classrooms

g)    going to have no effect on the teaching of fiction

h)    going to change everything

i)       going to change nothing

j)     going to make testing companies billions of dollars

 If you picked many or all of the above, congratulations!  Whether you know anything about Common Core or not, you’ve grasped one of the central notions of this new set of national standards: the embrace of ambiguity and the possibility of multiple, contradictory correct answers.

Reality is, after all, a shape-shifting beast whose very existence is a matter of opinion.  In other words, if you are an idiot, you may be onto something.

Which is an idea I wholeheartedly support.  Still, I would say that at this point, I would check “all of the above” on my mini-quiz.  I have extremely mixed feelings about Common Core for a variety of reasons.  Because Common Core is rolling out in California beginning this year, I plan to write a series of occasional posts about it and its effect on the ground in real classrooms.  Today’s post will be an overview of the basics of Common Core standards as I understand them.

 The first thing you need to know about Common Core is that it is already happening.  If you don’t like what you’re about to read, you’re too late.  If your child is in public school in California, he or she is going to be learning under the new standards.

 The second thing you need to know about Common Core is that it is intended as a radical re-envisioning of education.   First of all, free public education has only been around in America for a little over a hundred and fifty years.  Even as recently as 1940, only about 50% of Americans graduated from high school.  For years after the growth of secondary school, districts were on their own to create their own ideas of what constituted an education, which resulted, for a variety of reasons, in a national education system that was staggeringly unequal, with low-income students of color disproportionately relegated to underfunded schools that were accountable to no one.  A variety of measures, beginning with desegregation, attempted to redress this imbalance, but a dismaying discrepancy persisted between the graduation rates and college attendance of low-income minority students and middle and upper-middle-class students.

No Child Left Behind, an act passed in 2001, was a further attempt to hold schools accountable by mandating that each state write specific standards for every subject and then administer tests at the end of every school year to make sure all children were actually learning.  Standards varied from state to state and subject to subject; in California, for example, the standards in English were a dizzying, densely-packed list several pages long of concepts so specific that in reality, no teacher could possibly teach them in a year, while in Drama, there were only five standards, each one so general and evident that if you stood in the room and breathed, you were probably meeting at least three of them.

 In other words, though intended to equalize education, No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, quickly devolved into a further hot mess of inequality.  Though the test scores were supposed to demonstrate the competence of schools, in reality, upper-middle class students generally rolled into school able to score proficient on many of them with minimal preparation, while students in low-income neighborhoods often came in years behind.  The notion of “holding accountable” these schools, while theoretically commendable, in reality meant that NCLB had minimal effect on instruction in wealthier neighborhoods, while creating conditions in low-income communities where the standardized multiple choice tests at the end of the year exerted a magnetic force over instruction equal to no other—because the school’s survival depended on its ability to produce higher scores.

 Some people loved these tests.  They felt that accountability, even imperfect accountability, was essential; others liked the clarity of knowing what to teach.  But many people, especially English teachers, found them to be a horrible way to test reading and writing.  On a deeper level, there was a creeping concern among just about any teacher I knew that our students, however proficient on tests, did not know how to think.  In a verbal argument, they would wilt; on the page, they would mindlessly generate five dull paragraphs of near-nonsense.

The Common Core standards are a response to this concern.  What’s radical about them is that unlike No Child Left Behind, which valued and measured the accumulation of specific skills and information, the Common Core standards value process.  Under Common Core, it matters much more how you think about something rather than what you already know.  I will write in more detail about some of the implications of this idea in terms of teaching English, but basically, instead of reams of standards for every subject, CC has a compact list of four standards: Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language. For more specific information about the exact standards, click here.

Sounds great, right?

Well…yes.  In theory.  I mean…if what was actually about to happen was that students all across America were going to learn to think critically, synthesize knowledge and communicate clearly, I’d be dancing in the streets.  True, there are some interesting philosophical concerns about the privileging of process over content, and many English teachers are unhappy about the Common Core’s inexplicable hostility to the idea of narrative, but I tend to agree that if you can think, you can learn (or read) anything.

The problem for me is that all of this is coming awfully close to magical thinking.  Yes, our kids need to learn to think critically.  We knew that before.  I guess it’s a good thing that we’re making it official.  You have to state a problem before you can solve it.

But in my opinion, there are a boatload of serious issues, starting with the fact that right now, no one knows how to teach kids how to think analytically and abstractly across a variety of subjects.  Analytical thinking is a complex web of painstaking logical procedures and the vocabulary necessary to manipulate abstract concepts.  It is not innate in even the most brilliant students.  I am not aware of anyone who has unpacked it to a teachable level.

Kids who have grown up in highly verbal families often come into school already knowing how to think analytically; kids who have had an excellent, rigorous education from the time they were very young also often come into school knowing how to think analytically.  But when kids have not grown up with either one of these situations—in other words, a very large number of kids in poverty—nobody yet knows how to teach kids how to think abstractly and analytically, especially when those kids are already teenagers.

Obviously, it is imperative that we learn how to teach critical thinking.  So yes, in theory, it’s great that we’re shining a light on this need. But…

 The Final Thing You Need To Know Is That Common Core Is Not Just A Theory, It’s A Test.

All of these beautiful theories will be measured, adjusted and understood based on the results of standardized tests.  And then you get the headaches.  Teachers are likely to be evaluated and paid based on them; schools may be shut down.  Testing companies will make billions that could have been spent on teaching.  I’ll write about the tests in another post, but basically, major, major, major problems come in as soon as you create standardized tests to measure something as abstract as critical thinking.  And since nobody knows how to teach it yet but we’re all going to be held accountable, a whole ton of companies purporting to know how to do it are now selling these untested systems to desperate schools.  For billions of dollars.

And the tests are not very good.  In my opinion, the English test provided by the testing company for California is not enormously better than the SAT.  In my next post on Common Core, I’ll take the test step by step, explain my opinion and ask yours.  Together, we’ll decide who’s an idiot.

Am I wrong?  Please tell me; I want to learn.  Till then, fire up your critical thinking.  Hire your tutors.  We’re going to take some tests.


5 thoughts on “The Idiot’s Guide to the Common Core”

  1. What about the fact that rather than being tested in EVERY grade between 2nd -11th, ten times, we now will only test students three times over the course of their education? That seems like a great step away from standardized testing…

      1. It’s only 3 times? Is that only for PARCC and Smarter Balanced created tests? So in the states that eventually stick with CC, there will be 3 different testing points to compare across states. HS tests at 11th grade, for example.

        The way I understand it – states, about 37 so far, have adopted their own rules on testing (separate from Common Core) to fulfill RTTT or get NCLB waivers – one provision is that states must develop their own teacher evaluation systems with typically multiple choice exam results (called student achievement) factored into the evaluation, using value-added analysis. As we’ve read on this blog, this causes complications, to say the least.

        So now states are trying to figure out how their testing will shift with the new common core. I had thought that states were going to “reverse engineer” their testing at each grade level. So my guess is there would still be testing, but it’ll be up to the states, and they’ll have to create the exams themselves. Or, as I’ve read, they can purchase diagnostic exams from the test makers to see if their students are on track to doing well on the real CC exams (the 3 times). So test to see if students are on track to doing well on the real tests (3).

        Sort of related article –

        I could be totally wrong. Anyone? Anyone?

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