It takes a lot to oppose the Common Core State Standards when they are said to offer reform, rigor, high academic standards approved by states and matched by other high-powered nations, a guarantee to close the achievement gap and college and career readiness!
What red-blooded American could say no to this promise? You might think none.
But 60% of American teachers and 51% of the American public do say no. This opposition has increased in the past two years. In 2013, just 24% of American teachers were opposed to the Common Core and 35% of the American public was opposed. The increase in opposition is remarkable, given the tremendous amount of money that has been spent to promote the Common Core. The increase of 36% in teacher opposition is particularly noteworthy because teachers have come to know Common Core the best.
In the past two years, teachers have become familiar with the Common Core standards and implemented them in their classrooms. After almost 30 years of working with urban and suburban teachers, beginning and veteran teachers, brilliant star teachers and struggling teachers, I know for sure the one thing that teachers have in common is that if something helps kids to learn and to achieve, teachers are for it. Teachers will learn new skills, change their ways, look at things differently if their students learn better and achieve more. Common Core has not offered that incentive to teachers.
Plus teachers and parents probably have found out that reform, rigor, national and international acclaim, closing the achievement gap and college and career readiness are empty words. They are focus-group-tested words, chosen because they were thought to be effective in “selling” the Common Core.
The promise of reform is an empty one. For example, 500 professionals in the field of early childhood, including the most respected experts in the country, have written a public statement, claiming that the Common Core Standards are harmful to young children and should not be taught. Changes that cause harm are not reform.
The most highlighted new practice for the teaching of English – the skill that David Coleman who is the “chief architect” of the English Standards frequently says is the most important standard – is using text evidence as students read and write. The problem with labeling it a “shift” and heralding it as a brand new Common Core standard is that it has been the fundamental practice in English classes since I was in school and is the daily practice in hundreds of English classes I have observed since 1985. Introducing something as new and different when it is already accepted practice by everyone in the field is not reform.
In addition, at the 2015 annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, there were 642 presentations. Of those 642 presentations, only 19 of them were about implementing the Common Core, and even those were largely about how to circumvent or add better teaching to that mandated implementation. The remaining 623 presentations were authentically about the teaching and learning that scholarly research and/or experience in the field show is best practice. Advocating something not respected by the experts in the field is not reform; it is just a plan of action recommended by people without requisite knowledge. Such were the employees of testing companies who wrote the Common Core Standards; no teachers of English language arts and no early childhood professionals were involved in writing those standards. Simply because people who are not educators call what they put together an educational reform does not make it so.
The standards are not rigorous. The tests to assess the attainment of those standards are “gotcha” enterprises with plenty of students receiving low scores, but that is because the tests are designed to fail 60 to 70% of the students. Anyone who has taught knows that it’s easy to create a test to fail most students. Those failures don’t mean that the test challenges the students to reason clearly, to raise pivotal questions, to collaborate in order to problem solve or create new thinking or to communicate effectively orally or in writing. That would be rigor. But that would require a totally different pedagogy than the pedagogy the Common Core mandates.
The Common Core Standards that are being implemented in schools were not agreed to by any states and are not benchmarked to international standards. The states never approved the Common Core Standards; appointed government officials simply agreed to the abstract concept of standards. They agreed before any of the standards were written so that their states would not receive financial sanctions from the federal government for not having 100% proficiency as specified by No Child Left Behind. No state officials ever reviewed the actual standards and decided that they were good learning. Similarly, the Common Core Standards are not aligned with international standards. The writers of the Common Core Standards reviewed the standards of other nations but did not match Common Core to them. For example, other nations have standards for the vital 21st-century skill of collaboration, but the Common Core and its aligned testing do not.
No standards can close the achievement gap, especially when that gap is measured by scores on standardized tests. All standardized test scores are correlated with family income, not with how much or how little the standards are taught. In Connecticut, for example, the school districts that adhere most assiduously to the teaching of the Common Core Standards are the impoverished, urban districts, and the schools in those districts have the lowest standardized test scores. Also, if standards could positively affect achievement, then all students who were taught them – those now proficient and those now failing – would improve, and the gap would remain the same.
Lastly, the Common Core Standards are untested for college and career readiness. No one has any idea if a high score on the tests aligned to the Common Core is a predictor of success in college or careers. It’s anybody’s guess. Even the executive director of SBAC Balance Assessment Consortium has said that the Common Core-aligned tests have a “huge validity problem” because they were never field-tested. (see clarification below). It is unconscionable that we as a state would mandate that all children and adolescents learn in prescribed ways that we don’t even have evidence are good for them. What we do know is that key skills for the future (questioning, collaboration, oral communication and creativity) are not tested on the Common Core-aligned tests so it is unlikely that the standards and the tests that measure them do make our students “college and career ready.”
Teachers, who are under pressure of job security to teach to the Common Core, often find it prudent to be compliant, yet they, in increasing numbers, are expressing their opposition to the Common Core. And parents, who want the best for their children and often believe what the dominant (in this case, highly paid) voices in the society tell them is good for their children, are objecting in increasing numbers to the Common Core. Both seem to be looking closely at what reform, rigor, national acclaim and international benchmarking, closing the achievement gap and college and career readiness really mean. That critique is good news for the future of education. It is good news for the future of the country.
The real way to improve education is to turn over the setting of standards and, especially, the decisions about how to teach to the educators, and we will get it right. We know when reform is needed and when it is not. We know what reform really looks like. We know what rigor is and how to engage our students in learning that is truly rigorous. We know how to address and minimize the achievement gap. We know how to prepare students for their future. Give us a chance and watch what happens.
Ann P. Cronin taught middle and high school English, was English curriculum leader for school districts, taught university courses in English education, was assistant director of the Connecticut Writing Project, and is currently a consultant for English education to school districts and university schools of education. She was named Connecticut Outstanding English Teacher of the Year and has received national awards for middle and high school curricula she designed and implemented.
Clarification: SBAC says that more than 4 million students across the country, including some in Connecticut, participated in a Smarter Balance field test of individual test questions in 2014. The author says she was not referring to that analysis, but rather to the validity of the SBAC tests that students took in 2015 and will take in the future and their relationship to what SBAC promises for “college and career readiness.” She points out that SBAC’s then-executive director Joseph Willhoft told an audience at the University of Connecticut in 2014 that there is a question about the tests’ validity because no one will know whether the test scores correlate with future success until at least 2017 when there will be information on how well the SBAC test-takers performed in their first year in college.