In defense of Common Core

Indiana is one of 45 states that have joined the Common Core State Standards initiative, an effort to create guidelines for what students should learn at each grade level in math and English. It’s not like we’ve gone out on a limb here.

But some lawmakers want Indiana to become the first state to leave the fold. Senate Bill 193, sponsored by Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, would overturn the State Board of Education’s 2010 endorsement of Common Core and prohibit Indiana from rejoining. The Senate Education and Career Development Committee will consider the bill Wednesday.

The politics of the issue are very odd, bringing together tea-party types and some liberals. Critics on the right – and some are very far to the right — argue that Common Core is a federal takeover of education. They don’t like it because President Obama supports it. Critics on the left conflate the standards with excessive testing and accountability. They are suspicious of anything backed Tony Bennett, Jeb Bush and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

All this makes for a fun side show, but the real question should be: Will students be helped or hurt if Indiana jettisons the standards? This time, Bennett and Bush are on the right side.

First, Common Core isn’t a federal takeover. It has from the start been an initiative of the states, working through the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. They came together around the idea that it made little sense, if education is a national priority, to have 50 different sets of standards that vary widely in strength and clarity.

As Terry Spradlin of the Center on Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, told me: “Are the learning needs of children in Indiana really different from what children are learning in Massachusetts or California? With our mobile society, children who moved from state to state often found themselves way behind or way ahead of what was being taught in their new school … Why shouldn’t every state set the bar high with rigorous, clear, concise and jargon-free standards by grade level and subject?”

Some opponents take aim at the state-led and federally supported consortia that are creating assessments based on the Common Core, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (which includes Indiana) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Well, yes, if we have standards, there will probably be tests, and testing companies will make money.

But that’s happening now – times 50. Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institute argues the economies of scale associated with Common Core assessments will enable states to reduce their spending on standardized tests by 25 percent or more. (And Indiana is a big spender).

There are academics who say that the Common Core Standards are weak, or at least weaker than Indiana’s, which were rated by the Fordham Foundation as being among the best. A leading critic is Sandra Stotsky, a retired professor at Arkansas’s Walton-funded Department of Education Reform. Fabio Milner at Arizona State University has written that Indiana’s math standards were in some ways better but argues that Indiana should nonetheless remain part of the initiative. The Common Core responds on its website to these criticisms and others.

But it’s a good bet that the people who sing the praises of Indiana’s old standards haven’t tried to teach them all. The standards may look great sitting on a shelf, but they are so extensive that, in practice, teachers are likely to pick and choose which ones to emphasize.

“That’s one of the biggest concerns, and here in the U.S. it’s one of our problems,” said Cameron Rains, an administrator with Indiana’s Clark-Pleasant Schools who until recently was with Monroe County Community Schools. “Our standards are a mile wide and an inch deep. I don’t think that’s any secret.” He said Common Core improves the focus but may not go far enough.

Rains said his biggest concern is that teachers have already done a lot of work to prepare for Common Core and to develop curriculum and lessons that reflect the standards. The kindergarten and first-grade standards are being implemented this year. For state officials to say, never mind, we’re going back to Indiana’s old standards and sticking with ISTEP-Plus exams, would be a slap in the face.

“We run the risk of losing, at the state level, any credibility that was left,” Rains said.

In another twist, some conservatives have convinced themselves that Democrat Glenda Ritz was elected Indiana superintendent of public instruction in November because of Tony Bennett’s support for Common Core. Ritz won because teachers and their supporters thought Bennett had run roughshod with his agenda of vouchers, charters and merit pay – none of which are likely to be curbed by the legislature.

It would be a cruel irony if the lesson that lawmakers take from Bennett’s defeat is that they should jerk Indiana’s classroom teachers around once again.


16 thoughts on “In defense of Common Core

  1. When teaching was less cluttered with Standards, it was easier for teachers to do a good job. therefore we had better teachers. We still have good teachers, who are struggling to maintain lesson plans, etc., that measure up to the Standards. Teachers’ struggles lead to less time for good, sensible plans, and execution of the plans. When administrators buy into the government’s interference in pedagogy, and pass on the interference to the teachers, they do so to the detriment of teacher and student performance. We must stop trying to make teachers better with more demands on them, and give them the time they need to do the job like teachers did in the past.

  2. You seem to have disappeared down the rabbit hole on this one, Steve. So, you have tried to teach the “common core”? All, All, All, “standards” initiatives are “interested” projects. As a reporter wouldn’t it be better for you to discover, as much as is possible, the tendrils of interest here? Do you only listen to CEEP (as if they didn’t have their own agenda)?

    The Common Core is a “national standard” that was indeed supported and funded by the federal government in the so-called “race to the top” program. The Common Core is primarily an educational products industry initiative, that is a market initiative. It is also odd that “unilateral” deployment of state, and because nearly all of them signed on, national, manipulations via the governors, that is with zero oversight and only “business” interest, would escape your notice. That’s the Business Roundtable we’re talking about. That’s not “the people”–that’s a faction.

    Have you read anything at all about this?

  3. Common core is the answer to private corporations desire to take over schools faster. They haven’t made enough money fast enough. ALEC is the driver. Tony Bennett and Jeb Bush (and cronies) say its about student learning but we all know its about making these national corporations tons of money by siphoning public money away from public schools. It’s really disgusting.

    • Kevin, ALEC came within a whisker of approving a resolution AGAINST Common Core. Bennett and Bush were apparently able to talk them out of it. I’m sure it’s a potential business opportunity for testing companies, but I really don’t think the record supports the idea that ALEC is driving it.

      • Wow. That surprises me. Common Core, to me, has simply moved standards down a level. For instance, CC says now 3rd grade should know all multiplication facts. Usually that’s 4th grade- used to be 5th grade.
        2nd grade now needs to add triple digit with regrouping (borrowing). That used to be introduced at end of 3rd with expectation that students would learn in 4th.
        The results will look poorly on schools because these standards are more difficult. There are several states who have already taken exams testing CC. When schools fail, Bennett gets what he wants: to take over entire school districts. I get the idea that the nation should be learning the same standards. However, I don’t agree that 1 standardized test should be used for punishing schools, students and teachers. They are graded on bell curves meaning there will ALWAYS be a bottom 25% failing. Further, a child who gets 480 and the passing cut off (bell curve) is 490 will be grouped in statistics and reporting in the same group as a student who gets a 200

      • Kevin, I don’t think ANY test should be used to punish students, teachers and schools. It seems to me there can be reasonable uses made of standards and of tests — that they could be put to reasonable and not punitive uses. Anyway, there’s no realistic debate about whether we should have them. I do think that Glenda Ritz may be able to exert a positive influence — e.g., moving away from state takeover of schools, etc. — even within the boundaries of current state law. Unless the legislature decides to take away her authority as state superintendent, which is apparently being considered.

  4. Standards are a distraction to human well-being, at least as discussed here. That is to say, if we are to establish a standard particular to an institution, then those standards must indeed “be” the human ideal. School is then abstracted to mechanical replications of facts.

    Standards require a “standard-maker” and we in the citizenry have long since abdicated responsibility for this. But, should we have? Once we created a system wherein “representation” was “paramount” to this particular ideal of government, which is not democratic, and rather must be called at best “representational” (though what is represented is always in question), we then opened the gates wide to any number of “misrepresentations” in all forms–from economics to healthcare to education to politics and commerce.

    The King, the Emperor, the Federal government, makes “measures” and thus we are all in thrall to this idea. We are managed by manipulated “facts” and numbers to which we cannot consent…though we pretend consent with “representation.”

    It is hard for us to talk about these things because we cannot agree on where to begin the discussion. Arguing “about” the standards, that is, are they “good” or do they serve the purposes of learning is different and somewhat of a diversion if we believe there needs to be a focus on WHY there is THIS standard, or Whose standard, or does this reflect a business interest rather than a community or human or learning interest. We too readily ASSUME that one of these can subsume all others, that is we believe what is good for the economy in its guise as “business” interests, or rather, more honestly, the “interest of a few businesses and or people,” is good for all of us. This has been more than demonstrably FALSE, and yet we continue with it.

    Education as a public interest is a very new phenomenon; education as a step in the growth of human cognition has not changed. There are things to learn. What good are they to us who learn them? Again, we create the “society” as the thing that needs members to serve the abstraction. This is false to learning and false to the individual.

    That is, all of this is false to the individual, to the child, to the boy, to the girl, to the man, to the woman.

    Your expert is not my expert and I stand against his credentials, they are not recognized here. Your representative does not represent my child. Your business exploits me, my children, the world’s children–there is no abstract good you are performing when you use us.

    Politics do not do us any good and I’m not sure they have ever. Thinking is eschewed because it gets in the way of a managed population. The more “noise” with which we inundate our institutions the less our citizens can contest that noise and those institutions.

    The Common Core is noise. This blog seems to have joined in that din.

  5. I agree that having standards common to all states is a good thing. But where in child development theory or educational pedogogy does it say that all children should be expected to learn and advance at the same rate? How many people do you know for whom the “light bulb came on” at different times, maybe in middle school, high school or some years after high school? This is the problem with the hyper-testing environment in our public schools. (And I say public schools since in many states private schools avoid these tests altogether.)
    Most people object not to CC but all the high-stakes tests that come with it, and the prospect of more tests in the future. It is suspicious when an organization says that to accept our curriculum you must give our tests, and purchase the computer hardware to administer them. A state should be able to adopt CC but develop their own tests.

    • Julie, you offer three observations that should serve as the basis of a stance against the drive to standardize “learning,” or, that is, create measures tied to age and content retention/application; but then you seem also quite ready to accept both standardization and testing to justify it.

      1. Brain development, temperament, interest, physical maturation, emotional maturation, social relationships, familial relationships, etc., all these are very strong influences on one person’s “growth” towards adulthood (or full maturation) and these are all somewhat in flux and variable in every person. We can of course track a “common” pattern of development in the organism, but this too has a variable degree of “sameness” to it. The variability of all the factors makes it impossible to say that “successful” learning for each person must correspond to a chronological map that someone makes up and applies to every person.

      2. Private schools, and the best of the best in particular, that is those that are the best funded, those with the most educated and well-respected educators, those where the wealthiest and “oligarchically-minded” send their children, DO NOT have any such “standards.”

      3. The suspicious nature of the commercial, sales & marketing orientation, of testing in education, that is to say, the “interestedness” of the market, is indeed a too-great motivation for implementation and for political economy not to make it a front-and-center consideration as to the “real” reason that testing and standards are adopted.

      So, why should states have standards such as we have and such as have been adopted? And why would you call it a “good” thing?

      As I say in a previous comment, what assumptions about school are we making in order to create an “end” of education that has more to do with economics and politics than it does with creating a social institution that serves the individual and community by fostering and stimulating the growth of an intelligent, questioning, and enthusiastic learner?

      That is a basic an necessary consideration we should be working to understand.

      Further, the Common Core is a “cultural” program–one that create a kind of “privileged” cultural transference of the “right” kind of knowledge that seeks to denigrate any other kind of cultural knowledge by dismissing it as irrelevant to proper learning. But that is another issue entirely though an extremely important one. I’ve written a bit about that here: “Expressing a Patriotic Core”–

    • Julie, I completely agree about kids developing in different ways (which is why IREAD-3 seems to me not only misguided but cruel). But it’s not a terribly new or radical idea to think we can try for some kind of consensus about what students ought to learn, and to work backward from those desired outcomes and benchmark standards for grade levels. I believe the high stakes that go with testing are something Indiana has written into state law, not necessarily a product of which standards we choose. That, to me, is a different debate — what is and what isn’t an appropriate use to make of test results. I hope that Glenda Ritz is able to help make that debate happen at the Statehouse, but I’m not holding my breath.

  6. I just re-read this…Rains!? Seriously? And where did he hie off to? The district most committed to the State’s Testing Regime…hmmm…coincidence? Someone’s got to carry the water, right? But why the assist, Steve?

    And the Common Core “myth” FAQ is “persuasive” to you?

    • Darn, Pierre, I was starting to feel all flattered that my little post had inspired such a long and thoughtful response from you. But you didn’t even read it! You were just writing to the prompt of “standards”!

  7. Agree, Pierre, here is how the Common Core “myth” FAQ reads:
    Myth: the sky is blue
    Fact: no, it is not

    Myth: the earth is round
    Fact: some experts say it is not

    Really? Because we say so?

  8. I could not disagree with you more. Common Core is merely another way for corporations to make big money selling tests, test preps, workshops, etc., etc., to schools that have been fear-mongered into thinking they need it–and for gullible state governments to spend money on all of it, too. Common Core and PARCC have taken test mania and profit-making to new levels of absurdity, continuing the process of turning schools into factories for creating little test-taking experts instead of creative, innovative human beings.

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