Common Core, a curriculum that has been adopted by most states, is now a fixture in the education of most children attending public schools. It continues to generate controversy. We here begin a series examining how it affects our students, teachers and parents. We look at what it was intended to achieve and ask if those goals are being met. (The federal government is not empowered to legislate on education. It is strictly a state issue.)
Public education (K–12) has long been the subject of “reform.” Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books have been written on the subject of reform, all on the assumption that our systems could be doing better. Many books talk about our failures. Many recent authors, however, blame not the system, not the teachers, but the cruel facts of poverty.
Lucy Calkin of Columbia University’s Teachers College, a prolific author, is one of the academic experts who supports Common Core. In a recent talk, she said, “One of the things a lot of us feel is that the Common Core is prefaced on the idea that American teachers are failing. … [The] truth of the matter is the biggest problem right now is the disparity between the rich and the poor and the growing number of children who are growing up poor. Twenty-three percent of American kids are growing up poor. There is no other country that is doing better than us where more than 10 percent of our kids are growing up poor. If we had 10 percent of our kids growing up poor, we would be number one in education.”
Calkin’s talk reflects the charge that America is falling behind the rest of the world because we placed forty-fifth in a ranking of how students did in a test administered internationally. She and others have argued that if we did not have the most disadvantaged communities as part of our scores, we would be number one.
Nevertheless, because we were perceived as falling behind our Asian and European peers, the National Governor’s Conference teamed up with a not for profit (Achieve, Inc.) funded by corporate sponsors and the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation. With teams of experts, they came up with a “Common Core” curriculum intended to lift standards, assess teacher performance, and synchonize teaching across the country, so that a student moving from Portland, Maine, would find a school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, doing the same lessons as his former school.
Yet another purpose of Common Core was to collect comparable data from all schools in a state, and then, state by state, to assess how schools, teachers and students were doing. It was thought that uniform curricula and uniform tests would produce reliable data. While this goal can be questioned, as can the assumptions on which it rests, this process in now well under way.
The first part of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative was to upgrade state standards for math and language arts for grades K–12. They also developed standards to measure “college and career readiness”—a level of what high school graduates are expected to know to enter college or the workplace.
It should be noted that each step in the process of developing Common Core drew criticism; each assumption was challenged and each committee’s membership was questioned, but the process nevertheless continued and is now the dominant if not the sole academic program being applied in public schools throughout the United States.
Part of Common Core’s goals was to use student performance on tests to assess teacher performance. This caused a high level of stress on teachers that was transmitted to students, resulting in parents across the country telling their children to opt out of testing and causing a backlash against Common Core.
In the PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes toward the Public Schools, the survey found that 60 percent of Americans oppose Common Core.
Critics say the Common Core curriculum is too inflexible. Teachers and schools are not free to teach what they think may be best for their students or their community. While most educators believe the new standards are challenging, 40 percent of Americans disagree, saying CCSS are not challenging enough.
Calkin noted areas where CCSS is strong. Calkin said that with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), writing was nowhere to be seen. With CCSS writing and reading are given equal priority. CCSS puts emphasis on argumentative, informational and narrative writing. The elementary students focus on opinion writing, while high school writing is argumentative.
Calkin mentioned that the problem isn’t the standards but the way the Common Core was implemented. States were pushed to implement CCSS. Simultaneously, a tremendous emphasis was placed on teacher evaluations.
Millbrook’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, Kathleen Affigne, agreed that it was this double hit of new standards and APPR (Annual Professional Performance Reviews) that has caused much of the opposition to CCSS. The state mandated teacher performance reviews by legislation; APPR has no connection to the academic standards adopted by the Department of Education known as Common Core.
“I am like most folks where I think that the implementation timeline was way too rigorous,” said Affigne. “At the same time we were trying to teach children the new rigor and then the APPR on top of that, the new expectations for teacher and student performances. It was all rolled out too quickly.”
Affigne said it is not the CCSS but a data-driven culture that is the issue. Millbook has had its own share of controversy with CCSS, including assessment opt-outs, stressed kids and upset parents. Affigne believes they are on their way to smoothing out the challenges.
“In the last couple of years, we had special developers come in to work with staff. Staff attended BOCES conferences; they have been doing their own research and developing their own lesson plans,” said Affigne. “We still have a ways to go. We can now look at our data, which tells us our strengths and weaknesses and where we have to put in more time. … It’s an ongoing process.”
In future articles we will look at whether it make sense to coordinate every class in the country so every fifth grader is taught the same subject at the same time, thereby achieving the stated purpose of making teaching like an assembly-line process. Does this goal conflict with the generally accepted notion amongst educators that each student learns differently, at a different speed and in a different way?
How has CCSS impacted schools from Millbrook to the inner city? Should CCSS be applied to subjects other than ELA and math? Can art, music and physical education be standardized? How does CCSS accommodate slow learners? Does the CCSS curriculum makes sense when a high proportion of students will not attend college and have little interest in doing so?