Core Confusion

An op-ed in today’s Times discusses the ever-controversial Common Core educational standards currently in place in 42 states and the District of Columbia. Politically, the Common Core has proved to be the mother of all strange-bedfellows issues, with both the left and the right roundly condemning it – for completely different reasons. The left sees Common Core as part and parcel of an excessive emphasis on testing and on linking those test results to teacher evaluations. It worries that the standards are too challenging, and that high rates of failure will afflict minority and under-resourced children. A popular blogger here in Connecticut, Jonathan Pelto, has made a career out of opposition to the Common Core, routinely calling it “child abuse.”

These are the judgments of those on the left who view all school reform as an evil plot to break teacher unions and enrich corporate educational interests. The right, meanwhile, seemingly unaware that the Common Core was initially a Republican policy initiative, has subsumed the standards within the bugaboo of federal control, demagogically misconstruing Common Core as a kind of educational Obamacare -- yet another way in which a nefarious federal government seeks to control every aspect of our lives. And so the standards are sandwiched between darkly conspiratorial attacks from both political sides.

A lot of the fears strike me as misperceptions. The Common Core is like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum: everyone has an opinion, but how many people have actually read the thing? You can go online and look at the standards. Like all bureaucratic documents they’re laid out in a bewildering panoply of sections and subsections. But individual standards seem sensible.

Take, for instance, the “Speaking and Listening” section for Grade 2 in English Language Arts, which recommends that second-graders be able to “recount or describe key ideas or details from a text read aloud,” or “ask and answer questions about what a speaker says in order to clarify comprehension, gather additional information, or deepen understanding of a topic or issue.” Who can disagree with that? Yes, the reading standards call for emphasizing nonfiction over fiction, which is something that this fiction writer will keep an eye on; but again, the sensible emphasis is on being able to read something and then put forward an explanation or argument -- and to support it by citing the text.

From helping my daughter with her math homework, I can say that the math standards do a couple of things I consider salutary. They emphasize the existence of multiple ways of solving a problem. And they make clear that the goal isn’t merely getting the right answer, but understanding how to address problems – and being able to explain how you got your answers. For instance, Standard 3.OA.C.7 calls for third-graders to be able to “fluently multiply and divide within 100, using strategies such as the relationship between multiplication and division (e.g., knowing that 8 × 5 = 40, one knows 40 ÷ 5 = 8) or properties of operations,” and recommends that “by the end of Grade 3, know from memory all products of two one-digit numbers.” In general, while not dismissing the importance of memorization, the standards emphasize a certain self-consciousness -- in a good way - about problem-solving, so that kids will be taught not just to fetch up an answer, but to think about how they are doing it. I'm aware that some people consider such an approach too demanding. Time will tell if that is true. But my instinct is to welcome the challenge.

It’s important to remind people that the Common Core is not a curriculum or a pedagogy, and does not dictate content to teachers or tell them how to teach. It is a set of standards, specifying skills and abilities that kids should have at different grade levels. How those standards are to be taught, and via what kind of material, is left to states and school districts. And while I do think that we’re awash in too much testing, and that there’s something fundamentally askew in the confident belief that we can quantify a child’s intellectual development (or a teacher’s success), that’s a separate issue. Common Core is not a test. Standards do tend to run hand in hand with the emphasis on testing, but in theory they should be separable. In my view, standards – used creatively by experienced teachers – should be embraced; it's the rampant testing that needs to be restrained.

For those looking for fair, balanced, non-partisan perspectives on this issue, here is a highly informative history and assessment of the Common Core (from the Washington Post), and in particular Bill Gates' role in developing it. And here is the Times’ exhaustively detailed, fine-grained look at how the standards play out – both pros and cons --  in the daily life of one nine-year-old student in a New York public school.

I’m no expert on this – just a parent whose child is in grade school, and who is trying to claw past the politics of the issue to see what’s really there. I’d like to hear what you think.

 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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