jasonbwatson

April 8, 2014

Again with Common Core!

Within the past week I have had two different individuals ask me about Common Core. What is it? What does it mean for schools? The perspective in both instances was that Common Core is evil, the result of some corrupt attempt by politicians and bureaucrats to manipulate the public and to force cookie cutter educational standards on every child in the United States. In both instances I have been able to explain what Common Core is — and is not — and hopefully allay some of the fears that these individuals possessed. I cannot have a face to face conversation with everyone who has heard the horror stories about Common Core, though.

Just a few minutes ago I finished watching a film created by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) called Building the Machine. The film is available online; just Google the title or “Common Core movie” and you will have no trouble finding it. Here is how the web site for the film describes the movie: “Building the Machine introduces the public to the Common Core States Standards Initiative (CCSSI) and its effects on our children’s education. The documentary compiles interviews from leading educational experts, including members of the Common Core Validation Committee. Parents, officials, and the American public should be involved in this national decision regardless of their political persuasion.” There is nothing inaccurate there and I certainly agree that the American public should be involved in making decisions about education in America.

The web site goes on to describe Common Core this way: “The Common Core is the largest systemic reform of American public education in recent history. What started as a collaboration between the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to reevaluate and nationalize America’s education standards has become one of the most controversial—and yet, unheard of—issues in the American public.” I would question the assertion that it is unheard of; sometimes it seems like I hear about nothing else but Common Core!

I have addressed Common Core in this space at length in the past so I am going to attempt to avoid restating that which has already been said. I do want to make a few comments on specific things in the HSLDA movie, though.

First of all, the film laments the fact that there was no “public comment” on the development of the Common Core standards. This statement is questionable in and of itself. However, even if it were true, it is not necessarily cause for concern. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were not developed by a an elected board of education or any such body. The CCSS were, however, developed by groups that included elected officials (such as the National Governor’s Association). One commentator in the HSLDS movie compared the supposedly-secret development of the CCSS to the development of state standards in Massachusetts. He said that in Massachusetts the process took years to select texts, etc. That was no doubt appropriate for standards being developed within a state and by a state board of education. Furthermore, the CCSS do not dictate texts to be used, so there was no need for the review of texts. (The CCSS do include recommended texts or exemplars of texts that may help meet the standards, but the adoption of any specific texts is up to states and/or local boards of education). Oddly enough, one individual on the movie even went so far as to assert that the fact that elected governors were included in the process of developing the CCSS, and developing the process for the creation of the CCSS, does not mean that the voices of the people were represented. Really? I was under the impression that that was exactly how representative democracy worked….

At one point in the movie one of the “experts” stated that the federal government “played a major role in incentivizing states to adopt Common Core.” That’s true. But that’s exactly how the government works. It offered money to states that adopted the CCSS — or developed their own equally rigorous standards. It was up to the states to decide to adopt them, however. The movie continued with experts suggesting that many states blindly signed off on Race to the Top grant requests which committed the states to the CCSS. If true, that may well warrant investigation but it is a problem with the elected officials and/or the funding process — not with the CCSS themselves.

Sandra Strotsky is one of the experts heard from frequently in the film. She was on the CCSS validation committee and decided she could not endorse the standards as developed. That’s fine; it is certainly her prerogative. She stated in the movie, though, that the CCSS diminish the importance and use of literary texts in English classes in favor of technical texts. Having reviewed the lists of text exemplars I do not agree. The lists include novels, works of non-fiction and so-called technical texts (which are often speeches and other first-person or primary source documents that effective teachers include anyway, such as the Gettysburg Address or Patrick Henry’s speech to the Virginia Convention).

Another point emphasized in the movie is that the CCSS do not prepare students for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs or selective colleges. Would you imagine for a moment if they did, please? Imagine the uproar that would have ensued had standards been adopted that were designed to ensure that every student would meet the admissions expectations of the nation’s top colleges and STEM programs! High school diplomas have always been a statement that minimum standards have been met by the students receiving them. Some states offer various kinds of diplomas, such as advanced, standard and general. That’s fine if they want to do that, and there is nothing in the CCSS that prevents them from continuing to do that. But the CCSS themselves are a statement of what every student should know as he progresses through a K-12 education.

Michael Farris, the chancellor of Patrick Henry College and the chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, describes in the movie a conversation that he had with David Coleman, the lead writer of the CCSS. Farris indicated that Coleman has some good ideas for public schools and Farris thinks he has some good ideas for home schooling. The difference between them, Farris said, is that Coleman is “trying to use the force of law to require everybody to implement his good ideas.” Again, this assertion is simply not true. Coleman may want every state to adopt the CCSS but he cannot require that and neither, I might add, can the federal government! Any state that has adopted the CCSS has done so of its own accord and by its own choice.

Texas is one well-known state that has not adopted CCSS. Indiana was an early adopter but has since decided to opt out. Indiana must now develop its own standards in order to retain funding from the federal government. If Indiana feels this is the best move for its students then good for Indiana. Let me reiterate that I am not necessarily for the CCSS. My concern is simply that so much of what is being said about the Common Core is inaccurate.

If you watch Building the Machine you will no doubt notice a counter at the top of the screen prominently displaying how many times it has been viewed. When I was watching it had been viewed more than 118,000 times. That’s great. I’m sure the HSLDA is tickled pink. But my hope is that individuals who are truly concerned about the education of children will research the facts for themselves. Watching Building the Machine can be an important part of that process but it is only that — a part of the process. Do not swallow whole the perspectives or statements of any individual or group (including me!). Check it out for yourself.

Building the Machine ends with the statement that the single most important element in an effective education is parental involvement. That is absolutely correct and a statement on which I imagine we can all agree. Like the Common Core or hate it, it is not a magic potion that will miraculously produce brilliant kids. Parents still need to be involved.

November 15, 2013

What About Common Core? (part 5)

I hate to do this. Really, I do. Quite frankly, I am irritated that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have taken up so much of my time and attention recently–especially when I am not (1) required to follow them at the school where I serve, and (2) even all that interested in defending the standards themselves! What bugs me is the misinformation and the manipulation of the facts that is so prevalent surrounding the CCSS. I wrote at length on these standards last week and then decided after four posts that I was done. I intended to walk away from the issue and leave it alone. Then I got today’s mail…

In today’s mail I received a letter from Concerned Women for America (CWA) which was accompanied by a pamphlet entitled “Stop Common Core ‘State’ Standards.” The pamphlet included a picture of an elementary school child wearing a safety patrol vest, holding a stop sign. At the top of the cover was this statement: “An Unconstitutional Experiment on Our Children.” The lower part of the cover says, “An experiment destined for failure, loss of local control, loss of parental rights, loss of privacy, high costs and more.” Now, I respect CWA and much of what they do. However, I cannot ignore the inaccuracies and spin of their propaganda piece. The only way to have healthy and meaningful debate is to stick to the facts, and conservative organizations need to hold themselves to that standard–particularly organizations that are also Christian.

The inside front page of the pamphlet provides this explanation in response to the headline, “What is the Common Core?”

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is a set of national K-12 standards in math and English language arts currently being implemented in 45 states and Washington, D.C. The CCSS were developed behind closed doors by a left-leaning Washington, D.C.-based non-profit group. Supporters of the CCSS claim that the development of the standards was a “state-led” effort, but that simply is not true. Neither state boards of education, state legislators nor local education officials, school leaders, nor parents were included in the development, evaluation, and adoption of CCSS.

That paragraph includes reference to an end note after the comment about the “left-leaning” non-profit group, and that end note directs readers to a report by the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc., entitled “Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education.” Interestingly, that report was published in 2008, and the CCSS were not even copyrighted until 2010. The suggestion, though, is that Achieve, Inc. is a “left-leaning” non-profit group responsible for drafting the CCSS. The report in question was outlining the arguments in favor of developing such standards. However, Achieve, Inc. (1) is a bipartisan organization that includes both Republican and Democratic governors on its board of directors, and (2) is not cited at all in the final CCSS.

Furthermore, that CWA paragraph states that there were no state boards of education, elected officials or local education officials involved in the “behind close doors” development of the CCSS. However, the CCSS were developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The CCSSO is “a nonpartisan, nationwide, nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and five U.S. extra-state jurisdictions.” The CCSSO board of directors has as its president Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education. The president-elect is Terry Holliday, the Commissioner of Education for Kentucky. The past president is Thomas Luna, the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Idaho. The board includes education heads from six other states. These individuals serve as the executive officers for their state departments of education and, in many states, also serve as secretary or ex-officio members of the state boards of education. It would therefore be difficult to suggest that neither state boards of education nor school leaders were involved in the development of the CCSS. Furthermore, the suggestion that teachers were not involved in the development of the CCSS is not true. There were teachers involved all along the way, and the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) are among the groups that were involved. PolitiFact.com rates the assertion that teachers were not involved in the development of the standards as “false” on their truth-o-meter, and even identifies and quotes teachers who were involved in the CCSS development (see the article here).

The CWA pamphlet also states that many states agreed to adopt the CCSS and the accompanying assessments “sight unseen.” That may be true. Even if it is, though, that is a problem with the elected officials in those states, not with the CCSS. No state could adopt the CCSS without the approval of elected officials. It simply is not possible.

The CWA pamphlet also states that the CCSS violate the Constitution, specifically the Tenth Amendment. I addressed in a previous post the fact that the federal government did not impose the CCSS on the states because it cannot do so. It can incentivize the adoption of the standards, and it did do that, but that is not unconstitutional.

The pamphlet goes on to suggest that there are three federal statutes which “prohibit the federal government from guiding the educational curriculum of the states.” The first of those statutes is the General Education Provisions Act. This act reads as follows:

No provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, or over the selection of library resources, textbooks, or other printed or published instructional materials by any educational institution or school system, or to require the assignment or transportation of students or teachers in order to overcome racial imbalance.

The problem with the CWA assertion, though, is that the individual states that are adopting CCSS have made their own decision to do so. When a state voluntarily adopts the CCSS it is the state, not the federal government, that is subjecting itself to the CCSS guidelines.

The second law referenced is the Department of Education Organization Act. This 1979 law creating the Department of Education contains basically the same language as the law quoted above. Section 103(b) reads…

No provision of a program administered by the Secretary or by any other officer of the Department shall be construed to authorize the Secretary or any such officer to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, over any accrediting agency or association, or over the selection or content of library resources, textbooks, or other instructional materials by any educational institution or school system, except to the extent authorized by law.

The reasons why CCSS does not violate this law are already outlined above.

Finally, the CWA pamphlet references the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Now, the full act is some 600 pages. If you want to read it all, help yourself–it is public record and not hard to find. However, this act actually does more to support CCSS than to hinder it. After all, Section 1001 (1) states that the law’s purpose is to “ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education” by “ensuring that high-quality academic assessments, accountability systems, teacher preparation and training, curriculum, and instructional materials are aligned with challenging State academic standards so that students, teachers, parents, and administrators can measure progress against common expectations for student academic achievement….” And again, any suggestion that the CCSS violate the law is negated by the fact that the individual states have opted in to CCSS; they have not had it forced upon them.

The CWA pamphlet goes on to state that “local control of education is best, whereby parents, teachers and taxpayers have a voice.” I agree wholeheartedly, and I am on record as advocating the abolition of the Department of Education completely. Again, though, this is a separate issue from the CCSS.

CWA also suggests that the CCSS actually lower education standards. I think this is a real stretch. It would take quite a while to go through and address, standard by standard, why I disagree with this assertion, so I am not going to do it. But I will touch briefly on one specific assertion made by the CWA pamphlet regarding literature. The pamphlet states that the CCSS has a “prominence of nonfiction ‘informational texts’ such as technical manuals, government documents, brochures and menus rather than highly regarded classic literature.” This argument is really a nonstarter for me. First of all, a well-rounded education needs to include “informational texts” as well as classic literature. Informational texts are certainly going to be more practical for most students than classic literature. Second, though, the assertion is inaccurate.

The CCSS text exemplars (and again, these are recommendations– they are not mandated) include a healthy variety of both. Grades 9-10, for example, include recommendations for stories, drama, poetry and informational texts. Homer’s The Odyessey, O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Poe’s “The Raven,” Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73,” and Dickinson’s “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” are but some of the recommended reading for high school freshmen and sophomores. (One of the more bizarre rumors surrounding the CCSS, by the way, is that The Grapes of Wrath is recommended for second grade. Not true.)

What are informational texts recommended for grades 9-10? Speeches by Patrick Henry, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ronald Reagan are listed for Language Arts. The History/Social Studies information texts include works on Custer, art, fish, African Americans in the Civil War and great composers. Science, math and technical subject recommendations include Euclid’s Elements as well as works on stars, the circumference of the earth and a government document on recommended levels of insulation. Not only do the fiction recommendations exceed the nonfiction recommendations, there is nothing wrong or detrimental about the nonfiction recommendations!

So, to repeat my mantra yet again, please do not believe everything you hear or read about the CCSS. This topic has become quite the political hot potato and folks on both sides are using half truths and spin to support their arguments. Do the research and find the facts for yourself…and insist on candor and honesty from those who are arguing about these standards.

November 8, 2013

What About Common Core? (part 4)

Filed under: Biblical Worldview,Politics/Current Events — jbwatson @ 4:22 pm
Tags: , , ,

I have spent more than enough time and space on the topic of the Common Core State Standards now, and the bottom line is that the debate is not going to go away. As I mentioned earlier, the debate is good. If nothing else, the CCSS have awakened some people to the importance of being informed and involved in education. I could spend more time and space talking about whether or not Bill and Melinda Gates are performing the role of the man behind the curtain in the development of CCSS, I could explore whether or not the federal government is violating its constitutional role by providing incentive funds for states adopting the CCSS, I could go standard by standard, state by state and evaluate whether the CCSS are an improvement or not…in short I could make studying and addressing the CCSS my full time job for the foreseeable future if I wanted to do so. I do not want to do so, and I am guessing my readers do not want me to, either.

In conclusion, then, I would like to share a few final thoughts…

First, the strength of any school will always be its teachers, not its textbooks nor its standards. That raises another topic altogether, of course, given the contracts some teachers unions have negotiated for public educators in this day and age. Ask Michelle Rhee how easy it is to get rid of poorly performing educators….

Second, regarding Glenn Beck and others of his ilk… Mr. Beck is certainly entertaining, and he does, at times, bring a needed and insightful approach to some of the topics he may choose to address, but let us also not forget that he thrives on controversy and alarmism in order to perpetuate his audience. Unfortunately, not everything that Mr. Beck has reported or stated regarding the CCSS is accurate. There is nothing in the CCSS that will strip local schools of their control of their curricular choices any more than there was in previously existing state standards. The CCSS is just one more in a long line of outcome-based education models, concerned almost exclusively with whether or not the skills enumerated are achieved by the students as evidenced through their performance on standardized tests.

Finally, the Common Core State Standards are here to stay—at least until the next movement comes along. The reality is that there will always be debate and conflict over what exactly constitutes a quality education. There will never be unanimous agreement over what students should learn and when they should learn it, over which is more important—facts or skills, and over a myriad of other educational topics.

At the end of the day, it is the right and responsibility of each parent to ensure that their child(ren) receive a quality education. The beauty of it is that different parents will define that in different ways. I have definite opinions about what a quality education looks like, and I am not shy about sharing my opinions. Anyone who has read this space at length knows that in my mind the movement known as “unschooling” does not qualify. Other parents think that that is exactly what their children need in order to have a quality education. I respect their prerogative to think that and to raise their children accordingly.

As a Christian, I believe wholeheartedly that what matters most is how well we measure up against God’s standard. The Bible does not clearly state where children are to go to school, for how long, or with whom, but it does provide clear instruction in plenty of other particulars that will provide clear direction in making decisions regarding the education of children. To those who are all worked up about CCSS I say “bravo for you.” I hope that your new-found passion for ensuring that your local school system operates the way it should and provides the education that it should will not diminish. Whether through CCSS, some other nationwide set of standards, or a multitude of locally-developed standards, the best way to ensure that American children are getting a quality education is to ensure that American parents are informed, involved, and holding educators accountable for the education being provided.

November 7, 2013

What About Common Core? (part 3)

As I indicated at the end of the last post, all of the hullabaloo over the Common Core State Standards is really over a much deeper issue than these standards. One of these issues is one that was around long before CCSS, and if Common Core is going to alert people to it then that is a good thing. The second and third are problems with the government, not with the Common Core, though most people seem not to understand the difference. Perhaps I can shed some light…

First, the problem that has been around since long before Common Core is the issue of local control of public schools in general and textbook selection in particular. Public schools do not operate as agents of the federal government–or at least they ought not. Public schools are under the auspices of the various state departments of education and under the authority of local school boards. Most public schools have committees that deal with textbook adoption, and these committees often include educators as well as community members. Of course school boards are almost always elected bodies, with members of the community serving on the boards and deciding who the board members are. What anyone who takes the time to truly study what Common Core is (and is not) will discover is that individual states have adopted the Common Core; the federal government neither designed the CCSS nor forced them on anyone. Furthermore, as mentioned previously, the CCSS does not assign or dictate textbooks. Even in the English standards, the CCSS provide a recommended reading list, or what the CCSS call Text Exemplars. There is no mandatory reading dictated by the CCSS. There have been concerns raised by various people about some of the titles included on the reading lists. I consider that debate to be healthy. At the same time, the fact that Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is one of the recommended texts does not mean that the entire CCSS is evil. After all, the recommended reading lists also include O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Patrick Henry’s “Speech to the Second Virginia Convention,” George Washington’s “Farewell Address,” and Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” among many other worthwhile titles. And again, the decision as to which titles will be read is to be made by the state, the school or the teacher, depending on how the particular system works–not by the CCSS. Bottom line, people who care about their children and the education being offered in public schools need to take every opportunity to be involved in the decision making process.

The second problem–the first of two with the government–is the federal government’s use of money to essentially bribe states into adopting the CCSS and the refusal of most states to even consider rejecting money. This is an issue that is much larger than the CCSS and would require much more space for me to address than you really want me to spend right now, so I will try to keep it brief and restricted to the CCSS. The CCSS were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers–not the federal government. Respected leaders and experts in mathematics and English were involved in the development of the standards, and feedback was provided by literally thousands of individuals, including teachers and parents. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia expressed approval of the standards as they were being developed and reviewed. So where did the federal government come in? The 2009 stimulus package included $4.35 billion in education funding through the Race to the Top education program developed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The funding would be available to states that adopted some standardized (i.e., common) guidelines and benchmarks for student learning. Only the CCSS met the guidelines and benchmarks the Race to the Top program designated, so states were faced with (1) adopting the CCSS to receive their slice of the pie, (2) developing their own standards that would meet the Race to the Top guidelines, or (3) saying “no thank you” to the federal dollars. To my knowledge no state has yet attempted option number 2, and rarely are states willing to pursue option number 3, especially when money for education is such a hot topic already.

A number of individuals have cried foul over the federal government’s use of monetary incentives to push the adoption of the CCSS, but it is nothing new and is certainly not unique to Common Core. Jane Robbins of the American Principles Project has suggested that federal involvement in education violates the Constitution because education is not within the domain of the federal government but power shifts that way when states choose to accept federal funds. But again, no one is forcing states to accept federal dollars, the federal government does have the authority to offer financial incentives, and it has done so for decades and in various areas in which the federal government does not have authority on its own. If people are unhappy about this there is a built-in remedy for it called the ballot box. Common Core is an example of the “problem” but is not the problem itself.

The third problem–and the second one that involves the government–is the way in which questions about CCSS have been handled. For example, a couple of weeks ago Focus on the Family e-blasted an article called “Common-Core Chaos.” The article started with this question: “Are you tired of hearing the message that ‘we know better than you what’s best for your kids’ from liberal media pundits and overzealous government officials?” The article went on to describe the way in which Robert Small, a parent in Maryland, was “shut down” when questioning the adoption of Common Core at a public meeting for parents. According to the Focus on the Family article Small was then “shoved and dragged out of the meeting by a security officer. Once outside the doors, he was handcuffed and slapped with criminal charges carrying thousands of dollars in fines.” Apparently his charges were later dropped. “But still,” the Focus article continued, “the spectacle of a parent being manhandled for simply trying to express a relevant viewpoint was disturbing.” I absolutely agree. But again, the Common Core standards did not drag this man out of a meeting. The CCSS are simply standards that were lawfully developed and lawfully adopted. The problem that Focus on the Family needs to be focusing on is the way in which governments have responded when questioned. If Focus has issues with CCSS then by all means it should address them, but it needs to distinguish between problems with the standards and problems with the individuals handling questions about the standards.

Unfortunately Glenn Beck, his lieutenant David Barton, and other conservative talking heads are misrepresenting the facts about Common Core State Standards. Last summer Barton, filling in for Beck on The Blaze, said that CCSS wants to make every student the same. The reality is, though, that assertion cannot be supported with any actual evidence from the CCSS. In that same broadcast Barton, after highlighting some of the questions students were expected to be able to answer after completing 8th grade in 1895, said, “See, back then, students were actually required to use their brain.” The implication, of course, is that the CCSS do not want students to use their brains. There is nothing that could be further from the truth. In fact, one of the key areas of focus in the CCSS is reasoning and evidence. Compare these statements from teachers who have familiarized themselves with the CCSS and teach in schools that have adopted them with the assertions made by Barton… Andrew Jones, a Christian school English teacher in Indiana, told WORLD Magazine, “In a world that is telling kids that they make their own meaning, it’s encouraging to see Core standards encouraging methods like, ‘Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says.'” Lane Walker, a Christian who teaches in a public school near St. Louis, says of the CCSS math standards, “There’s a huge difference between getting kids to memorize a formula and getting them to understand a formula,” and the CCSS emphasize understanding. The same show on The Blaze where Barton made the wisecrack mentioned above featured a spot accusing the CCSS of wanting to eliminate instruction in cursive handwriting. As opposed to that line of thinking as I am, it is not original to the CCSS; there have been folks advocating that for years.

Again, I could keep going, but I will not. I should perhaps even point out that I serve in a non-public school, so we are not even required to adopt the CCSS. I am not spending all this time and effort to defend the CCSS themselves. Rather, what irritates me is the spin, the misrepresentation and the outright lies. Should there be a rigorous and vigorous debate over education in America? Absolutely. But the Common Core State Standards are not, in and of themselves, the real issue. Demand that your leaders learn and speak the truth, and seek the truth yourself! Be informed, be knowledgeable…and do not swallow hook, line and sinker anything anyone says…including me!

November 6, 2013

What About Common Core? (part 2)

Indiana has been one of the states at the forefront of the Common Core debate. That is due in no small part to the fact that Indiana was among the early adopters of the CCSS and due to the fact that there has been a concerted effort in Indiana to un-adopt the standards.

One of the leading opponents of the CCSS in Indiana is Heather Crossin. So successful have Crossin and her grassroots organization been that Indiana decided this year to temporarily suspend Common Core adoption. But what got Crossin so worked up about Common Core in the first place? In 2011 her then-eight-year-old daughter brought home a math problem that struck Crossin as odd not because of the problem itself but because of the fact that despite getting the mathematical answer correct, Crossin’s daughter received only one point out of three. Why? Because she did not provide the correct reason for how she knew that a 448 foot bridge was longer than a 407 foot bridge. Crossin’s daughter answered said that she knew it was because 448 is a larger number than 407. The Common Core-aligned textbook being used in the classroom, however, wanted the student to compare the numbers in the ones, tens and hundreds columns individually and determine that 448 is larger than 407 that way.

From that one problem launched Crossin’s crusade, now formalized in the group Hoosiers Against Common Core. The group’s purpose, according to its web site, is to bring “together concerned people from all points of the political spectrum in order to effect legislation resulting in the reversal of its [CCSS’] adoption.” Why? “For some, the idea of violating states’ rights is important. To others, they oppose it strictly from a quality perspective. A majority oppose it because it stifles curriculum development and teacher/school autonomy in choosing what is best for their students.”

Therein lies the problem, though. The CCSS does not stifle curriculum development. It may well serve as an excuse for those developing curriculum or those adopting it, but the fact that the CCSS makes a convenient excuse does not make it the actual problem. Furthermore, the CCSS does not “negate teacher/school autonomy in choosing what is best for their students.” The reality is that teacher autonomy is, always has been, and almost surely always will be restricted by the fact that teachers have supervisors at various levels above them to whom they must report. Teachers, therefore, cannot use whatever books they want as the textbooks for their classrooms. That is not unique to CCSS and it will not go away if CCSS is trashed. There could be legitimate and healthy debate about the autonomy of public schools to exercise autonomy in textbook selection, but that is a debate that precedes CCSS and will still be around after CCSS, as well. In other words, CCSS has served to get Crossin’s attention, and the attention of others, but what they are really worked up about is a more deeply-rooted problem with public education (or any education aligning itself with any system that restricts its autonomy, since Crossin’s daughter was at a Catholic school).

See, when Crossin questioned the principal of her daughter’s school about the bridge problem and the approach used in the new textbooks, the principal told Crossin that the school had no choice but to use the books because they aligned with the CCSS. That is not true, though, at least not entirely. Whether or not that specific school had the autonomy to select its own texts I do not know. I do not know how textbook selection works at that school in particular or in Indiana in general. What I do know, though, is that the implication that the textbook in question was the only one aligned with CCSS and therefore had to be used is not true. There are many textbooks that align with the Common Core standards, and their number is growing. Furthermore, the math standards established by the CCSS provide plenty of room within the guidelines they establish for discretion in textbook selection.

The CCSS standards for mathematics begin with eight Standards for Mathematical Practice. What are those eight standards? That students should (1) make sense of problems and persevere in solving them; (2) reason abstractly and quantitatively; (3) construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others; (4) model with mathematics; (5) use appropriate tools strategically; (6) attend to precision; (7) look for and make use of structure; and (8) look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning. I am no mathematician, but I fail to see anything in those eight standards that should raise the hackles of any parent or educator.

To the specific problem that first made Crossin aware of the CCSS I would say this… The problem is ideally suited to address the second of the eight standards above. Crossin’s daughter provided the correct answer as to which bridge was longer, and her reasoning clearly demonstrated quantitative reasoning. She may not have accomplished the level of precision or abstract reasoning that the textbook’s authors wanted, but that would be a problem with the way in which the problem was written, not with the CCSS in general. It also highlights a problem with the teacher who graded the problem; it makes no sense to provide a student with only one-third of the possible credit when the student provides the correct answer!

Even when looking deeper into the specific standards for specific subjects within the field of math the standards are emphasizing only the facts and skills that students should master, such as this standard within the Geometry area: “Derive the equation of a circle of given center and radius using the Pythagorean Theorem; complete the square to find the center and radius of a circle given by an equation” (CCSS.Math.Content.HSG-GPE.A.1). This is, to my mind, a fairly basic standard that any Geometry student should be able to meet, CCSS or not.

The Hoosiers Against Common Core includes a gushing endorsement of a piece written in the New York Times in June “defending traditional mathematics.” That article, by an associate professor of philosophy and a professor of mathematics, asserts that most math instruction today is on “numerical reasoning” rather than the “more traditional focus on understanding and mastery of the most efficient mathematical algorithms.” However, the CCSS do not discount algorithms or the mastery of them. They do expect math teachers to explain to students the reasons why algorithms work, and they expect students to grasp the reasons, but this is not a knock on Common Core. As the Times article points out, this is not even new to math! The article states, “Although every decade has its bad textbooks, anyone who takes the time to look at a range of math books from the 1960s, 70s or 80s will see that it is a myth that traditional math programs routinely overlooked the importance of thoughtful pedagogy and taught by rote.”

In fact, the third grade CCSS standards specifically state that students should be able to use “algorithms based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction.” In other words, exactly what the Times article argues for and exactly what Hoosiers Against Common Core seems to decry about the CCSS.

So if the CCSS are not the problem, then where are we now? Oh, we are back at bad textbooks. The simply reality is that good textbooks, good teachers and good schools have been doing what the CCSS now outlines for years. The most effective teachers will find almost nothing in the CCSS that will alarm them because they have already been doing what the CCSS asks them to do. The best textbooks will require little if any adjustments because they already do what the CCSS ask them to do. Contrary to what anyone may say, the CCSS simply do not require specific textbooks! So the uproar over the CCSS is really over a much broader, and much deeper, issue…one I will continue to explore next time.

November 5, 2013

What About Common Core?

Unless you live under a rock or pay no attention to the news you have undoubtedly heard of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), most often referred to simply as the Common Core. It would be silly for me to spend multiple entries here addressing the state of education in America today and not address Common Core. In reality, I may even need more than one entry to do it justice, so bear with me.

The odds are probably good that you have heard about Common Core mostly by way of hearing complaints about it, hearing or reading why it so terrible. Now, this may surprise you if you have read the other posts on education, but I am not convinced that the CCSS are as horrible as many people, groups and talking heads have made them out to be. Are they flawless? Of course not. What is? For starters, though, let’s look at what exactly the CCSS are…

First, I should acknowledge that whatever the flaws of the CCSS may be—and I will address that issue shortly—the motivation behind the CCSS is a noble one. The Common Core State Standards Initiative has as its slogan, “Preparing America’s Students for College and Career.” Though certainly not a complete overview, that is what every school strives to do for its students. Furthermore, it is difficult to find something in the CCSS Mission Statement with which to disagree:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

That the mission of the CCSS is one on which just about everyone can agree is evident in the fact that the CCSS have been adopted by forty-five states, the District of Columbia and four territories. At the same time, it is certainly not necessarily true that something is good just because it is popular, and I am not suggesting that, either.

To date, CCSS have been developed for Mathematics and English/Language Arts. Please note that the standards themselves serve only to outline a basic level of knowledge and understanding that students in the United States should have. In other words, the CCSS is not a curriculum.

At the same time, it is important to remember that these new standards are likely going to indicate in many areas—particularly in many public schools—that students are not achieving the level of success that the many groups endorsing the CCSS want them to achieve; indeed, that they should achieve. For example, Kentucky was the first state in the nation specifically tied to the CCSS, having adopted the math and English standards in 2010. When the assessment results for the 2011-12 school year were released, “the share of students scoring ‘proficient’ or better in reading and math dropped by roughly a third or more in both elementary and middle school the first year the tests were given,” according to an article in Education Week.

It is important for anyone considering the CCSS debate to keep in mind a very important distinction between adoption and alignment. Any good school adopts its curriculum, textbooks and materials based on the quality of the content and (at least for Christian schools) the worldview of the text, always aiming to adopt the textbooks and supporting materials that will most effectively meet the needs of its students. It is the responsibility of the school to carefully consider each textbook selection and to choose those curricular materials that will best meet the needs of its students.

Contrary to what Glenn Beck and others may say, there is nothing in the CCSS that will strip local schools of their control of their curricular choices any more than there was in previously existing state standards. The CCSS is just one more in a long line of outcome-based education models, concerned almost exclusively with whether or not the skills enumerated are achieved by the students as evidenced through their performance on standardized tests.

Now, make sure you come back for the next post, because I do not want you to go away thinking I am an unabashed defender of the CCSS. There is still more to the story….

Blog at WordPress.com.