jasonbwatson

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 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….

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