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If you have a child in school today, chances are you’ve heard something about the Common Core standards. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have decided to align their instruction to them, promising sweeping changes to classrooms across the country over the next several years.
What are these standards? Where did they come from? Are they a good idea? These are all questions parents should be asking. But even today, some of the answers are far from clear. Here are five facts that will help illuminate exactly what the Common Core is all about.
1: Common Core is a set of standards, not a curriculum
Before we can even talk about the Common Core, it is important to understand what educators mean when they use the word standards. Standards are the end goals for students. They are a list of skills and facts students need to acquire throughout the course of the school year.
For example, here is one of the eighth grade math standards from the Common Core. At the end of that grade, a student should be able to:
Construct a function to model a linear relationship between two quantities. Determine the rate of change and initial value of the function from a description of a relationship or from two (x, y) values, including reading these from a table or from a graph. Interpret the rate of change and initial value of a linear function in terms of the situation it models, and in terms of its graph or a table of values.
The Common Core provides a destination, and schools and teachers are free to chart their own course there.
This illustrates an important distinction between standards and curriculum. If you imagine standards as a destination, the curriculum is the map to get there. A curriculum outlines the sequence of topics that teachers will cover on their way to the final goal of the standards, building from simpler tasks to more difficult and complex ones. In this example, teachers could have students model the relationship between any two variables (rainfall and wheat growth, age and height, inflation and GDP) and students would simply need to fit an equation to the data. Teachers could similarly build toward this end goal in any way they like, perhaps starting with the Cartesian coordinate plan and moving to reading tables and graphs, or vice versa, or even by an entirely different approach.
In short, the Common Core provides a destination, and schools and teachers are free to chart their own course there.
2: Common Core began as a bipartisan effort born out of No Child Left Behind
To understand the genesis of the Common Core, we’ll need to start with No Child Left Behind. President Bush’s signature education law — passed with wide bipartisan support in 2001— required all states that received federal education funding to develop standards and tests in grades 3-8 and once again in high school. The Bush administration set a goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by 2014, and schools were held accountable for improving the percentage of their students that were proficient as they headed towards that goal (the oft-discussed “Adequate Yearly Progress” provision).
Under No Child Left Behind, if a state needed more students to clear a particular proficiency bar, it had two options. It could either do a better job educating students and let the students clear the bar themselves, or it could take the easy way out and simply lower the bar. Unfortunately, many states decided to take the latter option, defining proficiency down and dumbing down their standards so more students could pass.
In response to this, a group of enterprising governors, including Democrats and Republicans, joined together through the National Governors Association to develop a common set of standards that all states would agree to join. They worked with the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Gates Foundation, and several other non-profits to enlist experts to draft and review the standards before opening them up for public comment and finalizing them. Thus the Common Core was born.
3: There is more to the Common Core than just standards
Standards without assessments are just detailed hopes. The Common Core’s standards are paired with assessments to measure students’ learning, and they will replace the current state-level exams that are the backbone of teacher and school accountability programs.
First, though, a bit more history. In President Obama’s economic stimulus package, the Department of Education granted approximately $330 million to two consortia of states to develop tests aligned to the Common Core. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) was joined by 22 of the participating states and the remainder joined the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). SBAC and PARCC have been developing tests for the past several years and released their assessments for the first time this spring. If all goes according to plan, your child will take one of these two assessments instead of their state-level exam in the 2014-15 school year.
There is almost no way that the standards or assessments will live up to the meteoric rhetoric their champions used in promoting them.
Standardized tests are much maligned. Are these new tests going to be any better? The main problem with the NCLB-generation of tests was that they were designed to measure proficiency at a certain level. That means that the difficulty of most questions was clustered right around the passing line so the test could discriminate very clearly who had cleared the bar and who hadn’t. Unfortunately, these tests didn’t tell us a whole lot about students who easily cleared the bar or who were further below it. Tests are generally more helpful, particularly for evaluating teachers and schools, when they can measure student ability all across the spectrum. That is what these new Common Core exams are designed to do.
When these new tests were first introduced, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan set a pretty high bar. He said that these new assessments would “be an absolute game-changer in public education” and would “help drive the development of a rich curriculum, instruction that is tailored to student needs, and multiple opportunities throughout the school year to assess student learning.”
Will the tests live up to this? The jury is still out. States are in varying degrees of transition, but generally the tests are being piloted this school year. We won’t know if the standards will meet Secretary Duncan’s goals until they are fully taken to scale in the next two school years. However, both consortia have made it clear that their tests are compatible with calculating student growth over time, a vast improvement over the current generation of tests, and the SBAC assessment is designed to be computer-adaptive, allowing it to cater specific questions to students to best assess their level of knowledge. While perhaps not the “game changers” Secretary Duncan promised, these assessments certainly appear to be an improvement over most existing state exams.
4: The Common Core has become politicized
Almost all participating states adopted these standards back in 2010, so why are folks taking to the pages and airwaves to denounce them today? Well, the rubber is starting to hit the road, and much of the high flying language around the standards and their assessments is crashing into reality.
First, many teachers, and the unions that represent them, believe that the standards and the assessments aligned with them are being implemented too quickly. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a supporter of the standards effort as a whole, called for a moratorium on attaching any stakes to the tests. Secretary Duncan acquiesced, allowing states that had applied for flexibility in their No Child Left Behind plans to put off using the new tests for school and teacher evaluation for an additional year.
Those opposed to Common Core fear that these standards will simply become a repackaging of older materials and methods gussied up with a fancy new name.
Second, the standards have become much more politicized than originally intended. In its first term, the Obama administration provided incentives for states to adopt the Common Core through the Race to the Top competitive grant program as well as through its waiver program for No Child Left Behind. Furthermore, the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee also made the Common Core an issue in the 2012 election, prompting the Republican National Committee to come out against it. This has caused many conservatives to fear that the Common Core is a Trojan horse for more federal control over education.
Finally, there is almost no way that the standards or assessments will live up to the meteoric rhetoric their champions used in promoting them. Secretary Duncan said that new test technology would allow students to:
design products or experiments, to manipulate parameters, run tests, and record data. With the benefit of technology, assessment questions can incorporate audio and video. Problems can be situated in real-world environments, where students perform tasks or include multi-stage scenarios and extended essays.
Tests might someday be able to do these complex tasks, but there is little to no chance that such assessments will exist on a broad scale in the near future. Those who bought into these new standards and tests in the hopes that they would make the education world anew are bound to be disappointed.
As a result of these and other implementation issues, two states, Alabama and Oklahoma, have already withdrawn from their testing consortia and will work independently with test providers to develop assessments for their students. It remains to be seen if other states will join them.
5: The Common Core may or may not ultimately affect your child
So what exactly does this mean for your child? That is the $64,000 question. Those who are bullish on the standards believe that they will lead to a system that encourages deeper learning and more complete understanding of the topics that your child studies. By reducing the number of standards, designers hope to move from a system that is a mile wide and an inch deep to a system that focuses intently on the material most important for students. By creating a nationwide set of expectations, Common Core proponents hope it will decrease inter-state inequity and develop a broader market for textbooks, instructional materials, and professional development tools.
Those opposed to Common Core fear that these standards will simply become a repackaging of older materials and methods gussied up with a fancy new name. There are two reasons that their fears should be taken seriously. First, just about anything can be called “Common Core aligned.” A quick Amazon search shows over 30,000 books and supplemental materials with Common Core somewhere in the name, but there is no authoritative body that says whether or not the material contained inside has anything to do with the Common Core.
The Common Core itself is neither a good nor a bad idea. It has the potential to be a positive force in education, but it will rise and fall on how it is implemented in schools and classrooms across the country.
Second, the use of the term “deeper learning” should almost always be taken with a bucketful of salt. Now, who could possibly be opposed to deeper learning? Well, in practice deeper learning is often used as a smokescreen for pedagogical practices that promote anything but deeper learning. I would highly recommend reading Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution’s writing on this topic; it is as eye-opening as it is troubling.
It is also next to impossible to envision a world in which the Common Core becomes depoliticized. As implementation moves forward and schools and teachers begin to be evaluated based on these standards and tests, don’t be surprised if much of the same rhetoric leveled against current generation standards and tests is used to oppose the Common Core. At an event at AEI, Lily Eskelsen, vice- president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union said, “We should never use these tests for high-stakes decisions for principals, for teachers, for schools, or for students unless and until we have validated these as indicators of a teacher’s performance or a school’s performance.” It is not clear to what standard that validation would be held, or if it is ever possible to reach that standard at all.
In total, parents need to be vigilant about the Common Core. The Common Core itself is neither a good nor a bad idea. It has the potential to be a positive force in education, but it will rise and fall on how it is implemented in schools and classrooms across the country.
Michael McShane is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Image by Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group
The Common Core has the potential to be a positive force in education, but parents must be vigilant.
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