May 11, 2014

Common Core: A Turbulent Flight To A Better Place.

by Hal Gershowitz

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Common Core: a rigorous set of standards for the English Language Arts and mathematics curriculum that has been developed based on the best practices of schools and organizations around the country and the world.

Can we agree that the primary purpose of public education in America should be to enable every child, at every grade level, to approach (or achieve) his or her full potential as a student? Can we agree that the ability to problem solve by reason is as (or more) important than the ability to memorize by rote?

Children progressing through school in one state or region of America should, by and large, be as prepared for the next grade level as children progressing through school in another state or region of America.  A child in a Florida public school should compare reasonably well with a child from a Massachusetts public school. Ideally, everyone capable of going to college (or to work) should, upon graduation from high school, have the basic foundation or skill level necessary to succeed.

You get the picture. This, simply stated, is what Common Core is all about, and who could argue with that?  Well, as it turns out, quite a few people.

Sadly, something so desperately needed and as promising as Common Core has become as controversial and as divisive as any domestic issue in recent memory — and not entirely without cause.

When it comes to engendering very strong reaction (pro and con), Common Core is an equal opportunity engenderer.  There are those at both ends of the political and social spectrum who are wildly enthusiastic about Common Core, and those at both ends of the political and social spectrum who are wildly opposed to Common Core.  The praise (and some of the concern) is well founded. While we’ll explore both sides of the issue in this essay, we won’t waste a lot of time addressing concerns from the anti-fluoridation corner who are convinced that Common Core is nothing more than a stealth federal program to take over and control education in America, or promote free love, atheism, aberrant behavior or Sharia law.  It is simply no such thing.  It is an ambitious program to improve educational achievement rather uniformly and simultaneously throughout the country.  We’ll also ignore those who so obviously simply seem to be looking for a cause (to fight).

Perhaps, the strongest driver of opposition to Common Core is the program’s heavy reliance on standardized testing to measure progress.  But with or without Common Core, standardized testing is part of the fabric of public (and private) education in America and is certain to remain so.  Furthermore, we need sensible standardized testing.  We cannot manage, assess and improve what we cannot measure.  Here’s what we do know. According to the just-released National Assessment of Education Progress, a majority of graduating high-school seniors score at only basic or below basic levels in math and reading.  We live in a very competitive and treacherous world and globalization is here to stay.  We underachieve in educating our children at our own peril, and all objective data indicates that we are doing just that –seriously underachieving.

Standardized testing does, however, have its limitations and there are legitimate concerns.  A teacher teaching to the test and thereby, in effect, making the test the curriculum is a very legitimate concern. Standardized tests are certainly not a magic bullet or a panacea with which to cure our educational shortcomings.  Imagination, comprehension, critical thinking and abstract reasoning skills can be inferred anecdotally but not really quantified with specificity through standardized testing, and this too engenders controversy.  A child’s intellectual progress doesn’t blossom on schedule as predictably as, say, a Japanese Cherry Blossom (weather permitting).

Nonetheless, Michelle Rhee, founder and chief executive of StudentsFirst and former Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools (and a heroine of ours) makes a strong case for the ever-controversial standardized tests. 

“…Tests serve many purposes: They chart progress. They identify strengths and weaknesses. They help professionals reach competency in their careers. All these measures are critical to improving public schools. After all, the children sitting in classrooms today are going to grow up and compete for jobs with people in India and China and Europe, not just with people in the state next door. It’s our civic duty to make sure these kids are ready. And right now, we’re failing. Out of 34 developed nations, American kids rank 26th in the world in math, 21st in science. Many critics mistakenly argue that standardized tests are designed to pass judgment on students. Quite the opposite. Standardized tests are an indicator of the kind of service taxpayers are receiving — and whether schools, educators and policymakers are doing their jobs. In the United States, taxpayers spend almost $600 billion annually on public education, so it’s not unreasonable to ask what all that money is producing. In fact, it’s irresponsible not to know…”

A recent study shows that three-fourths of high school graduates entering colleges “were not adequately prepared academically for first-year college courses.”  We think that’s a travesty. The mission of Common Core is to assure that our young people have the skills in both math and English to do well and to be able to think critically and to solve problems creatively, especially when there are no hard and fast rules to guide them in solving problems.  So far, 43 states and the District of Columbia have committed to adopting Common Core.  Common Core focuses on what students need to know, and, contrary to widespread misinformation, Common Core does not determine how teachers should teach, or how students should learn. Each state still makes that determination as they always have.

Common Core does emphasize the math that matters most if students are to achieve college and career readiness. Literacy standards are designed to encourage and assist students to make arguments with evidence rather than to merely expound their own (or another’s) point of view.

Common Core is not a DC-hatched federal program.  It is the product of an effort by State education chiefs and governors in 48 of our 50 states.  They produced a preparatory set of clear college-and-career-ready standards beginning with kindergarten and progressing through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics.

Common Core, contrary to popular misconception, does not provide a federal prescription for what our children learn, and Common Core is not the brainchild of President Obama or any other President, or anyone in any Administration. Common Core has been propelled by the states, and, to date, all but five states have implemented the Common Core standards. The impetus for Common Core far precedes the Obama Administration.  In fact, among the greatest cheerleaders for Common Core are business leaders who must compete with producers of goods and services from all over the world.

Nor is Common Core the brainchild of elite northern liberals as some charge.  Here’s what Bob Riley, former governor of Alabama has to say.

Today, 25 percent of students in this country fail to graduate from high school. Only 35 percent of eighth-graders perform at grade level in math. And 30 percent of our nation’s high-school graduates cannot pass the U.S. military entrance exam.

Among students who go on to enter four-year colleges, almost 60 percent arrive on campus surprised to learn that they require remedial courses in English or mathematics. They may have thought they had a mastery of those all-important subject areas, but because standards today differ so wildly from school to school and state to state, they are often wrong.

Among students entering two-year colleges, 75 percent require remedial instruction in English, math, or both. This remedial education imposes as much as $3 billion in costs on students and their families annually, and $7 billion on taxpayers and colleges.

Common Core establishes uniform standards — standards that must be met regardless of the curriculum a state decides to adopt. The standards demand accountability. They give the things that really matter — reading, writing, and arithmetic — priority over subject matter that does little or nothing to prepare kids for college and the workforce. And ultimately, the Common Core standards will make American students more competitive with their international peers…”

 Consider the conclusions of educator Peggy Brookins, who is a director of an engineering magnet program, and a mathematics teacher who prepares students for careers in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and someone who has been immersed in Common Core for years.

“…These standards were developed by experienced educators, leaders and experts in their field, and were built on the best and highest state standards across the country. The standards development and participation was completely state-driven and voluntary.

The standards are clear, rigorous and nationally and internationally benchmarked. They emphasize reading rigorous, high-quality literature in English class, plus nonfiction in history, science and other courses. The Common Core approach (what students should understand and be able to do) is more rigorous in the mathematical sense of providing critical thinking and reasoning in mathematical development, which translates across disciplines…Properly taught and successfully learned, the standards will, indeed, produce high school graduates who are ready for college-level courses instead of remediation courses, which drain resources at the public university and community college level… For the first time, we are able to experience the same set of standards across states giving students the skill and knowledge to succeed.”

Common Core is not perfect, nor is perfection its goal.  The 20th Century was, and is, often referred to by historians as “The American Century.”  America led the world. We were the essential nation. The 21st Century can also be “The American Century,” but we won’t be among the strongest, if our students are among weakest compared to the other developed nations of the world. Common Core will evolve, adjust and improve as we move forward.  It is not, as we stated earlier in the essay, a magic panacea for all that ails education in America. It is, however, a big, bold and promising step in the right direction.

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15 responses to “Common Core: A Turbulent Flight To A Better Place.”

  1. Peggy Jacobs says:

    Thank you for this article. I was unaware of the values of Common Core.

  2. Newman Ruth says:

    Excellent article that helped me understand the thinking and planning behind Common Core.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Over 4 years ago, our public schools were early to redesign the curriculum based on the Common Core emphasis on teaching critical thinking and problem solving skills rather than rote memorization. Spelling lists were replaced with patterns and strategies for decoding language and meaning. Children must explain the “how” in complex math problems. Differentiation has been the key to growth in my experience but is also controversial. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution. However, the Common Core is a positive step in the right direction.

  4. Mark J Levick says:

    Common Core appears to be about giving our students the skills necessary to achieve, not the least of which is problem solving. There are many who advocate the proposition that a child’s self worth must be enhanced. Thus they oppose a system which permits the evaluation of academic accomplishment. That kind of thinking is why we continue to spend gobs of money on education only to find out that our high schools are turning out graduates who have not learned the most basic of educational skills. Educators need all the tools that are available and Common Core will provide many of those tools. Unfortunately one of the most important tools is parents who value education and motivate their children to achieve academic excellence but their numbers seem to be declining. The days a giving a trophy for finishing last need to end and kids need to recognize their academic shortcomings and their responsibility for correcting them.

  5. Ellen Glass says:

    Another important aspect of education in this country is the fact that many teachers themselves are not qualified to teach their respective subjects. Perhaps that is due to the fact that we do not recognize that profession with any esteem and also the salaries are lower. Again “you get what you pay for”. Of course there are a small number of truly dedicated teachers. But the question remains as to how we can attract more intelligent and qualified candidates to a noble profession.

  6. Chuck Anderson says:

    Kudos for article that clears the ‘fog’ around arguably the most important crisis facing this country. There many issues impacting education that will require serious attention and change. The first however is to address the purpose and from that, the goals for education, Common Core gives that purpose and those goals.

  7. Bob Saltonstall says:

    You illustrate a point-of-view that needs broader distribution, because so many feel testing is anti-education. If we can use Common Core as you describe, a federal means of evaluation leaving states free to providing the teaching, we will benefit, but it will be a challenge.

  8. Jerry Kaufman says:

    It’s hard for me to believe that each state – before Common Core – did not have its own plan on what should be taught. And, although these probably varied, I’m sure that they all tried to meet the goal of graduating educated students. Yet, costs of educating each student have risen precipitously while results have remained flat for 50 years. Testing will not change this. Private schooling might, charter schools might. Public (i.e. government) schools will not as long as the teachers’ unions hold the schools hostage. I’m reminded of the teachers’ union president who, when asked why he doesn’t seem to have the welfare of the students at heart, replied, Let them join the union and then I will. It’s a broken system and Common Core is at most a band-aid.

    • Indeed, states, before Common Core, had their own plans, but far too often any similarity between the plans of one state and another state may have been purely coincidental. Between a “bandaid” and a cure-all there is vast room for improvement. Teachers, whether union or non-union, teaching to inadequate standards will achieve inadequate outcomes.

  9. Larry Fox says:

    Outstanding today, even courageous given the goofies from both sides who mischaracterize the program as a federal takeover of education.

    Three thoughts:

    1) Samuelson’s observation that once you graph something [and share the graph broadly], whatever it is you’ve graphed will improve [though we often will not know why]: That’s what testing and peer review and best practices programs are all about, and what so troubles me when the teachers’ unions fight testing as a universal evil.
    2) There will never be enough money to provide a good education until we kill the myth that everyone should go to college. This is the single most corrosive element in our whole set of educational pretenses.
    3) Past high school, I don’t think there is any way to justify the government portion of the cost of broad-based remediation for those who lack the basic skills to succeed. We don’t have the data for a cost benefit analysis, but we certainly have clues in what is advertised as the declining value of a college education, but which I think is just a recognition of the reduced signaling value of the college degree (and high school degree) because we have consciously cheapened their quality. One possibility is private schools that specialize in remediation, and for which students can borrow money from a specialized government program, but the tuition that was collected by the schools would be disgorged to repay the loan every single student who did not meet the contractual educational achievements promised. Naturally, many would not be admitted to such a school, but these are the people who have such a low probability of success that they should not be the beneficiaries of government support. They fail the most basic cost-benefit test: the market will not provide the “product.”

    My late wife was involved in what was called the “Career Opportunities Program” which provided essential job training to people who surely would not succeed in college, and might not graduate from high school without a lessening of the standards. Simple things: showing up every day and on time, being clean, having a good appearance, dressing neatly, shaking hands, making eye contact, filling out a job application, telephone skills, adult/mainstream conversational skills, getting along in a work environment. Though the program was very successful in placing people who had a high likelihood of otherwise being unemployed and on welfare into low-end jobs, it was constantly in danger of being cancelled; the educational establishment seemed to consider the program demeaning. Ultimately, to keep it going Sue had to seek private funding; that was my job. For all of Lake County, the cost nominal; a few corporations and some supportive spouses funded the teaching costs of program though with classrooms and a good bit of support provided at no cost by the schools. Then the schools dropped out, and the program died.

    I once got a ‘D’ on a paper in college. I had looked at the reactions of the Chicago Teachers Union and the leadership of the schools to increasing black enrollment. My professor told me my approach showed bias against both groups. I should have aimed for an ‘F’ and said what I really thought! What I think is that the teachers’ organizations – though only a minority of teachers – and most administrators are consistently self-serving, short-term focused, and backward-looking.

    Having run a lot of factories in many fields, I can tell you that if the people on the line don’t accept the lion’s share of responsibility for the quality of output, the plant has no chance of turning out good products. That’s our schools: at every level a lot of the teachers think of themselves as administrators of programs – rule and procedure followers – rather than as managers responsible for their output.


  10. steve hardy says:

    I am afraid that the common core along with all the other fixes that have been tried for education will not work because the basic model for K through 12 education in the US doesn’t work. Why do we give the most important industry a government monopoly? What government monopoly anytime anyplace has ever produced a satisfactory product or service? What other industry in this country has the dismal record of three times the dollars spent for the past 40 years with declining results? We will likely see little improvement in education until we allow consumers (parents) to shop for the best schools run by for profit companies in a free competitive market. I owned a software company. My biggest expense was research and development. Did I do this out of the goodness of my heart? Of course not. I did it because I had a number of other companies trying to take my customers. The only way I could grow my business and make more money for myself and my employees was to keep improving my product. Government monopolies have no such incentive. So you say “education is different”. Why?

    • Mr. Hardy makes perfectly legitimate points, and as regular readers of our essays know, we are strong proponents of vouchers, where necessary, that would assure that all “consumers” have the ability to access first-class education. But let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Of course Common Core will work. It might not work as well as it would if everything else that ails education was fixed, but we believe Common Core will still result in substantial improvements in outcomes, and those improvements are desperately needed and needed now.

  11. Jerry Kaufman says:

    Tell me again how Common Core is going to remedy this:
    American twelfth graders showed zero improvement in federal test scores between 2009 and 2013, reports the Wall Street Journal.

    Amidst concerns that the U.S. is failing to churn out college-ready graduates, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed 38 percent of American twelfth graders scoring as proficient in reading and 26 percent as proficient in math, identical to the NAEP results from 2009.

    “Too few students are achieving at a level to make our country competitive at an international level,” said Cornelia Orr, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the NAEP. Orr said that schools set such low expectations for high school graduates that students are emerging from high school inadequately prepared for further schooling: “Students get a mixed message — students have a low bar to graduate from high school but it’s not a high enough bar to really pursue a career actively when they leave.”

    NAEP scores are not the only tests indicating a lack of student improvement. 2013 SAT scores were at the same levels as in 2012. According to the College Board, which administers the SAT, only 43 percent of students were prepared for college-level work.

    Source: Caroline Porter, “Federal Test Shows U.S. 12th-Graders Aren’t Improving in Reading or Math,” Wall Street Journal, May 7, 2014.

    • We also read (and quoted from) the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). We think the NAEP report makes our point. Common Core is designed to impact on educational achievement beginning with kindergarten and continuing grade by grade thereafter, so that by the time a child reaches 12 grade he or she should be far better prepared for college (or work) than our graduating students are today.

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