Do Common Core Standards Measure Up?
The new standardized English and math requirements for K through 12 have ignited controversy across the country.
By Bettijane Levine 08/01/2014
It took comedian Louis C.K. and his 3.3 million Twitter followers to ignite America’s passion about Common Core State Standards. That’s the new set of English and math requirements for kindergarten through grade 12, now in place for public school children in California and 45 other states. “My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!” Louis tweeted on April 28.
Suddenly, the controversy took public flight after being largely ignored by major media during the five years it has taken to develop and implement the program. Salon, Politico, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Huffington Post and dozens of agitated academic bloggers weighed in with opinions about the controversial education plan. Parents like Louis, who has two daughters in public school, started ranting online about their children’s absurd homework problems. Stephen Colbert and other entertainers added mockery to the melee and the battle was in full form.
Of course, now it’s too late. Common Core is here, for better or worse. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which developed the program) and the Obama administration (which is backing it with more than $370 million in federal funds) say implementing Common Core is the best way to stop the erosion of educational standards in this country’s public schools and bring us up to par with the Asian and European nations whose students are far more advanced in critical areas of math and language. But without sufficient trial runs to see how or even if it will work, the students who deal with it are essentially guinea pigs in a huge experiment.
Consider the impact on English language arts and literacy programs, which Common Core says “stresses critical-thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills that are required for success in college, career and life.” English teachers are confounded by new requirements to teach 50 percent so-called “informational” nonfiction texts in kindergarten through fifth grade, and 70 percent informational nonfiction texts by grade 12. Suggested nonfiction reading for high schoolers in English class includes such stultifying tracts as “Working Knowledge: Electronic Stability Control,” an executive order from the federal General Services Administration.
To be fair, the suggested nonfiction reading list also includes fine speeches by such leaders as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill and Presidents Ronald Reagan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But English language arts teachers say this kind of material should be the domain of history class. As English teachers, they prefer to expose students to the world’s great literature, the magic of the imagination, the use of language in novels, plays and poetry to express the ineffable.
In Pasadena public schools, Common Core has been carefully — if not enthusiastically — adopted. The Pasadena Unified School District started mapping out a transition plan in 2010, when the state adopted Common Core, says Helen Hill, director of curriculum instruction and professional development for PUSD. She says the district has “stayed on track” in realigning teaching to the new standards. “We started with small pilot groups, and last year we did an across-the-board full pilot program throughout the whole district, involving all the teachers.”
Although the English language arts program has been altered to include more informational nonfiction texts (containing facts and ideas about the physical, biological or social worlds), Hill says PUSD is determined to keep literature a priority. “We understand it inspires students with enduring themes. And we have brought teams of teachers together to map out plans that contain elements of both the old and new standards.” Whereas history, grammar, reading and writing used to be taught in discrete segments, she says, the new method may use social studies and history texts to teach English. “You might have teachers using fiction along with nonfiction to teach the same standards,” she adds.
Is Hill a fan of Common Core? “Look, I’m not some huge proponent of it,” she says. “But I believe it’s a method that gives us the potential and opportunity to expect that students apply and do and perform what they learn, for them to show mastery of subjects. Going forward into college and the work world, they will need to understand complicated texts or manuals or write research. Aligning what we do in classrooms to the real world will only make things better for kids.”
Some public-school teachers in the San Gabriel Valley and Los Angeles, who spoke with Arroyo Monthly on condition of anonymity, were considerably less sanguine about Common Core and used astonishingly similar words to describe their bottom line: “We don’t like it. But we have bosses. We have to do what they say if we want to keep our jobs. The state has adopted it and we must comply.”
Common Core has had little, if any, direct impact on private schools, which are not bound by the standards if they don’t receive federal funding. (Ditto, home schoolers.) At the private Flintridge Preparatory School, “We haven’t explicitly talked about Common Core objectives,” says Scott Myers, chair of the English department. But he approves of the program’s goals, saying, “The standards Common Core pushes for are consistent with any good curriculum that private or public schools would strive for. It seems to me that we are here to impart a foundation of academic skills in reading, articulate well-structured writing and critical thinking.”
On the other hand, Myers adds, depending on how it’s implemented, Common Core might neglect an indispensable part of that process — “recognizing, if you will, the right brain: exposing students to a series of complex constructs and to the world of the imagination.” As educators, he continues, “we have to constantly answer questions about the relevance of what we teach for students’ futures in career and college. If we’re doing our jobs here to prepare students for life, we’re teaching these students to deal with complexity and to synthesize thoughts from diverse sources. Of course that’s a difficult thing to capture in a standardized test.”
The Home Schooling Legal Defense Association argues that both private and home schoolers will indeed be impacted by Common Core, because it’s shaping college admissions standards. “Institutions of higher education are being pressured to adapt their standards for college readiness to the Common Core standards,” the organization argues on its website. “The National Governors Association, instrumental in writing the Common Core, compiled a guide for states to use while implementing the Common Core. The document emphasizes that the Common Core standards for college readiness will be used by institutions of higher learning to determine whether a student is ready to enroll in a post-secondary course. Achieve, one of the main organizations evaluating the Common Core, even exhorts institutions of higher education to revise their curricula to create ‘seamless transitions’ from K–12 to post-secondary schools.”
Even Common Core’s most rabid opponents might agree with Flintridge Prep’s Myers that its stated goals (detailed at corestandards.org) are excellent. What could be wrong with elevating the nation’s standards, so that all children, from Hawaii to New York, receive a uniformly superb education — one that allows individuals, and the country as a whole, to flourish in a global economy? The question not yet answered is whether Common Core will achieve those goals — or leave the nation’s children and public schools in even worse circumstances.
A Washington Post story quotes an eighth-grade English teacher as “mourning the loss” of six weeks’ worth of poetry she had to remove from her reading plan, along with short stories “and a unit on the legends of King Arthur in order to make room for essays by Malcolm Gladwell and a chapter from his book The Tipping Point about social behavior.” The teacher says her students are shutting down and becoming bored with reading.
That about sums up the problem for Common Core opponents. Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoyevsky and dozens of other great authors have survived the test of time, due to their timeless relevance. Yet, as Sheridan Blau, a professor at Teachers College of Columbia University, told the Post, “The effect of the new [Common Core] standards is to drive literature out of the English classroom.”
Another critic, Blaine Greteman, writing in the The New Republic, offered the following pop quiz:
“According to the measurements used in the new Common Core Standards, which of these books would be complex enough for a ninth grader?
a. Huckleberry Finn
b. To Kill a Mockingbird
c. Jane Eyre
d. Sports Illustrated for Kids’ Awesome Athletes!
“The only correct answer is ‘d,’ since all the others have a Lexile score [an educational tool that matches readers with appropriate reading material] so low that they are deemed most appropriate for fourth, fifth or sixth graders,” Greteman continued. “This idea might seem ridiculous, but it’s based on a metric that is transforming the way American schools teach reading.”
Proponents argue that the Lexile score is only one of the tools Common Core uses to assess reading matter. Critics counter that stressed-out teachers with too little time or training may use it almost exclusively in deciding what students should read. And while much of the world’s great literature does make it onto the suggested fiction reading list for most grades, some educators contend that Common Core allots almost no time for English teachers to teach these great works.
One of Common Core’s most vexing aspects is the standardized testing program being rolled out nationwide. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says the new tests are essential because the U.S. needs a way to compare performances of students in different states. Opponents respond that the Federal National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) already exists to do precisely that.
The new exams are estimated to take eight hours for an average third-grader and nearly 10 hours for high school students — not counting optional midyear assessments to make sure students and teachers are on track. Tests are also in the works for kindergarten as well as first and second graders, and older students will reportedly be tested in ninth, 10th and 11th grades instead of just once during high school.
Costs will reportedly be exorbitant, requiring states to spend hundreds of millions just for computers and bandwidth so schools can deliver the exams online as planned. Los Angeles will reportedly spend $1 billion on technology to administer the tests. This massive outlay comes at a time when many other educational essentials are being cut to the bone.
Noted education expert Diane Ravitch sharply critiqued Common Core testing in The Huffington Post last month. “Frankly, the idea of subjecting third graders to an eight-hour exam is repugnant, as is the prospect of a 10-hour exam for high school students, as is the absurd idea of testing children in kindergarten, first and second grades,” wrote Ravitch, an education historian and policy analyst, a research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development and a former assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “All of these tests will be accompanied by test prep and interim exams and periodic exams. This is testing run amok, and the biggest beneficiary will be the testing industry, certainly not students.
“Students don’t become smarter or wiser or more creative because of testing,” she continued. “Instead, all this testing will deduct as much as a month of instruction for testing and preparation for testing. The money spent… means there will be less money to reduce class sizes, to hire arts teachers, to repair crumbling buildings, to hire school nurses, to keep libraries open and staffed and to meet other basic needs…Common Core testing will turn out to be the money pit that consumed American education.”
Cursive writing is not even mentioned in Common Core standards, although keyboarding is. PUSD’s Hill says many districts have completely stopped teaching cursive. “It’s become a luxury skill,” she says, because everything nowadays is done on keyboards. There’s no prohibition against teaching it, she adds, for teachers who want to and can find the time.
And that’s another problem for anti–Common Core activists. The program may further divide the haves from the have-nots, they predict. Children who attend private schools, or who live in affluent neighborhoods with excellent public schools, will almost certainly be exposed to great literature and such “electives” as cursive writing. In these schools, advantaged students tend to respect authority and knowledge. In less advantaged neighborhoods — where teachers have too many students, contend with too many behavior problems and have little access to technological tools of their trade — the classroom experience will probably offer little beyond the minimums mandated by Common Core, and teachers will be fully occupied teaching just to the tests. In such a world, neither the brightest nor those who lag behind would be well served.