What on earth is Common Core?

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Much has been made in conservative circles about the Common Core standards (CC).  If you believe people like Glenn Beck, the Common Core is a program designed by the federal government to brainwash and control children.  Even if clearer headed people who don’t put faith in the conspiracy might be justifiably leery about government control or involvement over school curriculum.  So what is Common Core and why are some people freaked out about it?

Conspiracies can only exist in a climate of profound ignorance and the hysteria surrounding common core is no different.  CC is a multi state effort to develop a consistent set of standards for various state curricula.  It was developed by the National Governor’s Association in association with other groups of educators.  Since it got established it’s drawn the attention of some philanthropic groups who recognize it’s value in reforming education in this country.  It’s actually NOT a federal department of education program.  If you hear your that Common Core is a law or part of the Federal Government Stupidity Alert!  CC isn’t a federal program. It’s a private program with only the most tenuous connection to the federal government.  Common Core often gets conflated with the federal government because President Obama’s signature education reform package “Race to the Top” provides grant money to states if they use “internationally benchmarked standards and assessments” and that describes Common Core.  But “Race to the Top” leaves it to the states to decide which standards they wish to use.

So why is Common Core even necessary?  CC got its ideological beginnings in the 90s to address failing schools and poor standards.  Increasingly governors were coming under pressure from parents, colleges, and business groups to develop higher educational standards and a better mechanism to better assess students as they move through the middle school and high school curriculum.  Standards vary widely from state to state and even to some extent from school district to school district.  Students transferring from one school to another found this to be exceedingly stressful.  They still do actually. But, more broadly, schools in some parts of the country were holding their students to vastly different standards than other parts of the country, and still expecting their students to compete in a borderless college career and job market.

The other part of Common Core was to develop coherent assessments.  There is great debate nationally about how to assess a student’s education.  No one disagrees with the notion that students should be able to demonstrate the knowledge they’ve accumulated in the school system.   There is intense discussion right now as to how to assess, and what to do with that assessment.  In No Child Left Behind, assessments were used punitively against teachers in a way that was grossly unfair.  Race to the Top (RttP) is better since it moves away from that punitive mindset, but it still uses student assessments as at least one criterion for which schools will get the competitive grants.  Additionally, there’s much discussion about what constitutes reasonable assessment.  Each state spends a great deal of time and resources developing standardized tests only to find that the tests are woefully inadequate and are quickly replaced.  Personally I consider the reiterative process of creating increasingly effective tests to be good and healthy.  But that’s just my opinion.  I can tell you that each state seems to be going through this process.  Now there are a group of some twenty-odd states developing a common test.  This is neither RttP, CC, or any other kind of federal program.  This is something they’re doing independently.

One thing to point out however is that while both Race to the Top and Common Core both mandate standardized testing, neither the Federal Government or CC provides those tests.  They both offer technical assistance and guidance but tests are left up to the individual state governments.  If some news commentator were to say, “all these Common Core tests are stupid and outrageous…” Stupidity Alert!  Neither Dept of Ed or CC provide standardized tests.  If you find a stupid test (and one might be able to justifiably say that they’re all stupid at the moment) look no further than your local state government.   Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of tests which are ineffective.   If anyone has ever created a test for a classroom before you know that it’s a great deal harder than it looks.  Imagine doing so for an entire state.  That’s not to say it shouldn’t be done.  Only that it’ll take a great deal of time and effort before we start putting out really good exams.

Another huge concern about Common Core is that they’ll be spying on our students through a sophisticated NSA-esque Data Mining program.  A quick googling will debunk this particular myth.  As Politifact points out, there is no data that the government is collecting en mass.  State governments are collecting data as they always have done and continue to do, and they will sometimes and voluntarily share that data to help develop best practices.  But there’s no widespread data mining program nor any mechanism to do so.   So if your cable news source is talking about government collecting massive amounts of data on your student, Stupidity Alert!  There’s no such thing.

A huge misconception is that Common Core will take over the school’s curriculum.  The Common Core is all about developing standards and assessment.  It doesn’t develop curriculum.  It’s certainly not a Department of Education Curriclum.  Again, very quick google searching can debunk this rumor.  In fact, politifact not only points out that this is wrong, but is specifically against the law.  Curriculum is still decided by the individual teachers in conjunction with local school boards and applicable state laws.  You’ll sometimes see something like “Common Core inserts liberal politics into the curriculum” Stupidity Alert!  Whatever actual or perceived bias is put there by your classroom teacher, school boards and state officials.  Teachers are still the Kings and Queens of the classroom and they still possess massive, if incomplete, autonomy.  Is there political or social bias in public schools?  Sure there is, just as there is in any human endeavor.  But it’s not part of a national liberal or conservative conspiracy, it’s because your child’s teacher is a human being.

Something that became common after No Child Left Behind was something called “Teaching to the Test”.  Teachers would develop a curriculum dedicated solely to helping students memorize test content at the expense of any other intellectually important endeavors.  In some cases this was unavoidable if the test inappropriately covered something exceedingly specific (like a specific work of literature), but for the most part this was a mistake made by the teachers.  Studies consistently show that if students have teachers who don’t “teach to the test” but develop a broad ranging creative type curriculum like the kind we all wished we had as students, do much better on standardized tests than the dull repetitive “teach to the test” style of teaching.  So it was pretty counterproductive. In short, “teaching to the test” is a kind of professional malpractice that was never imagined or encouraged by either NCLB, RttP, or CC.  If teachers think that CC standards are too low, they can raise them.  If they need to make alterations to meet the specific needs of their classrooms, they can do that too.

The point of this blog is use some common sense, google the facts that come your way, and if someone is really excited about something they’re almost always wrong.  Education is complex.  There are a lot of opinions about the best way to do it and we don’t really have a good way of measuring how well students are educated, or if their education really prepares them for the future.  The Common Core tries to address these questions by setting standards for middle and high schools that students are going to have to meet if they want to get into college or get a job.  It’s going to help students who move frequently (which is most of them), and it’s going to help disparate schools and districts keep up with their peers, and hopefully down the road it’ll help us determine what the best practices in education really are.  In the mean time, trust your teachers, trust your parents, and remember that your child’s education is YOUR responsibility and no one elses.

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