We all have a stake in ensuring the Common Core debate rests on facts

Yesterday, National Review Online posted an article entitled, “The Eleven Dumbest Common Core Problems.” This is the latest in a series of posts making their way around the internet aimed at demonstrating how the Common Core ELA and math standards are “forcing” low-quality, fuzzy math and politically charged English passages on our nation’s elementary students. But that’s like saying wet roads caused it to rain—it’s got the causation all mixed up.

The posts and the pictures of awful curriculum have parents, teachers, and community members rightly concerned. We should be teaching important content, free of political biases and agendas, and we should be teaching that content in the most effective and efficient way possible.

But we can blame the Common Core only if we have some evidence that pro-environmentalist reading passages—or otherwise low-quality elementary reading and math materials—are a new phenomenon. Or that they account for a significantly higher proportion of texts read than before CCSS. Or if opponents can demonstrate a clear link between the poor curriculum and the demands of the standards.

Thus far, very little (if any) such evidence has been presented, so it isn’t clear why the CCSS—or any standards that don’t explicitly demand fuzzy math or environmentalist literature—are to blame. Is choice to blame for charlatan school leaders? Because there is financial mismanagement of some charter schools, should we eliminate privately managed public schools? Hardly. But that is the same line of argument being advanced by opponents of the Common Core, with very few commentators pushing for evidence.

It’s true that some of the assignments posted on NRO and elsewhere—not all of which are as stupid as the post’s title suggests—have “Common Core” stamped on the bottom. This makes it clear that the publishing market has not yet responded to states’ shift in standards with quality resources. There are no doubt lots of reasons for this failure—not least of which the fact that very few state or district leaders have put any pressure on the market to produce quality. Louisiana’s recently released curriculum toolkit, which evaluates and provides summary judgments on commonly used ELA and math curricula, provides an example of how state leaders can help put pressure on the market to respond to the CCSS with quality. But Louisiana’s good work will only help if others follow. State, district, and local educators and leaders need to send publishers back to the drawing board and demand better options. Markets undoubtedly need time to adjust and consumers need good information, which few leaders have provided.

After months of debate, there are three things we can say about the “blame the standards for the curricula we dislike” mentality.

First of all, I’ve yet to see a post where truly stupid assignments are linked to actual content requirements of the CCSS. Basic arithmetic can be taught a number of ways. The Common Core standards, to their credit, demand fluency, and they demands students learn the standard algorithm. That’s about as close as a set of standards can get to demanding traditional math without dictating pedagogy—something I agree standards shouldn’t do.

Second, eliminating these or any standards does not protect our kids from learning fuzzy math or whole language. Poor curriculum exist. I’d go even farther to say that they are apt to flourish in areas where there are no expectations that all students learn some basic content. (For instance, it wasn’t the free market that brought phonics to the forefront of the early reading conversation.)

Most of all, I worry that this aspect of the debate—which emphasizes appeal to emotion and shock over facts and reason—has become very damaging to the effort to improve schools. On the Right, the education-reform movement was built on reasoned debate, evidence, and logic. So much of what’s passing for the Common Core debate defies all three. (To be clear, I’m not saying any opposition defies all three. I’m very specifically talking about those who focus on digging up sensationalist questions—no matter the veracity or copyright date—and using them to appeal to the fears and emotions of parents and the community.)

We cannot keep re-litigating the question of whether states are in control of their own standards. State leaders need to stand up and take control and to stay the course or adapt—but, either way, they need to move forward. Teachers need to know the expectations to which they and their students will be held, students need to know what’s expected of them, and parents need to remain vigilant and press schools and districts to make wise curricular and instructional choices. And everyone in the education debate needs to take responsibility for policing false accusations so that these decisions are based on the facts.

Kathleen Porter-Magee
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute