Muddying the Waters on Common Core

Peter Cunningham

This Sunday’s New York Times piece on Common Core standards, Queens College political-science professor Andrew Hacker and Columbia University adjunct professor Claudia Dreifus contribute greatly to the confusion and misinformation surrounding the issue of learning standards.

The piece conflates standards, which are agreed-upon expectations for what children should know in certain subjects by certain ages, with curricula, which are the materials and the approaches that teachers use to help kids learn. It also confuses assessments, which are tests to determine what students know, with accountability, which are systems of tracking student performance, determining which schools and teachers are succeeding or struggling, and providing support or intervening where necessary.

They open with an anecdote about some parents opting out of a new test in New York City as an indication that Common Core may face a broad national backlash. But the backlash—to the extent it exists—is about testing, not standards.

The authors wrongly suggest that the “uniformity of the standards” is what appeals to Common Core supporters. Actually it is the richness and rigor of the standards that appeals to supporters. The uniformity is a bonus. No one really expected forty-six states to adopt.

In their attempt to portray serious debate around the issue, they quote conservative pundit Glenn Beck (who is paid to stir the pot) to counter conservative education scholars (who are paid to actually think it through and get it right).

They suggest that Tea Party resistance to the Common Core comes from the fact that a “radical curriculum—one that has the potential to affect more than fifty million children and their parents—was introduced with hardly any public discussion.” Again, Common Core is a set of standards—not a curriculum—and a simple Google search confirms there has been plenty of public discussion. There is little indication that the curriculum schools and teachers are choosing to help students meet these new standards is “radical.”

Moreover, as the Washington Post recently reported, Tea Party resistance to Common Core has more to do with the mistaken belief that the federal government created and imposed “national” standards on the states. In fact, they were created by states and adopted voluntarily, as the authors correctly point out. They also correctly point out that the federal government gave states incentives to do so.

Then comes the real zinger, as they lament the “Invisible Empire” that is Common Core, a reference notable for its infamous antecedent, the Ku Klux Klan.

They cite one year of declining test scores on a new and more rigorous test in Kentucky to conclude that many American kids will not rise to the challenge of higher standards, adding ominously, “The new standards may well deepen the nation’s social divide.”

They go on to suggest that today’s dropout problem will be made worse by raising standards, when most educators agree that higher expectations boost learning outcomes. They imply that common standards across states are somehow a less even playing field than the wildly variable standards they are replacing.

Although many, if not most, teachers support Common Core, the authors manage to cast the whole issue in an anti-teacher light. They lament teacher scapegoating and call for professionalizing the teaching field, which pretty much puts them in the same camp as prominent supporters of high standards they reference: Arne Duncan and Bill Gates.

They close with the hope and expectation that the introduction of Common Core standards across the country will trigger broader public debate. They could have helped the cause by more clearly distinguishing among the issues of standards, curricula, assessments, and accountability.

For anyone still confused, a track-and-field metaphor might help: The standard is the bar that students must jump over to be competitive. The curriculum is the training program coaches use to help students get over the bar. The assessment is the track meet where we find out how high everyone can jump. And the accountability system is what follows after its all over and we want to figure out what went right, what went wrong, and what it will take to help kids jump higher.

Thankfully, states all across America realize that raising the bar is a critical step in helping our children “jump higher.”

Peter Cunningham is an independent communications strategist based in Chicago and a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education.

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