So is that it? Can we get out our forks and prepare to stick them in the Common Core? Or have the reports of their death been greatly exaggerated? Sad to say, it’s probably that second one. The Common Core may very well be shambling along, zombie-like, at a school district near you. Here are the factors that may be keeping it up and shambling.
Yeti Repellant When Betsy DeVos says the federal government isn’t supporting the Core any more, she’s being disingenuous. The Department of Education never officially endorsed or required the standards. It used winks and nudges and the extortion-style leverage that came from No Child Left Behind requirement that all states get all students to achieve above-average scores by 2014. But to “root out” Common Core at the federal level, all the current administration had to do was... nothing. Likewise, many opponents of the Core developed a picture of it that was not closely related to reality (”Common Core will turn your children into anti-Christian commies”). This has provided politicians with a ready-made straw man that they can “vanquish” without actually touching the Common Core at all. A good example would be former Florida Governor Rick Scott, who “replaced” the Common Core Standards with Florida standards that were almost identical. So we end up with people selling yeti repellant. You can tell it “works” because when you look out in the front yard, you don’t see any yeti. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t big bears hiding in your back yard. The Ghost In The Machine If your state or district adopted some nifty teaching software in the last decade, then Common Core is embedded in your schools. Retired teacher and blogger Nancy Bailey points out that a huge number of Florida schools use the iReady program for math and reading, and as the program’s own website boasts, “iReady was built for the Common Core.” A long-time education observer, she’s unconvinced that Florida has killed anything. For the past decade, “aligned with the Common Core” has been a regular marketing point for most ed tech products. Those products are organized around assessing, testing, and teaching the Common Core standards. The state can change the standards, but until the software manufacturers change the standards, students will still be sitting down for screen time with the Common Core. Test Test Test High stakes testing has been with us longer than the Common Core, but part of the concept of Common Core was to get all fifty states testing the same thing. The PARCC and SBA tests were built to test how well schools were teaching Common Core Standards, and while many states dumped them, they replaced them with tests that were similarly aligned. Those test results were in turn used to evaluate districts, schools and teachers, and because the stakes were high, it’s those tests, more than any other single factor, that gave the Common Core power over what happens in the classroom. Even the SAT and ACT have become more Common Core friendly (the head of the College Board, producers of the SAT, is David Coleman, an architect of the Common Core). As long as a state uses high-stakes testing as the foundation of its education evaluation program, whatever the test is aligned to will drive the school bus— and right now, all of those tests are aligned to the Common Core Standards. Your Principal’s Principles One of the great irony of the Common Core Standards is that there is no standardized way to align to them. When they rolled out, teaching staffs across the nation were piled into professional development sessions to learn how to “unpack” the standards and translate them into classroom pedagogy. Meanwhile, the folks who wrote the standards dispersed almost immediately releasing the Core into the wild; if you want to call an authority who can answer your questions about the standards, there is no such number, no central office working to insure that the standards are properly understood and applied. This meant that local districts were on their own pretty much from Day One, which has meant that implementation has ranged from directives like “We will follow these standards to the letter” all the way to “Just get the standards blanks on lesson plans filled in.” Some administrators have held a strong line in defending their staff’s right to use their own best professional judgment, while others have aggressively championed the standards. It’s also worth noting that for a bad administrator, who lacks the knowledge or comfort level to deal with the messy and complex business of teaching, the standards were an easy out, a handy list to carry around. High stakes testing has driven much of the standards adoption. For example, the ELA standards include some talking and listening standards, but those are never on the test, so many schools simply ignore them. How embedded the Core is in your school also depends on how concerned your administrators are about the test. In the early days, teachers heard a lot of, “Just teach the standards well, and the test scores will take care of themselves.” That turned out to be exceptionally untrue. So your administration may have implemented all sorts of programs to boost passing rates. All of these programs are tied to the Core. In short, your district administration may have tried to limit the intrusion of Common Core, or they may have ground it into the district’s DNA. Both what they’re enforcing and how hard they’re enforcing it vary with location. The Actual Classroom There’s no way to collect hard data, but I’d wager that roughly 99% of the teachers in U.S. public schools have personally modified the standards, and that includes the ones who say they really like Common Core and enjoy using it. A decade ago, the number would have been lower, because most teachers are good team players who will try what they’re commanded to try. But teachers are also likely to change what observably fails in the classroom. If whatever Common Core authority they’re following (and there are many) tells them to do X, they may try it a few times, but if it fails and fails and fails, they’ll change their practice. They may do it with administrative support or not. If administration enforces the Core with an iron hand, it may be hard to fight against being required to commit educational malpractice (and for the effects of that, I refer you to our teacher “shortage”), but all alignment to the Core really requires is some paperwork. And as a classroom teacher, you can claim just about anything is aligned to the Core. The above factors will define the size of the cage that a teacher has been confined to, but for the final word on how much Common Core your child is really getting, a frank conversation with the classroom teacher is necessary. Despite reports to the contrary, the Common Core is only mostly dead, more dead in some schools than in others.