Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Why Did the Core Have a Bad Year?

Today's big headline from the new Education Next poll is "Teachers No Longer Love CCSS."

Support for the Core among teachers dropped like a stone, from 76% in 2013 to 46% in 2014. That's a lot of love lost. Now, as we move from the "Holy schneikies!" phase into the "Got some splainin' to do" phase, we'll start to ask the big question.


Over at The Fordham, Mike Petrilli hopes he knows why-- Note the phrase, “they will be used to hold public schools accountable for their performance.” Perhaps these words triggered the more negative response. I think Petrilli is hoping in vain. I think there's a much more likely explanation for CCSS's bad year among teachers.

Let's think back to May of 2013. Personally, I'm a fine example of what teachers were like at that point. I didn't know a lot about the Core, and what I did know didn't sound all that bad. As far as I'd heard, a bunch of important people had called together a bunch of teachers to write some standards that could be used across the country to bring a little coherence to the higgledy-piggledy crazy-quilt that is US education. I'm not really a fan of national standards, but as long as they came from educational experts and were largely voluntary, it couldn't hurt to look at them. Heck, if you had asked me in May of 2013 if I supported the Common Core standards, I might very well have said yes. And though there were teachers out there who had already caught on, there were plenty of teachers like me who were perfectly willing to give the whole business a shot.

So how did the reformsters lose all those hearts and minds?

I think it's a measure of how detailed and painstaking and inch-by-inch this massive debate has been that it's easy to lose track of the big picture, the many massively boneheaded things that CCSS supporters did along the way. Let's reminisce about how so many teachers were turned off.

The lying.

Remember how supporters of the Core used to tell us all the time that these standards were written by teachers? All. The. Time. Do you know why they've stopped saying that? Because it's a lie, and at this point, most everybody knows it's a lie. The "significant" teacher input, the basis in solid research-- all lies. When someone is trying to sell you medicine and they tell you that it was developed by top doctors and researchers and you find out it wasn't and they have to switch to, "Well, it was developed by some guys who are really interested in mediciney stuff who once were in a doctor's office"-- it just reduces your faith in the product.

The Involuntariness

In many places, it took a while for it to sink in-- "You mean we're not actually allowed to change ANY of it, and we can only add 15%??!!"

It quickly became clear-- this was not a reform where we would all sit around a table at our own schools and decide how to best to adapt and implement to suit our own students. Session by session, we were sent off to trainings where some combination of state bureaucrats and hired consultants would tell us how it was going to be. We were not being sent off to discuss or contribute our own professional expertise; we were being sent to get our marching orders, which very often even our own administrators were not "important" enough to give us (or understand).

Shut up.

Particularly in the latter half of 2013, we all heard this a lot. Phrased in diplomatic language, of course, but on the state and federal level we were told repeatedly that this was not a discussion, that our input was neither needed nor wanted, and that if we were going to raise any sorts of questions, we should just forget about it.

This was particularly true for public schools. After all, the narrative went, public schools were failing and covering it up by lying to students and their parents about how well they were doing. It became increasingly clear that the Common Core were not meant to help us, but to rescue America's children from us. "Just shut up and sit down," said CCSS boosters with a sneer. "You've done enough damage already."

The slander.

Arne Duncan told newspaper editors to paint core opponents as misguided and misinformed. Then he portrayed objectors as whiny white suburban moms. Opposition to CCSS was repeatedly portrayed as coming strictly from the tin hat wing of the Tea Party. If you opened your mouth to say something bad about the Core, you were immediately tagged a right-wing crank. There was no recognition that any complaint about any portion of the Core could possibly be legitimate. It had to be politically motivated or the result of ignorance.

The Money.

The longer the year went on, the more it seemed that every single advocate for the Core was being paid for it. I've been wading into this for a while, and I'll be damned if I can name a single solitary actual grass-roots group advocating for the Core. Instead, we find a sea of groups all swimming in the same money from the same sources.

And at the school level, we also see lots of money-- all of it outbound. Suddenly, with Common Core, there's a long list of things that have to be bought. Can't get new books-- we have to buy computers to take the PARCC. And let's watch a parade of consultants, all making more money than we are, come in and tell us how to do our jobs.

The child abuse.

Many of us just finished our first year of Core-aligned curriculum, and in many cases it was awful. We were required to force students to operate at or beyond frustration level day after day. We watched school stamp out the spirit of the smallest students, whose defining characteristic is that they love everything, including school. While CCSS boosters were off sipping lattes in nice offices, we were there at ground zero watching 180 days of exactly how this reform affected real, live students.

The testing.

You keep saying that the tests are separate from the CCSS. We keep telling you that there is no daylight visible between them here on the ground.

The plan for failure.

There was a moment, even a day for the strong-hearted, where it looked like the Obama administration was going to release us from the educational malpractice that is NCLB. But no-- it soon became clear that we were still trapped in the same terrible movie. Our fates would still be linked to high stakes tests, just in more complicated and stupid ways. You did not have to be terribly cynical to conclude that the goal was for public schools to fail, so that reformsters could "rescue" the students "trapped" in "failing schools."

The backpedaling

As support has crumbled, Core boosters have retracted some of their pronouncements. "We have to build the airplane as we fly it" becomes "we have to take our time and fix these implementation problems." This has the effect of confirming what we suspected-- that they didn't really know what they were doing in the first place.

The implementation dodge was particularly telling. Teachers have heard "That resource/program/widget will work great. You're just using it wrong" a gazillion times. It translates roughly as "This won't help you complete that task, but if you do some other task, it might be useful."

But the thing about CCSS implementation is that Core boosters got to do everything that they said they wanted to. So if the implementation messed things up that either means 1) they don't know what they're talking about or 2) the Core really are that bad.

Location location location.

Politicians have understood for at least several decades that you can convince people if you lie deliberately and sincerely, but sometimes (like this one) they forget an important detail. It is easy to lie to people about what is happening in a faraway place like Iran or Siberia. It is much harder to pull off lies about what is going on right in front of their faces.

Core boosters can tell stories all day about what's happening on the business end of their pride and joy, but teachers are actually at ground zero, and they have eyes and ears and brains and professional judgment.

This was a big field test year for CCSS as it spread into more schools than ever before. The drop in teacher support is one more clear indicator that, in the latest phase of rollout, the Core is failing. And as more and more teachers become entangled in this mess of botched national standards, things are only going to get worse. The Core lost support for the same reason that liver seems like a great thing to eat until you actually take a bite of it.

In short, I believe the Core lost teacher support because so many teachers spent the year face to face with it, looking it right in its beady little eyes. They don't love it because they know it so well. I'm willing to bet that by next May, when it's survey time again, the Core is not going to be awash in a new wave of teacher love.


  1. Thanks for this, it is really written well & full of truth. CC has also lost popularity as those opposed (like myself) discover not one legislative vote gave us CC, yet is it everywhere we turn. Removing it from our states is hard work, but we are determined to right this wrong. The U.S. Constitution and federal laws have been broken! P3s are running CC amuck. No longer 'just standards', CC is a mulit billion dollar industry.

  2. Under "The backpedaling" I wouldn't say that conclusions 1 and 2 about the implementation are mutually exclusive. In fact, I'd change the conjunction from "or" to "and" to represent what has really happened.

  3. Wow! This is right on the mark! Thank you so much for explaining how my last few years of teaching have been all about.

  4. Maybe it's my state, subject and grade level, but I'm a fan of CCSS and wish my district and admin would get out of the way and let me teach, because I know more about it than they do.

  5. Unknown, you don't understand what CCSS is then. Its about taking the autonomy to teach away from you, b/c the reformers believe you're the problem.

    Honestly, I don't know why any teacher would support it, or had ever supported it.

  6. WV Against Common Core is holding a Statewide Town Hall forum August 24 thru August 26 in Bridgeport, WV. Dr. Sandra Stotsky will be our guest speaker for the event. It is being held in the same location as the WV Legislative Interims Session and we hope to have many of our Legislators attend to learn more about the negative effects of Common Core. I have just finished your excellent piece on the loss of teacher support for the Core and would like to know if it would be permissible for us to design a graphic cover page and attach your outstanding article to be used as a handout for the attendees of the event.

    Dave Flinn
    WV Against CC

  7. My open letter to Mr. Gates. Thank you Peter for making me write on this issue.

    Dear Mr. Gates,

    I just watched your interview from March 2014 given to the Washington Post as Common Core becomes the punching bag again as we start yet another academic year. I have been in public education in the US since 1997 and was educated in India prior to that. Unlike many Indians in the US, I did 5 years of my schooling (final ones) in a government school. I would like to offer some of my insights to where the problems lie with Common Core and what its strength is.

    Strength: Uniformity in curriculum content across the nation that hopefully translates into an international standard required of jobs in a global market place. In India this was achieved in the 60s through the establishment of CBSE that defined a "common core" for all students who studied in CBSE schools across the country. This is no "new" news to us. Both in India and the US, the federal government ensures Education as a right but the implementation is by the states. However, the percentage of students who will excel and go above and beyond the expectations are dependent on many variables.

    Problems: This part is a sort of rebuttal to some of your comments made in the above mentioned interview.

    1. R&D: You say that there is very little $ invested in the field of education. If you listen to what you said at the end of your interview you get an answer as to why- exceptional teachers share their successes without going through the process of academia- they are in their "labs" constantly interacting and improving methodology. Unlike the other kind of R&D that you describe that includes a "control", there can NEVER be a "Control" in education. Education is a highly dynamic experience- not a computer code that has a linearity built into it. Brain research proves the emotional, conscious state of a child to process information and memory for learning to happen. Thus, to do R&D in this context, the common thread between teachers who have a lower achievement gap vs those with more is how much of "caring" is received by the students. "Caring" and "unconditional love" are difficult criteria to measure in a classroom.

    2. Criticism and questionable motive: i. Motive: As much as I can see that you gave without any thought of profit excepting a philanthropic one, the reason for the critique is the invasive way in which Common Core has impacted teaching methods in the classroom. I have seen veteran teachers being inundated with "new" material and becoming overwhelmed. Had the common core restricted itself with curriculum models and identifying standards and let the teacher handle the "translation" via pedagogy and evaluation, it would not have become such a maelstrom. Money is in the materials and tests.

    ii. Old medicine in new bottles: Frankly, Math hasn't changed in centuries. I remember doing a translated verse from Lilavati an old Jain Math book composed in verse by the author for his daughter to solve quadratic equations in 9th grade (that was one of the word problems we had in our textbook about cranes flying in the sky and x number of them landing in a lotus pond). Humans have been adding, subtracting for millenia, even those who didn't know Hindu numerals! Calculus may be a newer math but not 100% of graduating seniors need to learn it.

    iii.. Possible solution: You may want to look into the "streaming" system that the Japanese and Indians have, where after 10th grade, the juniors and seniors in High school focus on a core set of subjects- a science core, humanities core or business core. that will get you the "results" you want to see. This requires reviewing school systems rather than teaching methodology.

  8. 4. Data: Real teachers do not have time to give you advice. They are busy with 150 plus students under their care every year and every passionate teacher goes to bed wondering how can I make Mary understand exponents better or how can Jason improve accuracy in his work.
    All those thousands of hours of video taping become redundant as you record because as I mentioned earlier, no 2 classrooms are the same and the same classroom is never the same from one day to the next. Something miraculous happens when a group of children get exposed to a new idea and wrap their brains around it and figure out new neural pathways to resolve new situations exposed to them. External influences such as social and economic parameters have a great effect on student achievement.

    Possible solution: If you really want to impact education, try paying for some low cost jobs in the classroom called teacher's aides and see the magic that happens when children feel cared for than these fancy consultants who charge more per hour but cannot be bothered about the problems Marcos faces when he returns home after school. Like you yourself said, your favorite teacher was the one who believed in you and demanded that you have high expectations of yourself. That is what most teachers do to move and motivate their students ahead.

    5. Evaluation: This is a great money spinner for companies that enter this realm and an expensive proposition for public spending. I personally found the Indian system of testing very efficient and cheap. 2 national level testing at the end of the critical years of 10th and 12th grade (now, owing to "stress" and expense, only the 12th grade exams are compulsory, the 10th is optional for schools). The rest of the K-12 years, the tests are generated by the schools themselves. Eg. If there are 5 teachers teaching Math for 6th grade, they submit possible questions (based on a template) to the vice-principal and then the vp "sets" the paper that is administered to all the 6th graders for that particular subject. Class tests help teachers close the learning loop to see the types of mistakes made, the understanding level of concepts, what to reteach etc. The way common core came in, it seemed as though there were no teachers who knew their craft that "consultants" had to tell them how to evaluate. Bad premise.

    6. Emphasis on Math and English: Frankly, being a curriculum specialist myself, the only question I had for the gentleman who "introduced" Common Core to us was why did you not do Math and Science together? And he had no answer. Math is the language of the sciences. All the word problems that CC wants students to solve in Math class can easily be done in the Science classes. If I am learning division, I can learn density in Science and learn that Density = Mass/Volume and "see" how these 3 variables interact with each other using various materials with variable density etc.

    7. In instruction, one key issue is "time". X amount of hours is apportioned to Y subject. It is common sense to ensure the increasing of Math time by simply including more time spent in the Science class on problem solving. Math is the language of the Sciences. Math class is like the gym where you work out and understand patterns and after much repetition, the brain begins to "understand". Science is reason and logic. Here, you use those "buff" brain cells and try to solve problems and even construct problems with scientific methodology. Currently, CC has made the Math teacher into a Science teacher too and the pace of the class has slowed down to such a crawl that some of the kids who are rearing to go ahead are stuck- explaining why 2+2=4. I have a son who hates to explain "why" multiple times. He will tell you why once for one kind of problem, to keep asking him to repeat why each time he does a problem, he is now totally "off" Math.

  9. 8. Scalability and elearning: I saw the thrill of the "consultant" how our student can spend 2 days on one problem and still not get to a conclusion. Maybe this nose-to-the-grind idea may appeal to grey haired people who enjoy their crosswords (or <5% of a classroom), but for the average 12 year old, living in the internet age, with the attention of a tweet, expecting a kid to work on one problem over 2 hours is a bit much to ask. These children want instant gratification. They want to see an "end" fast. They would rather take a "C" than see the problem to its logical end- here again there are different schools of thought- do we evaluate students based on their logical reasoning- however diverse they are or do we want to see "standards" of logic? Both these pathways have their own advantages and disadvantages. Age brings patience and a willingness to wait for solutions. To have such expectations from a child is pushing it too much. If you really want to see results, ask your consultants how many Math problem an average Singapore student does in a day and compare it with the number of problems solved by the same grade kid in the US. I remember doing over 100 problems per day Classwork and HW included in India. Here, teachers assign "odd" or "even" problems with a total of 30 to 40 problems in a chapter. Khan academy is a great idea for the "slow" learner but is too slow for the average-above average learner. It can be a personal tutor as you mentioned for children who cannot afford a tutor.

    I can see that your heart is in the right place and I bless you for that. Put your money to better use by providing real support in the classroom. Use common sense with common core. This "crowding" of the learning curve that is happening in the name of reducing achievement gap is unnatural. All children do not think mathematically or express themselves comfortably in that language. The theory of multiple intelligence will tell you that many of us have different ways of learning and expressing. And sadly, we still have a very narrow evaluation criteria and make some kids look "dumb" because they cannot do algebra. When I am in a remedial Math class and I tell the kids that x and y are candy and soda, they finish their problems in minutes.

    9. Envy: Sometimes I am a cheerleader, sometimes a mom, sometimes a stern task mistress, sometimes a friend, sometimes a comedian, sometimes a philosopher, sometimes the student- the role of a teacher is multi dimensional and if you want to do something about it, try to work out ways to ensure that a teacher gets paid as much as a software engineer does, just out of college. Most new teachers I know cannot afford to live in the Bay Area as realty prices are beyond their paychecks. They either quit after their first few years or they commute long distances or they work an extra job in the evenings or weekends to pay for their housing and when they come to class some of them are exhausted but their passion for public education keeps them going for yet another day. This year, we lost 2 of our finest teachers out of our classrooms to the district to become CC subject specialists- they need their salary hikes too, I don't blame them but that means 150-200 kids will miss out experiencing the magic of a great teacher in the classroom.


    Meenakshi Srinivasan
    Mother, Education Leader, Substitute Teacher
    Ma French Literature, MA Education