Sunday, July 31, 2016

Common Core Defenders Still Flailing Away

I think of Common Core defenders as a little like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster-- folks kind of believe they're out there, but only a handful of folks will admit to having seen them.

After all, neither major party will admit to loving the Core any more, and lots of policy folks have adopted the more generic and less civilian-alarming "college and career ready" for describing any kind of standardy stuff we're trying to push. Charter purveyors have learned they don't have to back the Core to succeed, and most everyone else has determined that the mere use of the term raises so much squawking that it's just better to keep quiet. The Gates Foundation slowed spending on the Core way down, with just one grant awarded in 2016.

And yet, every once in a while, like dust bunnies before a vacuum cleaner on a hardwood floor, the CC supporters come running out.

This time, the vacuum cleaner was a New York Times op-ed by Diane Ravitch. The piece really had nothing all that new or novel to say-- the Common Core cost taxpayers a buttload of money, and it hasn't helped students a bit. But, perhaps predictably, some folks popped right up to defend the still-useless set of standards.

The Collaborative for Student Success went with a listsicle of nine times they thought Ravitch was wrong in the NYT piece.

These included old standards like "they aren't really national" and "they aren't really curriculum," not acknowledging that both of those ideas are out in the world because back in the day, Core supporters put them there. It is true that, as of today, the Core are not quite national standards-- but they were always supposed to be. The whole notion was that CCSS would "fix" education by ensuring that students in Iowa and Alabama would be on the same page when it came to math and reading instruction. Students, we were told, would be able to move across state lines without losing an educational step. In fact, Collabroative for Student Success's website starts its page about the Common Core like this--

Recognizing the value and need for consistent learning goals across states...

And a paragraph later follows up with this:

The standards were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live.

That language, very common with CCSS supporters, promises a national curriculum. It always has.

CSS repeats other standard talking points. "CCSS and the tests that come with them are necessary to find and fix achievement gaps." Nope. Not needed for either. We have always known where the low-achieving, underfunded, undersupported schools are. In many cases, the Big Standardized Tests have confirmed that information, but, more importantly, in almost no cases, that knowledge has not been followed by a state or city saying, "Now that we've found our problem spots, we will focus resources, money, teachers and support to help those schools better serve their students."

Instead, the response has most often been, "Look! A failing school! We must hand it to turnaround experts or close it and replace it or surround it with charters." The focus is not on treating the school as a project to be improved, but rather transforming it into an opportunity for someone to make money.

As Ravitch says, and as CSS fails to refute, the Core simply hasn't worked. After seven years, there is not a school anywhere in the country where reformsters can point and say, "Look! The Core has transformed this from a problem school into an exemplar of Core-ified excellence."

Not that they don't occasionally try. But we'll get back to that.

There are reasons that the one-two punch of Common Core Standards and BS Testing have failed to improve US education. There are many reasons, in fact, but let's just focus on a couple of the big ones.

First, the BS Tests are crap. And that matters because in a sense, CSS is correct-- the Core is not a curriculum. It's the tests that are the curriculum. And it's a lousy curriculum. The tests do not accurately measure what they claim to measure. The tests are like a guy who promises to tell you everything you need to know about your potential neighbor or hiree or mate by weighing that person. "Chris weighs about 160 pounds," say the BS Test guy, "so Chris will probably not make a good spouse."

Second, because school districts quickly learned that the test is the curriculum, and the one thing for which they will be held accountable, here, now, in 2016, "Common Core Standards" is a meaningless phrase. Or, more precisely, it means so many things that it means nothing. It means anything. That means I can give the Core the blame or the credit for anything.

Today's NYT letter column flushed out some more Common Core Dust Bunnies, including the governor of Delaware who wants to sell the long-debunked claim that teachers helped write the Common Core standards. Well, we are all entitled to our fulfilling fantasies. Please nobody tell him about Santa Claus.

But the letters also predictably flushed out someone like Chris Hayes, an experienced classroom teacher in Reno, NV, who is also a Core Advocate with the core advocacy group, Student Achievement Partners (which means she's written this kind of letter a few times before).

Hayes offers the kind of letter (albeit, at a brisk NTY-friendly length) a thousand times before (and before)-- awesome things are happening in my classroom, like discussions and reading, because of the Core. Also, we don't do test prep.

I don't think so.

With all due respect to Hayes (and after twenty-one years in a real classroom, I believe she is due some respect), I have been asking the same two questions since Common Core cheerleading first cropped up. Here are my two questions for anyone touting the joys of Common Core:

1) What were you not doing before that you were suddenly able to do because of Common Core?

2) If Common Core were erased from your state today, what would you have to stop doing in class tomorrow?

After several years, I still don't have an answer to either question. And while it's not her fault that her letter is so short, Hayes does not offer anything remotely like an answer. Her letter could be used to defend a public school that refuses Common Core. It could be used to defend the practice of feeding students cake for breakfast.

Erika Sanzi, who can sometimes occupy the frothing reformster wing of the ed debate (I myself prefer the blustery asshole for public ed wing), picked up the Hayes letter and threw it at Ravitch, taking her to task for leaving out "the opinions of countless teachers who spend their days teaching precisely what she uses misinformation to condemn." But that leads us straight to the other huge reason that I believe the Common Core debates are essentially over.

I will bet you dollars to donuts that there are exactly zero teacher teaching "precisely" what the Common Core requires.


What "countless teachers" are doing is what their professional judgment tells them is best. And what those same teachers have learned is that aligning your instruction to the standards is just paperwork.

I can take any unit I have ever taught in the last thirty-five years and make it Common Core ready without doing a single thing except saying, "Okay, this unit hits the following standards." Hell, there are now handy software packages out there that just let me hit a drop down menu, click on some standards, and voila! My teaching is now aligned to the Core.

CSS trots out a couple of examples of great teacher projects (a banana calculator and a hip-hop literature class), but as always, there's absolutely no reason to believe that Common Core has anything to do with those pieces of instruction. CSS wants to link those to an emphasis on critical thinking, but Common Core not only didn't invent critical thinking, but it doesn't call for it.

Maybe I teach from the book, and the book may even have a big fat "Common Core Ready" or "Common Core Aligned" or "Common Core Super-Duper Compliantly Swellified," but we already know that almost all every textbook out there fails to a lesser or huger degree to actually be aligned to the Core. Because here's the thing-- anybody can say they are doing something that is Common Core aligned. Anybody.

States have created their own modified versions of the standards, and they've done it for largely political reasons, so the modifications range from changing the numbering system to adding Really Important Things like a requirement to learn longhand.

Meanwhile, teachers who are even sort of trying to implement the standards have been busy filling in the gaps. The ELA standards are empty vessels, with complete disregard for content, so teachers have mostly decided to fill in the giant gaping void in the center of the reading and writing standards. Meanwhile, other well-meaning teachers have done a year or two of following the text or the standards and have-- as actual professional teachers always do-- modified what they do from year to year.

And those are just the teachers who tried to make a good-faith effort to follow the standards. That's not counting other animals in the educational bestiary, like the superintendents who had their own ideas about what the standards meant, or the consultants called in to help "unpack" the standards who did it in their own particular way. Or the cranky old teachers who looked at the standards and said, "Well, screw this. This is junk" and have actively worked against them ever since-- and that's before they figured out that they could just use paperwork to align their materials.

Even the most compliant, best-intentioned CCSS teachers have "interpreted" or "unpacked" or "surely this is what they meant" their way to their own personal version of the standards.

And why not? Who exactly is there to check anyone's work, to maintain and oversee the integrity or consistency of the Core? The guys who created it finished the work and then bolted immediately for jobs in the private sector. If you want to call the central Common Core office to report a problem or ask permission for a change, there is nobody to call. There is nobody out there, anywhere, looking over state or school district shoulders to say, with real authority, "Yes, that's exactly it" or "No, you're off track." And because the Core were issued with instructions that they must not be changed or altered in any way, even an honest, well-intentioned "fix" represents an unauthorized change, an attack on the CCSS purity.

Bottom line. The Common Core standards are meaningless, and there isn't a teacher in the nation who is actually following them in a true and absolute fashion. Yes, there are still states and districts that are using something they call Common Core as a combination straightjacket and club with which to hamstring teachers. And there are undoubtedly districts and teachers who have put together a good educational program, convinced themselves it has something to do with Common Core, and done some good work.

But Common Core is, at this point, a useless term. Unfortunately, to get to this point, we had to waste billions of dollars and inflict a program of toxic testing on children in this country. CSS went with the old "well, we have to wait" argument, echoing Bill Gates comment that it might take a decade to see if this stuff works. Nope. The Core were rushed together by a bunch of educational amateurs, who were sure we couldn't wait another second to implement them because they would improve education immediately. They didn't, and there's no reason to believe that there will ever be actual improvement to come from the standards-- only the illusion of improvement if teachers continue to come up with newer, better techniques and give the Core credit for them.

The dust bunnies can keep popping out to defend it, but like dust bunnies, the Core has less and less substance and definition, and is ultimately best destined for the dust bin of history.


  1. "The dust bunnies can keep popping out to defend it, but like dust bunnies, the Core has less and less substance and definition, and is ultimately best destined for the dust bin of history."

    I'm glad I read the whole piece. What a great ending. Come to think of it, I haven't seen or read anything about Common Core for several months. Like most reform ideas, it starts with a bang and goes out with a whimper.

  2. I think it's important to delineate that there is a difference between common core promoters and common core defenders. Also, that there are two kinds of common core defenders.

    I became a common core defender on social media and among my friends and family by simply pointing out that the vast majority of the criticisms leveled at the common core were simply and unequivocally false.

    I'm talking about the crappy math worksheets posted online with the implication or outright declaration that they were part of a "common core curriculum", even though the publish dates on the workbooks predated the CCSS by years.

    Or the claim that the CCSS dumbed down our math education because there were no standards beyond algebra II (which isn't true), even though only a small fraction of US HS students take any math beyond algebra II anyway.

    Or the claims that the CCSS prohibited the teaching of literature because of the 70% informational text requirement, which honestly is a lower fraction of a typical student's total reading pre-CCSS.

    Or the blatantly false statements about the common core requiring socialist indoctrination, learning the Muslim call to prayer, reporting family religious beliefs to the teacher, etc., etc., etc., even though there were no social studies standards.

    Or the statements that the CCSS required the teaching of evolution and prohibited the teaching of intelligent design, even though there were no science standards.

    Or the statements that the CCSS prohibited the teaching of abstinence, required teachers to promote homosexuality, required students to report to the school authorities the contents of the family medicine cabinet, etc., even though there were no health standards.

    Or the more general claims that the CCSS were initiated by Obama's administration and the states were forced by Obama's use of presidential authority to adopt them.

    Do I think the CCSS were necessary? No. Do I think they were probably a waste of money? Yes. But that doesn't make any of the BS listed above true.

    1. There was plenty of BS about Common Core that was true. A lot it appears in this piece. I'm not sure that the other is important.

  3. I love your work Peter. This was a delicious take down of another Gates folly. However, we science teachers are dealing with something even worse and less well written, the NGSS. Next Generation Science Standards are so horrible that they make the amateuristic CCSS look all-pro.

    1. And therein lies one of the great challenges in a profession that 3 million strong. I have heard teachers rave about how much they like the NGSS and how much better they were that their old standards. Some of those teachers may teach in the same building or district as you.

      What is the public to make of that? If their child's 5th grade teacher loves NGSS but the 6th grade teacher doesn't and openly bags on it, what is that saying about the nature of the profession?

    2. I agree completely re NGSS. Another waste of time, money and energy coming down the pike. Integrating "engineering" with no teacher training or resources will result in bad, "canned" bogus quasi-engineering activities.

      And Jen, the opinions of non-certified, elementary science teachers on NGSS don't hold much water in my opinion. Listen to the certified secondary teachers with years of lab experience and 99 out of 100 will agree with Thomas.

    3. Thomas, I must be in the 1%, because I think the NGSS are a step in the right direction and I am a certified secondary teacher with 20 years of lab experience.

    4. It's Jenn. Two n's. That said, some of the teachers are high school teachers with decades of experience and some elementary teachers dislike the standards. My question remains: what should parents think when one teacher bashes standards, another praises?

    5. That the standards will not work for all teachers and all students in all circumstances.

      Or, how about, that professionals have opinions that are formed over years of education and practical experience that do not march in lock step with every other professional in their field.

    6. First, maybe parents will think one set of standards doesn't make sense to apply universally, just as they know that each student learns differently. I have three children and they each have very different aptitudes, interests, and ways of learning.

      Second, it might be helpful to have actual documented teacher surveys where the teachers explain exactly why they have the opinion they do.

    7. Jen(n)
      The NGSS controversy is nothing new. We’ve had the math wars – and we’ve had the reading wars. Maybe this is the start the science wars. What this says about our profession is simple: teaching is a human endeavor complete with passion and strong opinions developed by individual teachers logging thousands of class periods over careers that span decades. When some of us feel that we being forced into using standards, methodologies, curricula, or scope and sequencing that runs against our intuition and experience - wars (strong disagreements) can break out. In the case of NGSS, they are selling the “deep understanding of scientific concepts, processes and principles” – over content. There is much missing from these standards as they favor vague skill sets over content knowledge. Remind you of a recent ed-controversy? NGSS is just a Common Core approach to a subject where knowledge and understanding are inextricably tied together. Removing too much of the content makes the skill sets impossible to master. The addition of engineering is unsettling to a lot of science teachers – and rightly so. Where and when will be trained? Where is the money for engineering supplies, equipment, and new textbooks coming from? Many of us see another “implementation” disaster about to unfold. The big question is why the change? Do we need to follow the money?

    8. What this debate also says about teaching is that there are too many variables to ever say there is only one best method for every teacher and every student.

    9. NY Teacher, as one of those with a career spanning over decades, I am standing up to disagree with you. It is exactly because "knowledge and understanding are inextricably tied together" in science that we cannot afford to continue thinking that training kids to jump through the memorize-test-forget cycle is "learning content". It is entirely possible in a traditional science class to "learn the content" well enough to garner a good grade while having very little if any change in your understanding. I've seen it over and over again in my classes and it is borne out by research.

      What exactly is the "content" you expect your children to master? Some kind of calculations? Knowing terms and laws and constants they can find on their phone in a minute? How many of them will need that knowledge in their futures? Only the ones who will be exposed to that material over and over in their future educations.

      The rest need to come to an understanding of how science works, not only so they can call BS on the sciency-sounding scams that will come their way, but more importantly because the methods of science are really good methods for solving ordinary problems in anyone's life. Very few of our children will become scientists. Those that do will have access to the wonderful, detailed training that results in deep knowledge of a specific field. But every kid will, hopefully, grow up to be an adult. And we desperately need adults who know how to think, so let's focus on those "vague skill sets".

    10. "we cannot afford to continue thinking that training kids to jump through the memorize-test-forget cycle is "learning content".

      I have been teaching chemistry and physics for understanding for over 20 years - long before I ever heard of NGSS. So I'm not disagreeing on the importance of understanding how science works, but that is an essential part of any current science program. Your "rote " rant sets up a false dichotomy which should not be the basis of over-turning the system.

    11. I think content vs. process/skills is a false dichotomy in general. It's like phonics vs. whole language; you need both. I think most curriculum should be concept, not content-driven, but to a certain extent, concepts ARE content.

      In my daughters' seventh grade science class, the teacher used curriculum from a university professor that consisted of doing an experiment and asking the students to make observations, inferences, and hypotheses about the why of the result. He never gave them any answer about the why because if he did, he couldn't use the same experiment with the next year's class. They learned the scientific method of making observations, inferences, and hypotheses, but they learned that the first quarter and didn't learn anything else the rest of the year, and were left with the feeling that any answer is valid and science is magic, with no explanation. They never learned any principles about the way the world works.

      It's like in social studies, history. You don't want just content; memorizing names and dates tells you nothing and is boring. You want to know why things happen, cause and effect.

    12. NGSS may be an improvement for some people depending on what their state standards looked like before. Illinois standards were really really detailed and became a "checklist" of things to cover and there wasn't enough time to cover everything. In that sense, NGSS was an improvement, but like CCSS, nothing has really changed with the way I teach Anatomy and Physiology, I just stick an NGSS number after my lessons now.

  4. My sentiments as similar to Dave's - and I would offer a third category: Common Core Pragmatists.

    Teachers didn't need CCSS to teach mental math and number sense. It just made it easier for mathematicians and teachers to speak the same language.

    Teachers in states with high populations of military and transient students didn't need CCSS to share curriculum and ideas across state-lines. CC made it easier for those exchanges to happen.

    Teachers didn't need CC to teach critical thinking. CC made it easier to understand what critical thinking actually means (i.e. stating claims, using evidence, attending to bias) and how it develops and strengths from K-12.

    Teachers in NY didn't need CC to be culturally responsive and to attend to diverse and complex texts. CCLS put it in front of them that they had to.

    The ironic thing about CC is that there at least six other sets of national standards currently being used by teachers in all 50 states and DoD schools. They use them without succumbing to a "national curriculum." No one knows the authors of those standards and no one really cared when state departments of education adopted them. Some before CC happened, some after.

    And so, the great "get all teachers in 50 states on the same page for Math and ELA" failed. There will likely be another try in 5 or 6 years. When that happens, not everyone will be happy with the standards. Here's hoping we learn lessons from the first attempt.

  5. Good work. All those dust bunnies.. I had a link that identified the consultant that developed all those talking points that still persist. Sadly, I lost it in a computer crash. They really did a great job because those talking points still persist even though the supposed research to support them did not exist.

    Whenever that stuff crops up it seems like we have to smash it down like some sort of verbal whack-a-mole game.

    Nice smashing. Please carry on!

  6. As an elementary teacher, I would add a third question to your list.
    3) What are you not teaching/doing now that you did have time to focus on before Common Core?
    Whatever happened to science and social studies? What happened to love of learning and FUN?!