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.