Common Core or Common Corpse?


Common Core or Common Corpse?

“In a time of dramatic change it is the learners who
Inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves
equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”

Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition (1973)

My earliest recollection of education reform dates from the fall of 1957 when the Soviet Union placed a man-made satellite (Sputnik) into earth orbit. I was thirteen years old. In addition to igniting the spark that lit the candle for the space race, the event also stirred public opinion in the United States into a froth of national anxiety. The colossus of the Russian Bear cast an ominous shadow over the American Eagle. Russian scientists (actually, German scientists who in the longer run turned out to be not as smart as our German scientists) seemed to have been touched by divine fire and made privy to the secrets of the universe. Meanwhile, our rockets were blowing up on their launch pads.

I was pretty much oblivious to all of this. Most of my attention was focused on a growing interest in girls, watching favorite television programs, savoring the occasional illicit thrill of a sneaked cigarette or a secretive sip of beer, and counting the days until I was sixteen and would be able to get my driver’s license. During the school year, weekends were looked upon as oases of bliss devoted to relaxation, time with friends, and the pursuit of innocent pleasures, interrupted only by the parentally-enforced necessity of going to church on Sunday.

Then Sputnik happened. Before I knew it, yet another disaster loomed when, in 1958, the Eisenhower administration passed the National Defense Education Act in response to the imminent threat posed by our educational weaknesses in science, math, engineering, and foreign languages. (Sound familiar?) I was not happy because the real world result of these developments—made perfectly clear with almost rapturous glee by my teachers—was that school was going to get a lot harder, whereas I was of the opinion that it was quite hard enough as it was. Thank you very much.

With a national emphasis on forging high academic standards came a concomitant emphasis on testing to measure results. Hello SAT. What this effectively meant for me and my high school friends was that a significant portion of a precious Saturday was to be spent in our school’s cafeteria taking a test. On the occasion of the first infliction, I assuaged my generally gloomy mood with occasional thoughts of my upcoming date, a few hours hence, with Betty Jo Bobbysocks. I bombed the test. And I’ve never done particularly well on any standardized test I’ve taken since then, which I’ve discovered actually puts me in pretty good company.

Now, almost sixty years later, testing of all sorts is ubiquitous. Waves of educational initiatives and reform movements have come and gone, many of them stillborn on delivery. (Remember the New Math movement of the sixties? The result was a large number of frustrated teachers whose students not only could not grasp the new math but couldn’t do basic arithmetic, either.)

Our nation’s two most recent efforts to implement substantive educational reform are the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind (2001) and the Common Core initiative that is being promoted by the Obama administration. The former program’s espoused goals were to place qualified teachers in every public school classroom and to have students performing successfully at grade level in core academic subjects by 2014. That year is now upon us and the patient is pretty much DOA.

Will the Common Core, promoting a set of national standards in English language arts and math, meet the same stillborn fate as other reform efforts? (For anyone interested in the official position, I strongly recommend visiting the Common Core web site at Then dive into the pro and con screeds that are now a part of the national conversation.) You will see that there is actually a lot to like. At its inception, the Common Core State Standards was the 2009 creation of the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, not the federal government. Its purpose is framed by a commitment to college and career readiness, giving students the skills necessary “to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce-training programs.”

Common Core standards specify what students are expected to learn at each grade level, K-12. Selection of texts, methods of instruction, and curriculum are to be controlled at the local level. Further, it is explicitly stated that the initiative will “remain a state-led effort….Federal funds have never and will never be used to support the development or governance of the Common Core or any future revision of the standards.” As I said, there are many things to like about the Common Core; but there are some valid reservations to consider, beginning with the matter of advocacy.

According to a June 7, 2014, Washington Post article by Lindsey Layton, two predominant influencers of Common Core advocacy and implementation are private philanthropy (primarily the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and the federal Department of Education. The Gates Foundation has awarded grants totaling $230,000,000 to organizations supporting Common Core. These funds have been used for such things as “mock legislative hearings for classroom teachers, training educators on how to respond to questions from lawmakers.” This and other forms of advocacy have taken precedence over any field testing of the model, which seems to be putting the cart before the horse.

For its part, the Department of Education has provided over $4,000,000,000 in “Race to the Top” grants for states that adopted high standards, and Common Core was deemed to meet those standards. “It was,” writes Layton, “a clever way around federal laws that prohibit Washington from interfering in what takes place in classrooms. It was also a tantalizing incentive for cash-strapped states.” The Department of Education also granted, for states adopting the Common Core, waivers of exemption for non-compliance with the No Child Left Behind. Though the Common Core is avowedly structured as an independent governing body, it would appear that the nose of the federal camel is already inside the tent, and once that happens it will be difficult to keep the rest of the dromedary outside.

How free are methods of instruction from outside influence, Common Core assurances notwithstanding? Here again, there is room for some skepticism. Carol Burris, New York’s High School Principal of the Year in 2013 and an initial supporter of Common Core, offers the following contrast. A pre-Common Core kindergarten math standard from Massachusetts promulgates a simple broad directive to “Use objects and models to solve related addition and subtraction models to ten.” Under Common Core the standard reads:

Compose and decompose numbers from 11 to 19 into
tens and ones and some further ones, e.g., by using objects
or drawings, and record each composition or decomposition
by a drawing or equation (e.g., 18=10+8); understanding
that these numbers are composed of ten ones and one, two,
three, four, five, six, seven, eight, or nine ones.

Aside from the fact that the prose has the turgid consistency of pluff mud, does this not sound just a bit directive in terms of instructional methodology?

Critique of Common Core has risen considerably beyond the level of the liberal/conservative partisan debate which has clouded some of the most salient issues. A May 14, 2014 Washington Post blog by Valerie Straus rightly observes that “people on all ends of the political spectrum are thinking through the core.” And scholar Diane Ravitch, a prolific education researcher and author—and fierce advocate of all things great and small in the sphere of public education—maintains that “the rushed implementation of the standards doomed them….Buying the support of education interest groups in D.C. is not the same as winning the support of the American public.”

And yet there remains something to be said for the articulation of a broad set of high standards for our schools, and some broad meaningful common assessment mechanisms leavened by a healthy measure of local autonomy and accountability. But let there also be internal pressure from the citizenry that, in a very healthy way, poses hard questions to state and district professionals and governing boards. And the thrust of that questioning should focus, in the spirit of Eric Hoffer’s observation, on whether we are giving our students the good tools they need to think independently and critically, work cooperatively and imaginatively, and adapt flexibly to rapidly changing conditions; in other words, to steer a deliberate course from the acquisition of information, to knowledge, to wisdom.

In this regard, it does no good to further politicize the product or the process more than it already has been. The Common Core is the work neither of devils nor angels. All will eventually devolve to the local level. If it is not actively embraced in its implementation by principals and teachers, the initiative will wither be stillborn, inconsequential, or severely vitiated in impact.

Here is a brief example of what I mean. In a conversation with a middle school principal whose state has adopted the Core, I asked what she thought. “I think it’s fine,” she said. ‘In what way,” I asked. Her answer clarified what she meant by the word “fine.” She meant that her school would continue to do exactly as it had been doing, that its curriculum and standards were strong, and could easily be presented in a way that would satisfy Common Core without departing from business as usual. With strong schools this may work fine. The same tactics, however, can be employed by weaker schools and let’s not kid ourselves that thinking that the system can’t be gamed.

It should be clear that the hard lifting will not be accomplished by standards, curriculum design, or testing. Many professional educators challenge the assertion that there is any correlation between standards and student achievement. Sustainable results will most likely hinge on how students are encouraged in individual homes and classrooms. After all, a good teacher can indeed make chicken salad from a certain less appetizing poultry by-product. The same cannot be said of a set of standards or a curriculum, irrespective of how ingeniously and nobly it is conceived.

Common Core is the work neither of devils nor angels. All will eventually devolve to the local level. If it is not actively embraced in its implementation by principals and teachers, the initiative will either be stillborn, inconsequential, or severely vitiated in impact.

Speak Your Mind