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Common-Core Side Effects: Worth the Costs?

Today's guest blog is written by Yong Zhao, a professor at the University of Oregon.

Something is missing in the raging debate about the Common Core. Politics aside, much of the debate has focused on whether the Common Core improves teaching and ultimately student learning. The proponents have been working hard to bring evidence to prove its effectiveness. For example, a survey conducted by Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, both supporters of the Common Core, shows that teachers are enthusiastic about CC and they have observed positive improvement in students. Its opponents have garnered evidence to show otherwise.

What's missing in in this debate is an analysis of costs or side effects. That is, even if the Common Core were perfectly implemented, which is a big question, and student learning indeed improved as measured by CC-aligned assessments in math and ELA, what would have been sacrificed? And are the sacrifices worth the benefits? Might the sacrifices prevent the Common Core from achieving its ultimate goal: college and career readiness and global competitiveness?

Any decent study about the effectiveness of the Common Core should include evidence about its side effects. In 2012, I warned about the potential side effects of education interventions, which can serve as starting point for asking questions about the Common Core:

All medicine has side effects. When it cures, it can harm the body as well. Put it in another way, there is no free lunch. Everything comes at a cost. Education cannot escape this simple common sense law of nature for a number of reasons. First, time is a constant. When one spends it on one thing, it cannot be spent on others. Thus when all time is spent on studying and preparing for exams, it cannot be spent on visiting museums. By the same token, when time is spent on activities not necessarily related to academic subjects, less time is available for studying the school subjects and preparing for exams. Second, certain human qualities may be antithetical to each other. When one is taught to conform, it will be difficult for him to be creative. When one is punished for making mistakes, it will be hard for her to take risks. When one is told to be wrong or inadequate all the time, it will be difficult for her to maintain confidence. In contrast, when the students are allowed freedom to explore, they may question what they are asked to learn, and may decide not to comply. Finally, resources are a finite as well. When a school or society devotes all resources to certain things, they don't have them for others. For example, when all resources are devoted to teaching math and language, schools will have to cut out other programs. When more money is spent on testing students, less will be available for actually helping them grow.

If there is no free lunch, dinner can cost even more. The Common Core, given its scale of impact and investment, is fancy banquet. What do we pay for this elaborate banquet?  Whether you are a teacher, a school leader, a board member, or a parent, please ask the following questions when you receive news about how great the Common Core is:

Has it narrowed the students' education experience? Has the school reduced time in subjects other than Common Core math and ELA? Has the teachers narrowed their curriculum?

An example: Carol Burris quotes a message from a parent in her Washington Post blog post:

"Carol,

This is excellent.  Thank you for hitting the nail on the head. I went to my daughter's back-to-school last night.  On the board was the day's schedule.  Other than going to music and lunch, the entire day was some form of either reading or math instruction.  When science and social studies were discussed as other curricular items in third grade, the parents were told that they would be covered essentially through reading passages as part of the ELA prep. Ugh."

Have your students become more anxious about school? Have they begun to develop a negative attitude toward math or English? Have they become less confident? Has their curiosity declined? Do they ask fewer questions and demand more answers?

An example, the comedian Louis C. K. tweeted (for the entire story, read Diane Ravitch's blog post): My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!-- Louis C.K. (@louisck) April 28, 2014

Could the money for Common Core, which is about $15.8 billion according to one estimate be spent elsewhere? Has the implementation of the Common Core disrupted your school's planned innovation? Have you had to divert money from other places to implement the Common Core and assessments?

An example, Diane Ravitch wrote:

The money spent for Common Core testing means there will be less money to reduce class sizes, to hire arts teachers, to repair crumbling buildings, to hire school nurses, to keep libraries open and staffed, and to meet other basic needs). States are cutting the budget for schools at the same time that the Common Core is diverting huge sums for new technology, new textbooks, new professional development, and other requirements to prepare for the Common Core.

The questions can go on. You should also ask whether the Common Core has put more stress on teachers, driving some of the best and most passionate out of education; whether the Common Core and accompanied tests have changed your school culture, for the worse; and whether your students with special needs are more likely to be ignored or face unnecessary pressure.

No Child Left Behind has led to a narrowing of curriculum, demoralization of teachers, explosion of cheating scandals, reduction of teaching to test-preparation, weakening of public education, and deprivation of the disadvantaged children of a meaningful education experience. The national standards movement in the U.S. has coincided with a significant decline in creativity over the last few decades. Of course, another side (or intended) effect is the increased wealth of publishing companies, tutoring services, and for-profit education ventures.

The Common Core, however dressed, shares the fundamental spirit with NCLB: standardization of curriculum enforced with high-stakes testing. In fact, the Common Core comes with more force on a larger scale. The side effects will be even more significant.

Yong Zhao's recent books include Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best and Worst Education System in the World (Jossey-bass, 2014), World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students (Corwin, 2012), and Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization (ASCD, 2009). He blogs at: http://zhaolearning.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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