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Common Core: The Real Issues

There has been much Sturm und Drang about the Common Core in recent months, but it looks to me as though the Common Core, in most states, is safe for the time being.  Its name may be changed in some states.  It may suffer from nips and tucks on occasion, but in most states it will emerge into the highlands fairly unscathed.

But that, in my view, does not mean that it is home free.  Far from it.  The real test for the Common Core, the fire it must go through to become a permanent feature of the national education infrastructure, lies in the extent to which it is well and truly implemented in the states.  Unfortunately, for that to happen, almost everything else has to change.

Consider what the Common Core is all about.  Prior to the Common Core, the states set their own standards and chose their own tests to measure student progress against those standards.  In a majority of states, students can graduate high school by getting a passing grade on their core high school courses and they could do that mostly just by showing up.  High school textbooks are mostly set to 8th grade reading levels.  In the states with graduation requirements that require passing a test, those tests can be passed by students with no more than a 9th grade level of English literacy and a deeply flawed understanding of middle school math.  Bear in mind that we are recruiting our teachers from among the lower ranks of those high school graduates, and our expectations for their command of the subjects they will teach when they become teachers is generally very modest, especially at the elementary school level.

The Common Core is set to a very different standard.  It requires the students not simply to be able to execute the standard mathematics algorithms accurately, but it requires students to understand why those algorithms work, which is a much more demanding, requirement.  It requires that students be able to marshal knowledge from many different arenas in order to make carefully reasoned and persuasive arguments in good English, which is much more than most can do now.  But there is no reason to believe that our teachers are better writers than the average college student, and that is a lower standard than the authors of the Common Core had in mind.

There is no nation that has attained the upper ranks of national student performance that has not done a lot of work to devise a very strong curriculum as the heart of its national instructional system.  They have very high quality examinations the purpose of which is to find out the degree to which the student has mastered that curriculum.  But the states have not developed curricula that will become the basis of their examination systems.  It is hard to imagine us having the kind of success that the top performers have had unless we figure out how to create very powerful and coherent curricula that accurately reflect the intent of the standards and serve as the basis of our examinations.  We'll have to see how well the tests developed by the state consortia and their competitors reflect the intentions of the Common Core's authors.

Wealthy school districts have always had first dibs on our best teachers and our most costly facilities and instructional programs and materials.  So they will be the districts most likely to fulfill the promise of the Common Core unless something is done to radically improve the capacity of less favored districts to employ teachers who have the education and training to function at the very high levels required to deliver the Common Core in the way it was meant to be delivered.  If that does not happen, the Common Core is more likely to widen the gap in performance between the vulnerable children in our society and those who are most favored.  But making good on that goal will require that our teacher education institutions attract more capable high school graduates and educate and train them to far higher standards.

And that raises the question as to how the nation will help our current teaching force learn the content and gain the craft knowledge that will be needed to teach the Common Core so that their students will be able to learn what the authors of the Common Core intended.  That, too, is a non-trivial challenge.

The history of American education is littered with the failure of reforms that were said to have failed, but in fact were never really implemented.  That fate is the greatest danger faced by the Common Core.  And it is already happening.  Critics of the Common Core are now able to point to hastily prepared curriculum devised by some states in the name of the Common Core and use that curriculum to denounce the Common Core, even though it was not produced by the Common Core authors and makes them cringe when they see it.  Textbook publishers are making cosmetic changes in textbooks predating the Common Core and furnishing them with gold colored seals pronouncing them to be aligned with the Common Core.  Vendors of professional development workshops are repackaging their old wine and putting it in new bottles labeled Common Core.

The Common Core is far more likely to be declared a failure by the general public because the states failed to implement it well than it is likely to be the victim of the attacks of current critics from either the right or the left.

So I decided that I would make a short list of states I had some reason to believe might be ahead of the curve on implementing the Common Core and talk to some well informed people from those states about what they have been doing to address some of these issues and what they think the prospects are for doing what must be done to give the Common Core some decent prospects for success.  And I decided, too, to talk with some of the key people involved in writing the Common Core standards to see how they think implementation is going and see what is worrying them the most.

So tune in to the next few blogs.  You will find out what these people have to say.  It is all very interesting.  Some of it is riveting.

Follow NCEE @CtrEdEcon.

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