by Timothy Shanahan
University of Illinois at Chicago
July 10, 2013
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is the biggest curriculum reform of my lifetime. My own assessment of the Standards is that they represent a big improvement over past standards, though there are niggling problems—the kinds of things that one can easily critique but which would likely make little or no difference in kids’ learning if “improved.”
Nevertheless, the CCSS is now under fire by “grass roots” conservatives or “right wing fringe” groups (which description to use depends on your political perspective). These groups are starting to make headway with some of the legislatures in as many as 16 of the participating states. Their misinformation campaign may cause some mischief going forward.
The problem for educators is one of trying to implement the new Standards in a time of uncertainty. It is a big challenge to jump into professional development or curriculum writing activities if you aren’t sure whether the Standards will still be in place next week.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that the opposition, for the most part, doesn’t seem particularly interested in the Standards themselves or their implications for schools and kids. The major beef has to do with federalism and states rights, issues more about political power and control rather than pedagogy.
As such, much of their criticism isn’t even about CCSS. For example, many of the complaints are about the testing, which at least technically, is separate from CCSS. Under federal law, states are required to have educational standards, and since No Child Left Behind, they have to test how well their students meet those standards. Obviously, adopting new standards does mean new tests. However, you can have good standards and bad tests; they really are separable.
The states could have paid their own way for testing as they have in the past, but that’s where the federal government came in (they were not part of the standards development process). The feds offered support for groups of states to develop tests. Some of the critics see this support as proof that the CCSS are really “national standards,” which ignores the fact that several states that adopted CCSS, are going it alone on the testing (and with no penalty—except that they have to pay for their own tests).
Similarly, the critics seem to confuse “Race to the Top,” Arne Duncan’s stimulus-funded school reform, with CCSS. Since CCSS came out right when Race was getting going, Duncan offered states competitive points for adopting the Standards. Coercive? Perhaps. But the courts have approved even stronger instances of such coercion in the past without seeing any threats to federalism (including very conservative justices, like Antonin Scalia).
The critics are right that these dollars may have made a difference in some states; either instigating adoption or hurrying up the approval process.
On the other hand, the critics appear blind to the fact that several states didn’t compete for Race to the Top dollars, and yet they adopted Common Core anyway (including a state like Indiana, under the leadership of a very conservative governor, Mitch Daniels).
In any event, that the feds sweetened the benefits for adopting CCSS does not make them “national standards” and does not change the fact that the states adopted them voluntarily. I go to work voluntarily, even though my employer pays me.
Critics also make much of the fact that the Gates Foundation paid the bills for CCSS. Consequently, they confuse other Gates’ initiatives with it. They say, for example, that CCSS is requiring the collection of massive amounts of student data in the schools? Of course, they do no such thing. The initiative to build that database has nothing to do with CCSS, except a shared funding source.
The problem with conflating all of these programs and initiatives into a single narrative is that it makes a mess of the facts. The critics’ purpose is to build a political movement, and so they hope they can get the privacy rights folks angry about the databases, the anti-testing folks angry about the testing, the anti-Obama folks riled up about “Obamacore,” and so on. That’s why the opposition to Common Core in Indiana is reported to have been an alliance of liberal Democrats and conservative Tea Partyers; the Democrats opposed the Republican who was heading up the state school system and the TPers oppose the federal involvement in education and health care. Not exactly a marriage made in heaven, and yet politics makes strange…
The one thing that no one in the opposition has really done is put forth a strong cogent argument against the English Language Arts Standards. There are claims that they are “confusing,” or “not always clear or measurable,” or that they “focus on skills over content in reading,” or don’t address cursive writing, or treat “literary elements” inconsistently. But none of these critiques either provide specifics or go so far as to compare the Standards with the status quo. The biggest of their content criticisms? Glenn Beck’s claim that the Standards require teachers to stop teaching “classical literature” to make way for instruction in the reading of “EPA fiberglass installation manuals “ and “Federal Reserve Board minutes.”
Of course, some of these complaints are nonsensical or even outright mendacity (I’m still looking for the fiberglass installation manual in the exemplary text lists. Perhaps he was being metaphorical—maybe, fiberglass installation is code for The Federalist Papers). And, all of these whines miss the real point: despite their faults, the CCSS are markedly clearer, higher, and more coherent than past standards. Accordingly, none of these critics has dared comment on the science or history reading standards or the requirement that students demonstrate skills with texts more challenging than in the past.
Personally, I’d be willing to join these critics in their opposition to CCSS if they had any credible alternatives for our kids or our nation. The Senator Grassleys of the world who can, on the one hand, vote to require that states impose educational standards and tests of those standards, and on the other, to block federal assistance to states in carrying out these mandates, don’t interest me much.
In the past, political and intellectual conservatives have put forth spirited and imaginative curriculum proposals (e.g., Bill Bennett, Lynn Cheney, E.D. Hirsch); proposals that have been honored in the CCSS. But those who oppose the CCSS have no such imagination. They righteously embrace the educational status quo, though apparently not for their own kids (a status quo in which 42% of the students who meet or exceed the current standards require remedial instruction).
Any donkey can kick down a barn. I’ve never seen one that could build one. Make sure your legislators know that you support the CCSS—at least until something better comes along.
Reader response is welcomed. Email your comments to LRP@reading.org