What We Learned From Common Core

Monday, July 14, 2014

There are several words that are called “fighting words” these days, but “Common Core State Standards” may head the list in public education. The only other item that may come close is standardized testing.  Just the phrase “Common Core” can invoke passions, debate or a heated quarrel. Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a battle about standards in the private sector. 

Mark Twain popularized the adage that there were “three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Research, design of study, methodologies, sample selection, quality of evidence all determine how the statistics will be shaped. The use of the data will then drive the decision-making. Policymakers can justify any position for or against an issue based on their view of the available information. Toss in a political agenda, add some cash and you have a recipe to be persuaded for or against any issue. A political maxim is: “money changes behavior, lots of money changes lots of behavior.”  

We should be weary of many education reforms, and generally opposed to a one-size fits all approach - especially when there is “lots of money” involved. There is always good and bad to most issues, and reasonable people can generally argue either side. A civil debate can serve a practical purpose in public policy. Common Core is an issue that makes sense in theory, and results may show it makes sense in practice. Time will determine that debate. As an organization, we support higher standards.   

Who can be opposed to raising the standards in public education? Let’s face it, our economic strength as a state and a country is linked to the performance of our public schools. Yet, not all students are educated in a traditional public school. Traditional schools are wary of being accountable for students’ scores on standardized tests which do not give an accurate picture of teacher performance.

There are a growing array of education choice options available in America such as controlled open enrollment, charter schools, charter districts, online schools, lab schools, schools-within-schools, year-round schools, charter technical career centers, magnet schools, alternative schools, vouchers, special programs, advanced placement, dual enrollment, International Baccalaureate, early admissions, and credit by examination or demonstration of competency. If you can conceive it, more than likely some school, district or state will probably try it. But will all of these options include the use of Common Core State Standards, and if not, why not?    

In Tennessee, for example, any cursory review demonstrates that Common Core State Standards were superior to the standards previously employed. But it is debatable whether recommending a common set of standards for all 50 states was necessary. In fact, Common Core could be properly viewed as a disruptor. In that regard, Common Core served a useful purpose of blowing up the status quo.

In education circles people are now discussing standards, curriculum and testing. Don’t believe for one minute that Common Core State Standards are a “be all, end all.” They were not an insidious plot by the Obama Administration, but they were not exactly crafted by real public educators either. Many of the elements of Common Core were a response that has been kicked around for a quarter-century. In fact, one could pinpoint the genesis of the national curriculum debate at the feet of Chester Finn, who proposed it in an Education Week article in 1989.   

Nobody should be thrilled with watered down standards. Yet we must critically scrutinize the curriculum, textbook, and testing clique that have turned into profit centers for a few corporations that seem to have garnered an inside advantage. Bluntly, there may be too many education lobbyists and corporate interests driving manufactured problems in the name of education reform. It is definite that we have tilted the debate too far to the side of the federal government in harming state sovereignty and local control of public education. 

The implementation of Common Core went better in Tennessee than in many other places in the country. The real problem was the failure of many policymakers to address the legitimate concerns of stakeholders on other peripheral issues. Organizations that were engaged to take the lead in addressing criticisms were viewed as impertinent and disrespectful and operated as if they themselves were the policymakers. In fact, it bordered on arrogance.  

It is accurate that those for and against Common Core have taken liberties with the truth. However, if the debate exasperates people enough perhaps it will spark needed changes such as a real review of standardized testing and a focus back on student-centered instruction. The lesson learned is that the federal government is often too prescriptive in their participation in public education, and most decisions should be left to states, districts, schools and educators.

Cathy Kolb and Bethany Bowman

Cathy Kolb is president and Bethany Bowman is director of Professional Development at Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Brentwood.

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