Friday, October 11, 2013

The Promise of the Common Core by Leo Casey

An op-ed in the New York Times’ Week in Review is emblematic of the best of this disapproving sentiment. Yet even it mixes together fundamental misconceptions about the entire Common Core project with legitimate issues of inadequate preparation for teachers and students and poor implementation by state education departments and districts. The Common Core is described as a “radical curriculum” that was introduced with “hardly any public discussion.” We are told that it is a “one size fits all” approach, built upon a standardized script that teachers must use for instruction. Finally, it is suggested that the Common Core is a “game that has been so prearranged that many, if not most, of the players will fail.”
This is the Common Core seen through the prism of a fun house mirror. In truth, the Common Core is neither “radical” nor a “curriculum,” but a set of grade level performance standards for student achievement in the core academic disciplines of English Language Arts and Mathematics.* Indeed, one of the more telling criticisms of the implementation of the Common Core is that in all too many states, districts and schools, these standards have notbeen developed into curricula which teachers could readily use in their classrooms.
The Common Core has been the product of a lengthy and multi-stage process. The English Language Arts and Mathematics standards were themselves first developed, using procedures that included major, substantive feedbackfrom teams of teacher practitioners from across the country.** The two sponsoring organizations, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA), published the draft standards for comment, and adopted them only after the incorporating changes that they received during that process. Finally, the standards were adopted by forty-five separate states and the District of Columbia, each with their own statewide educational decision-making body and process. At each step of the way, there has been vigorous and open debate. It is hard to conceive how that process could have been any more public or transparent.
Far from a “one size fits all” approach, the Common Core was designed to establish broad performance standards that could be easily adapted to quite different curricula and pedagogical approaches. The notion that it constitutes an exacting script that every teacher would need to follow precisely is so far from the actual reality that it leaves one wondering if some of the critics have actually read the Common Core standards they so fiercely denounce.
Finally, the all-too-real ‘game’ that establishes winners and losers for life is the current state of American education, with its unforgiving inequality in the quality of education provided to the wealthy and to the poor, to white students and to students of color. Almost sixty years after our nation made a promise in Brown v. Education to end separate and unequal education, our schools continue to embody and perpetuate the radical economic inequalities that have grown so dramatically in American society over the past three decades. If anything, the Common Core gives us a new means to address this ongoing stain on our national education.
Another Passing Reform, Or An Opportunity To Refocus American Education?
American educators have grown accustomed to a steady stream of passing educational fashions, a continual barrage of reforms du jour that have come and gone. In understandable acts of self-defense, we invest the minimum of our time and effort in each new volley of the latest educational ‘silver bullet.’ The day is too short and the things that need to be done for one’s students too many to be spending one’s time on a program that will soon be gone and forgotten. The temptation is to decide that the Common Core fits this pattern, and that it, too, will soon pass. The recent drumbeat of criticism of the Common Core, however wrongheaded, reinforces the notion that, sooner or later, these standards will go the way of the first standards movement of the 1990s.
There is truth in the common sense of the teacher: the Common Core standards are in peril.
But the loss of the Common Core standards would be a real tragedy, taking away from us for a generation the capacity to make necessary, progressive educational change. The Common Core standards are well worth saving.
Here’s why:
  • The Common Core focuses on what is important in educationIn an era when our national obsession with standardized testing has diverted attention from the vital purposes of public education, turning all too many American schools into ‘test prep’ factories, the Common Core refocuses us on the skills which are essential for the education of citizens in a democracy – critical and analytical thinking, the comprehension and use of complex texts, problem solving and purposeful written and oral communication. While much discussion of the instructional shift required by the Common Core has focused on the difficulty of the standards, it has largely ignored the powerful rationale for their more challenging nature. Too often the ‘raising of standards’ in American education is little more than speeding up an assembly line mode of education, demanding that students learn in the eighth grade what they used to learn in the ninth grade by cramming more detail into a course of study that is already a mile wide and an inch deep. What distinguishes the Common Core from such ‘factory model’ reform efforts is its fundamental rethinking of what students should know and be able to do, with a focus on knowing well and in depth what is truly important.***
  • The Common Core sheds much needed light on persistent inequality in American education, and creates a basis for educational equity across the nationBy instituting a universal set of performance standards, the same across all forty-five states (and several territories) that have adopted them, the Common Core creates a bright spotlight of comparability that can be turned on the radical disparities that continue to define American schooling nearly sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education. Until this moment in the history of American education, we have had a patchwork of different state and local standards, applied haphazardly, that have often served to disguise the inequalities of class and race in American education. With the Common Core, the nature and consequences of decisions in state capitols to starve schools of needed resources and to perpetuate extreme educational inequalities will become more difficult to camouflage. Just as importantly, Common Core brings with it the promise of providing every American student, from Beverly Hills to Bed-Stuy, the same high quality education, pitched to the same performance standards.
  • The Common Core brings coherence to K-12 American education.The Common Core standards are sequential, with performance benchmarks building upon earlier learning to create a coherent educational experience for students, K through 12. When the standards are fully implemented, students should have access to a comprehensive quality education in the core academic subjects. While this logical organization and development of education is important for all students, it is particularly important for students living in poverty: the transience that accompanies poverty creates many disruptions in the education of these students, making it all that more difficult for them to be successful in their education. To the extent that all schools use sequentially organized, comprehensive performance standards, these disruptions in the education of students living in poverty will be minimized.
  • The Common Core has the potential to empower teachers, giving us new opportunities to improve our craft and the teaching professionThe Common Core sets out performance standards for what students should know and be able to do in a subject: it does not prescribe either what teachers should teach or how they should teach and work with their students to attain these standards. Moreover, by requiring that students develop deeper and richer understandings of the subjects they are studying, the Common Core implicitly breaks with the ‘factory model’ of schooling and the ‘test prep’ deformation of education. The instructional shift demanded by the Common Core poses both a challenge and an opportunity for teachers to work together in their schools in the development of lessons, units and teaching materials that would support them in teaching to the new standards. Teacher creativity and teacher collaboration are thus essential to doing the Common Core right, and are at the center of the work in schools and districts that have prepared well for the Common Core.
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