My view

My view: Common Core has serious problems

May 15, 2014 

A few weeks ago parents in Elwood, N.Y., were told that the annual school play had been canceled. The letter from the principal explained that the play would take away time students needed to prepare for college and careers.

The students are kindergartners, 5 years old.

Those kindergartners need to step up their game. At least that’s the conclusion of school officials in New York state, where first-graders are required to explain the agricultural ramifications of canal construction in ancient Babylon.

Welcome to the Common Core.

The Common Core State Standards are national academic standards for English language arts and math designed to prepare students for life after high school graduation. The U.S. Department of Education awarded states that adopted them an advantage in applying for federal Race to the Top grants. Most states signed on.

Supporters argue that national standards will make our students more competitive in the global marketplace.

The critics – and there are many – come from opposite ends of the political spectrum and have very different reasons for their disapproval.

Some conservatives argue that national academic standards are a federal overreach threatening local control of education policies. Others dislike the Common Core because the Obama administration supports it.

On the left, critics argue that unlike state standards, the Common Core standards were written primarily by test developers at the College Board and the ACT rather than by classroom teachers or experts in language arts, math or child development. That’s why you end up with first-grade lessons about land development in Mesopotamia, for example, or assessments that last hours or days and narrow the curriculum to focus on test prep.

Critics look askance at how the Common Core development was bankrolled by the same corporations poised to make money from its implementation. Another concern is that the standards have not been field tested, and they are currently tied to the kind of high stakes testing that has been debunked as junk science by different researchers, including the American Statistical Association.

As students are tested on the new standards, some states set anything less than proficient as a failing score, a misunderstanding of psychometrics at best and a deliberate lie at worst, used to justify the privatization of “failing” public schools.

Another serious criticism is that the implementation of Common Core takes time and money from essential programs.

For example, the summative student assessments are given online, requiring schools to purchase more computers and house them in classroom space, forcing some school districts to cut teaching staff to free up the necessary funds.

Despite the hype that Common Core standards are more rigorous than the standards developed by states, research shows that probably doesn’t matter.

In a 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education, Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute cautions that the Common Core will not and cannot do what supporters claim – improve student performance. He points to research that shows that standards are only one piece of the puzzle in student achievement – and a very small piece at that.

“Standards have been a central activity of education reform for the past three decades,” Loveless writes. “I don’t know of a single state that adopted standards and considered the job done. States have tried numerous ways to better their schools through standards. And yet, good and bad standards and all of those in between, along with all of the implementation tools currently known to policymakers, have produced outcomes that indicate one thing: Standards do not matter very much.”

My biggest concern is that Common Core diverts necessary resources and attention from alleviating the effects of child poverty – which is by far the biggest reason American children do not succeed in school. Children who live in poverty suffer from all sorts of deficits – physical, emotional, developmental – that no academic standards can fix.

Rather than spending billions of dollars to develop the Common Core, I wish the Gates Foundation would endow more after-school tutoring programs or enrichment music and art camps, that the Walton Foundation would spend their millions to provide quality preschool in inner cities instead of funding the campaigns of legislators supportive of vouchers for private education. The money that corporate reformers are sinking into the Common Core and all the attendant curricular and testing materials could pay for books, literacy programs and math and reading coaches for at-risk students. It could fund child nutrition sites and mobile dental clinics. It could retrain unemployed parents, help families locate stable housing, and put mental health counselors in every school.

That money could do what it isn’t doing now – helping children be more successful in school.

Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York. Email her at:

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