I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Why the Common Core Debate Is (Mostly) Pointless

Since I've already dealt with the screaming hypocrisy of Chris Christie when it comes to his "concerns" about the Common Core State Standards, let's move on to a more substantive question:

Is the Common Core good for New Jersey? Or, for that matter, any state?

One thing that strikes me about Common Core defenders is how absolutely certain they are that these new standards are just so freakin' awesome. They'll tell you our students are behind the rest of the world (even though they're not), and that we have an "achievement gap" (which they should properly call a "testing gap"), and that 21st Century jobs require "critical thinking" (which is an absurdly oversimplified description of how our economy interacts with education).

They'll tell you that the Common Core will force schools to make their students "college and career ready" (a useless, phony phrase), and that they emphasize "authentic learning" (depending on how you define "authentic"), and that Common Core is great because teachers were closely involved in its development (rubbish).

To be fair: there are some very well-informed and intelligent people who are promoting the Common Core. They have a serious case to make for the standards. I am happy to listen to them and consider their arguments.

But most of the defenders of the Common Core in the media seem to live at the top of Mount Stupid:

The reason yours truly has not engaged much in much discussion of the Common Core is that I have been teaching long enough and have enough high-quality training to know that I'm not the guy to lead the discussion. 

Granted, I have my doubts. I think the single-year grade bands are a bad idea: they wouldn't work in arts education, and they probably won't work in math and language arts, particularly in the early years, when children vary wildly in their cognitive abilities (let alone their actual chronological ages).

I also question some specifics: why is pi introduced in Grade 7? Seems late to me: our school used to have "Pi Day" every March 14 (3/14 -- get it?), and Grade 5 seems like the perfect time to introduce the concepts of irrationality and infinity, which are closely tied to pi.

But again: if you want an expert opinion, I'm not the guy to ask. Unfortunately, we are surrounded by self-impressed ninnies who have planted their flags atop the summit of Mount Stupid. They appear to believe that just because Bill Gates gave them money to write a blog, or because they run the op-ed page of a newspaper, that somehow they are perfectly well qualified to tell the rest of us slobs that the Common Core is going to save America from certain doom at the hands of Singapore.

To be clear: this ignorance is not, by any means, confined to CCSS defenders. Core-spiracy nonsense has become an integral part of right-wing rhetoric leading into the next election. But only foolish editorial writers would think that the legitimate criticisms of the Common Core were similarly driven by left-wing politics. 

There are some very serious, very knowledgable people who think the CCSS is developmentally inappropriate. As a non-expert who still has a better-than-average understanding of math and language arts curriculum, I tend to side with these people. But I do not dismiss the serious proponents of CCSS out-of-turn as a bunch of whatever-wing hacks. I am ready and willing to listen to a meaningful, substantive debate...

And then remark -- as someone who does have considerable expertise in education policy -- that the debate about the Common Core is, at this time, largely pointless.

Folks, here's what I can tell you I know for sure:

- Poverty affects school outcomes, and we have a sickeningly large number of children in poverty.

- Our schools are highly segregated, by both race and socio-economic status. This negatively affects educational outcomes.

- Providing adequate funding to schools will likely not completely close the testing gap, but it can go a long way toward helping to equalize educational outcomes.

- And yet schools remain inadequately and inequitably funded.

I don't want to completely dismiss the debate about CCSS, or any learning standards, or the importance of curriculum development. The goals we set for students are important. How we teach makes a difference, and we can improve the quality of teaching.

But let's get real: if you had to make a list of the things that need to be done to improve the educational outcomes of students, rewriting the standards would be near the bottom.

Does anyone really believe that the most pressing need for a child living in food insecurity and attending an inadequately funded school is to make sure her state's standards are aligned with those in other states? That it's critically important to make sure her state's old standards are replaced with the CCSS, even if her school building is crumbling around her? That, if she has a special education need, the sequence of standards that may be developmentally inappropriate for her anyway is as urgent an issue as whether or not she gets critical services in a timely manner?

What does a new set of standards do to ameliorate the segregation that is growing worse in our urban schools, thanks to "choice" policies that are often promoted by the same folks who tout the CCSS? How does Common Core help to reduce the narrowing of the curriculum that has followed from a decade of high-stakes testing (and, likely, inadequate funding)? Where is any evidence that Common Core makes the teaching profession more attractive -- especially for young, talented people of color, who are desperately needed in our schools?

Again: I'm not saying standards aren't relevant. But the inordinate attention we've given to this debate is like worrying about tire pressure when the engine's on fire. Yes, the pressure's important... but there are more immediate concerns.

The mandarins of our media who are obsessed with Common Core clearly don't understand the serious debate over the standards. But even worse: they substitute a shallow focus on the CCSS for a meaningful exploration of the impacts of segregation, poverty, and inadequate funding on our nation's schools.

They need to get off of Mount Stupid and get their priorities straight.

"Poorly aligned standards" is not on one of the backpacks here.


Suzanne Libourel said...

As usual, you get right to the heart of the matter, and it's a damaged and dessicated heart.

I have a couple of suggestions for alterations. One is that you refer to what is commonly known as an 'achievement gap' as a 'testing gap'. I believe the actual gap is in socio-economic status. It should be rightly called an 'economic gap' or perhaps a 'poverty gap'. As you know, those high stakes standardized tests (along with IQ tests, NAEP tests, SATs etc) are highly correlated with family income and educational attainment. What is promoted as a gap in achievement is actually highlighting the difference in SES.

The second suggestion is where you state, "particularly in the early years, when children vary wildly in their cognitive abilities (let alone their actual chronological ages)". The term 'cognitive ability' generally refers to IQ, which is relatively static as one ages. A better term would be something like 'cognitive development'. This term encompasses the changes in brain development that occur as children age, explaining why young children don't understand that changing the shape of matter does not alter the amount of matter (the Piagetian concept of conservation of matter) and other differences in cognition that change as children grow.

Just my two cents.

Nicholas Tampio said...

"Providing adequate funding to schools will likely not completely close the testing gap, but it can go a long way toward helping to equalize educational outcomes."

The Governor of New York agrees with you, which is why he just pushed for a $2 billion Smart Schools bond...that will be used to purchase the technology to administer the Common Core tests.

Leftists need to participate in the Common Core debate. Otherwise, increased education budgets will go to Pearson, consultants, advertisements, etc.

civicweatherman said...

Great points were made in this piece. I would like to point out a couple of issues that are of paramount importance. Common Core standards cannot be discussed in a vacuum. There are 4 components to this effort that must be considered in total in order to fully appreciate what is at stake. While the standards themselves can be debated and do have some reasonable qualities and while I would argue most of the standards are inferior, inadequate and inappropriate, that is not the real issue at hand.

Along with the standards come three other components that must be included in the discussion or, like you said, the discussion will be mostly pointless. Data collection of personally identifiable information on students, poor assessments like PARCC and the promotion of charter schools must be discussed as well.

Shrinking the gap in testing with poorly written tests assessing poorly written standards is an exercise in futility. Leaving the standards aside for a moment, it is well understood by experts that students with a lower socio-economic status are more likely to bring to a testing situation extraneous conditions that can lead to lower test scores than their counterparts from wealthier districts. Upheaval in the home, violence in the neighborhood, poor nutrition, as well as other factors can lead to lower scores on tests and can misidentify them as needing remediation. So rather than continuing them on a track to learn more information on a subject, the results of the test can not only label them as being behind, the interventions can hold them back further by teaching them something they may actually already know but were unable to demonstrate on the test that day.

Now take the results of these tests and hold their teachers accountable to them. Talk about a double whammy! As if the teacher's job isn't difficult enough! Now their job is at stake. Not only their job but their school can be in jeopardy and can become the basis for opening charter schools to siphon children out of the public schools and into "for profit" charters. (charters, by the way that will be teaching to the same standards based on the Title 1 funding formula coming in the new ESEA re-authorization(story for another day)).

So while the discussion of the standards is mostly pointless, the 4 legged monster that is Common Core (standards, data, assessments and charters) stands strong even as we debate the standards because it is much more than that and while the money needed to improve student outcomes spent under this model will be beneficial to many individuals; none of those individuals will be the children.