What Do We Have in Common Core?

Designed to create commonality, Common Core State Standards are, ironically, not commonly understood. In an area of educational policy that aims to combat common predicaments, much energy is being squandered combatting one another — energy that could potentially be harnessed to formulate solutions. Having said that, misunderstanding Common Core is not akin to misvaluing Common Core. After all, Common Core, like the majority of past educational reforms, is aiming at a goal held by all of us: improve the standard of education across the nation.

Understanding Common Core State Standards

Essentially, the Common Core State Standards is the initiative to produce and implement a national set of standards designed as a uniform content guide for Mathematics and Literacy in grades K-12 across the United States, with supplementary Science, History, and Writing subsets. This set of standards was formed over the past twenty years by an assemblage of state governors (National Governors Association Center), and two nonprofit, bipartisan groups focused on improving student career and college readiness, one comprised of public officials (Council of Chief State School Officers), the other a combination of corporate and government leaders (Achieve). Achieve, founded at the 1996 National Education Summit, serves as the primary directing program for public advocacy of Common Core.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative promotes three central paradigm shifts in each subject. Common Core Mathematics Standards are intended to shift towards enriched focus and depth on all topics, coherence in logic and thought process, and increased rigor for conceptual understanding. Common Core Literacy Standards are intended to shift towards accumulating knowledge through non-fiction readings, understanding and utilizing textual evidence, and practicing comprehension with complex diction.

Adoption and implementation timelines for Common Core Standards vary by state, as each state is free to choose if and when they adopt the standards.  Pioneer states such as Tennessee, recently awarded $500 million for second place in the first round of Race to the Top grant competitions, are already employing Common Core Standards within existing curriculums, set to finalize the transition by the 2014-2015 school year.

A Comprehensive Look

Education is generally considered a high priority, so it is no surprise that a national system would be discussed so frequently. Today, the majority of stakeholders in education would agree that there is at least some problem with the national public education system. Common Core, specifically, has struck vital political veins and stirred ideological controversy in the process, hence the extended debate.

The initiative is optional for states, so immediately a major concern is diffused.

Opting In

The initiative is optional for states, so immediately a major concern is diffused. That being said, opting in at this time is often rewarded by large subsidies through associated Race to the Top grants, which give credit for adoption of common standards, without explicitly mentioning Common Core. Currently, forty-five states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted the Common Core State Standards.

In addition to subsidies, the standards are repeatedly hailed as “standards, not curriculum,” producing another major draw for CCSS: it still allows for local deliberation regarding matters such as textbooks and teaching strategies.

Another major draw for CCSS: it still allows for local deliberation regarding matters such as textbooks and teaching strategies.

Opting Out

Texas, the home state of No Child Left Behind, led the pioneer era of rigorous standardized testing. However, now Texas opts out of Common Core. Texan policymakers today worry about the cost of high-stakes standardized testing, as evidenced by recently approved legislation to reduce the required number of high school level standardized tests.

In a similar vein, Alaskan legislators opted out with concerns that the Race to the Top application did not ask open-ended questions about what states think will work, a sentiment resonating in receptive ears.

Massachusetts, along with many other disgruntled states, is wary of any standards that might be set at a different level than those existing in the state. With fifty different states, the U.S. has effectively fifty different definitions of educational measurement, drastically hindering interstate correlation.


Level Playing Field

Proponents of Common Core assert that we must unite the nation under a set of consistent definitions, such as what it means to be proficient in reading at a third grade level. The logic here is that different rulers will only ever produce different measurements. Common Core, according to supporters, is the solution.

While Common Core will set the necessary consistent markers for progress, an oversight in this argument is that standardized tests should not be the only means for assessment. As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Likewise, when all you have is a test, everything looks like a score. Students must be valued as more than a grade. It’s time to expand the education toolkit, and ask what public education optimizes.

As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Likewise, when all you have is a test, everything looks like a score.

It is time to develop comprehensive assessments revealing the correlation between content allegedly learned in school and mastered content utilized in years after graduation.

Common Core Assessments

PARCC Testing

Individual states are responsible for creating their own assessments to measure successful mastery of Common Core Standards, but to help, Achieve has allied with the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) to develop examinations that expand beyond the traditional multiple choice test format. In efforts to eliminate dissatisfaction with the acclaimed “drill, kill, and bubble fill” methods, PARCC has developed an innovative technology-based system for assessing comprehension. Although, many fear the data mining and invasion of privacy that could come from the digital assessment filing process.

PARCC states that their Literacy Assessment focuses on texts worth reading and questions worth answering, using authentic texts instead of artificial, arbitrary passages, and discussion questions to delve deeper. (sample PARCC Literacy prompt)

PARCC additionally asserts that their Mathematics Assessment is designed to include “questions worth answering,” shifting towards application-based questions and a thorough understanding of all topics. (sample PARCC Math question)

PARCC mastery assessments are a step in the right direction, but are considered by many to be not enough. Many questions still distinctly resemble multiple choice, as this example shows.

-- A PARCC example question that still uses traditional multiple choice format.
A PARCC example question that still uses traditional multiple choice format.

Feedback that Counts

In line with all major top-down reforms, Common Core must incorporate evaluation systems from the ground up, empowering student, teacher, parent, and administrator feedback control.

However, hosting venues for stakeholders to voice their concerns is not enough; policymakers must genuinely listen.

Public officials have already begun to host community conversation events regarding Common Core implementation, yet little action has become of it. Many such meetings are rigidly organized to address only what the organizers want to talk about, with little space for open-ended discussion and debate. These are often set as panel discussions in which the audience has little say, frustrating those who simply need to have their voices heard.

Hosting venues for stakeholders to voice their concerns is not enough; policymakers must genuinely listen.

Distorting Public Sentiment

Officials portray the public consensus as supporting their own blanket statements of approval. Through biased surveys, loaded questions, media outlets, and selective quotations, the general public is oftentimes depicted as largely supportive of Common Core as a whole, when, in fact, public opinion is much more convoluted.

Finding Common Ground

The underlying question remains: “What do all engaged reformists have in common, regardless of stance on Common Core?”

The truth is, they have approximately 55.5 million things in common, each toting a backpack full of number two pencils.

Students are the rope in this game of tug of war. Reformists on any side of the power struggle must recognize this common ground, and move towards it, for the sake of the students.

Ironically, the solution to the current educational disengagement crisis, of which staggering dropout rates are born, could be found in students’ voices — if policymakers took time to listen.

What about students?

Paradoxically, what all students have most in common is individuality.

Humanity is teeming with a diversity of individuals, talents, and passions, but currently most education systems force students into one-size-fits-all molds, allowing no room for that diversity. Students spend seven long hours in school everyday studying content that they may or may not be interested in. Because of this, comparably little time is left to pursue the questions that they are interested in.

Resolving Common Core

Standards are necessary indicators to mark progress on an objective scale, but the decision of where to set the theoretical bar must be rediscussed. The Common Core State Standards Initiative sets it high, their common motto being “higher expectations produce higher achievement.”

The connotation of “high standards” is generally positive, invoking a sense of disciplined rigor with the potential to push individuals above their limit. However, according to Common Core, high standards mean that all students should be required to learn polynomials, thematic prose analysis, sinusoidal functions, eighteenth century literature, and more, suggesting that they might push students beyond their limits, forcing square pegs through round holes. “Raising standards” is simply a favorable label for the process.

Standards are meant to be the floor, as both opponents and proponents of Common Core agree: begging the question, where should the base line be drawn? Perhaps the base line could reflect only the basic commonalities for all productive members of society: mastery of elementary math, the ability to read and write, and the elusive critical thinking skills that many schools only allegedly foster. Beyond these fundamentals, individuals would be encouraged, not coerced, to learn auxiliary supplements specific to field of interest.

Standards are meant to be the floor, as both opponents and proponents of Common Core agree: begging the question, where should the base line be drawn?

Furthermore, the necessity of personalized education needs reassertion. In order for passion to grow, students require a breadth of educational avenues, unrestrained by restricting standards. With the growth of the Open Source movement, it is now possible to place that such nourishment directly in the hands of a curious child.

Common Sense

Adapted here is a quotation from Thomas Paine’s revolutionary, enlightened pamphlet “Common Sense.”

“Some writers have so confounded [education] with [learning], as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. [Public education] is produced by our [generalized standards and policies], and [individual learning] by our [intrinsic wiring and passions]; the former [requires a level playing field], the latter [demands room to grow].”

It is time to integrate the two, in order to create a more perfect union.

Keaton Midspeech

About the Authors:

Keaton Wadzinski has participated as student perspective on several TN panels specifically regarding CCSS, and is scheduled to speak at another in August. He has also participated in a promotional video shoot for CCSS, and worked with TN education officials for a variety of functions. Inspired by TED Talks from Seth Godin and Sir Ken Robinson, Keaton fights to promote passion-based education innovation. @Kwadzki

304785_456115234421035_1450741438_nJacob Frackson, a Canadian high school student, is the Director of Digital Media at Student Voice. Jacob is about to enter his senior year of high school and has much experience in Canadian educational policy, specifically in his home province of British Columbia. Follow him on twitter, and tweet him about anything education, international affairs, or writing in general: @JFrackson

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One thought on “What Do We Have in Common Core?

  1. I don’t know if you have read Lucy Calkins’ book Pathways to the Common Core http://www.amazon.com/Pathways-Common-Core-Accelerating-Achievement/dp/0325043558 but it’s a great read. It speaks to how elegant the new standards are and how educators need to take hold of this opportunity to create the kind of reform that the standards imply. These are standards not curriculum – it’s up to us to create rigor and it’s through these kinds of discussions that we can do that. I especially like your line, “Paradoxically, what all students have most in common is individuality.” It’s so true, so while these standards offer a great chance to push us forward the methods for assessment keep us tethered to this antiquated idea that there is only one way assess student performance.

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