Common Core: Too Little Change, Not Too Much

As anyone in education knows, the Common Core debate has become heavily politicized over the past year. What that means is that the true education issues at stake—for instance, whether the standards for English and math are challenging enough or, conversely, age appropriate—are taking a backseat to arguments over macropolitics and ideology.

Opponents on the right like to label the Common Core as “ObamaCore” and joke that schools were promised, “If you like your curriculum, you can keep your curriculum.”

As a conservative supporter of the Common Core who has racked up thousands of frequent-flier miles traveling to legislative hearings in state capitals nationwide, I find this fear of centralized control a misplaced, even willful false alarm sounded by people with other political agendas. To be sure, I don’t want the federal government meddling in curriculum issues and can point to many examples where Washington regulations—on matters of spending, “highly-qualified teachers,” and student discipline—have done more harm than good. I’m relieved the federal role in the Common Core has been relatively small.

Yet the history of education reform in the United States makes clear that efforts to foist top-down changes on the nation’s schools never get anywhere quickly and never produce real uniformity. Invariably, they’re met, for better or worse, with resistance and confusion—or, to say it more positively, with adaptation and customization.

The Common Core issue will prove no different. It won’t lead to a single national curriculum or approach to teaching literature or math pedagogy. More likely it will result in a spectrum of diverse approaches as America’s unique brand of federalism kicks into high gear. Implementation of the Common Core, as with any other reform, will vary from state to state, district to district, and school to school. That should ease the minds of apprehensive conservatives. But will it be good for kids?

Moving testimony
Last November I found myself sitting in an ornate hearing room in Ohio’s state capitol, waiting for a debate on an anti–Common Core bill to begin. After multiple delays, legislators finally filed in as hundreds of onlookers, most of them with “say no to FedEd” buttons, waited impatiently. Witnesses for the Common Core opposition spoke first—out-of-state experts including Sandra Stotsky and Williamson Evers—and made their case that the standards were not as strong as the advocates claimed. Many of their points were highly academic, though, and a few legislators could be seen yawning. (In their defense, it was pushing 10 p.m.)

But then twelve-year-old Tommy Hunter stepped up to the microphone and stole the show. In a quiet but poised manner, Hunter explained he had loved mathematics—until his district adopted the Common Core. “Common Core is supposed to be more rigorous, but I find it more frustrating and confusing,” Tommy said.

In particular, his district in Worthington, Ohio, had adopted an online textbook, digits, produced by Pearson. “What was so bad is that we couldn’t ask questions when the video was playing if we didn’t understand something,” he told lawmakers. “I liked it a lot more when Mrs. Adesso was able to teach us how to do math problems. She would show us how to do problems on the board and helped us when certain concepts were hard to get.”

His mother, a nurse, followed him and tearfully told the lawmakers she felt she had no choice but to pull him out of public school and homeschool him instead. (She enrolled him in a “virtual charter school” that relies on parents to do most of the direct instruction.)

It was moving testimony, and nobody present could deny that something had gone wrong for Tommy. But was it the Common Core’s fault? Pearson did, in fact, claim that digits was “written entirely to the Common Core State Standards.” But that’s hard to believe, as Pearson published the package just a few months after the final version of the Common Core standards was released.

The episode illustrates the political challenge that supporters face. Anything and everything that goes wrong will be blamed on the Common Core, just as a decade ago every education misfire was blamed on No Child Left Behind. But it also highlights the fragmented, decentralized nature of Common Core implementation. In a system that prizes local control over curricular decisions, 10,000 school boards will be making the most critical calls over Common Core implementation. Will they make good choices?

Rude awakening
The evidence to date does not look promising. In October, my think tank, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, published Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments. In line with other surveys, it found teachers like the Common Core and believe they are aligning their instruction with the standards. But for the most part, they aren’t really doing so.

For instance, the standards are clear that elementary-school teachers should assign texts that match a student’s grade level, rather than their current reading level. Yet the majority of teachers reported that they continue to assign such “leveled texts” to their charges. Furthermore, the standards encourage teachers to focus on text selection first and building skills second. Yet most teachers continue to do it the other way around, picking a skill to teach and then finding a text to help them accomplish that.

Tim Shanahan, the study’s author and a former president of the International Reading Association, wrote that “these results reveal that many teachers have not yet confronted the new text complexity demands of the Common Core.…Huge shifts in these practices may lie ahead.”

But it’s not just teachers who may be overlooking parts of the Common Core. At Fordham, we are enamored of the declaration that “while the standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not, indeed cannot, enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.” Especially at the elementary level, where very little time is spent on science, history or the arts, it’s critical the texts that underlie the reading curriculum are carefully selected so they coherently build students’ rich knowledge of key content-area topics.

We asked Ruth Wattenberg, former editor of the American Federation of Teachers’ American Educator journal, to examine state websites and basal readers from major publishers to find examples of a content-rich elementary curriculum. To say they were scarce is an understatement. “So far, sadly, there is little evidence that the coherent content-rich curriculum called for by CCSS is being put in place,” she writes. “Such a curriculum is not embodied in the new purportedly Common Core aligned textbooks, nor is it (generally) being established by states.”

The problem, it appears, is that the standards are turning into something of a Rorschach test for educators. Many of us like to see the standards as endorsing our own view of effective teaching and learning. So we focus on the parts we like and overlook the parts we don’t. We revise and adapt them to our own priorities and preconceptions. This might help to explain why the standards themselves are so popular. The downside, of course, is that educators might be setting themselves up for a rude awakening when their students face the new Common Core–aligned assessments—and they’ve only been prepared for a fraction of the items.

Helpful criteria
What can school boards and school-district administrators do to avoid this type of “confirmation bias” and make sure their textbooks, curricula, and instructional materials are truly aligned to the Common Core—particularly when they are trying to make sense of the veracity of sales pitches from some of American education’s richest and most influential forces, the textbook publishers?

The first step is to do a close reading of the text of the standards themselves. The second is to study the excellent publishers’ criteria developed by lead authors of the Common Core at the organization Student Achievement Partners. These criteria provide clear guidance to publishers and their customers about what it means for instructional materials to be aligned to the standards.

Take mathematics, for instance. The standards attempt to reverse the mile-wide, inch-deep nature of the typical U.S. math curriculum, replacing it with a focused, coherent sequence of learning. That automatically means covering less material in each grade level and saving certain topics for later. For example, probability is introduced by the standards in grade 7, so a Common Core–aligned, elementary-level mathematics textbook shouldn’t approach this topic at all. But a seventh-grade textbook had better do so. Applying the publishers’ criteria can help administrators and school boards stay faithful to the spirit of the Common Core—and, most importantly, prepare their students for what comes next.

Degrees of faith
To repeat: Common Core will not lead to a national curriculum. Local control is alive and well, as it should be. But that’s not to say anything goes in the Common Core era or that changes to teaching and learning aren’t needed.

Some curricular and instructional approaches are truer to research—and more faithful to the Common Core standards—than others. It’s now up to local officials to separate the wheat from the chaff. The success of this initiative, as well as the college and career readiness of America’s students, lies in your hands.

-Michael Petrilli

A version of this article first appeared in the School Superintendents Association’s School Administrator magazine.

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