“The Problem with the Common Core”
I’m a Common Core State Standards supporter, and I’m often disappointed at the quality of the opposition to the Core Standards. In an earlier post, I suggested that much of the CCSS opposition is really driven by the abusive testing associated with implementing CCSS, and is not actually opposition to the principles of higher standards at all. But in the interest of fair play, a rare commodity in the educational reform wars that are erupting across the nation, I ran across one of the best arguments in opposition to the Common Core that I’ve ever seen.
“The Problem with the Common Core,” by Stan Karp, is the cover article of a recent edition of the quarterly journal Rethinking Schools, which is available in print, pdf, and digital versions.
Karp was an English and Journalism teacher, and is now a Rethinking Schools editor. The premise of the article is that CCSS reforms are a part of a larger context of reform and politics that can’t be ignored. These include what he calls the failure of 10 years of NCLB reform, the rise of test-based teacher accountability, budget cuts that have eviscerated school budgets and reduced teaching positions across the nation, increases in privately run charters, closing of public schools, increased inequity and child poverty, college debt, and the “massively well-financed campaign of billionaires and politically powerful advocacy organizations that seeks to replace our current system of public education—which, for all it’s many flaws, is probably the most democratic institution we have and one that has done far more to address inequality, offer hope, and provide opportunity than the country’s financial, economic, political, and media institutions—with a market-based, non-unionized, privately managed system.”
I am entirely on board with his analysis of the reform movement and the corporate interests that are behind the effort to monetize public education. But I’m not on board with the idea that NCLB was a failure. Yes, it was foolish to suggest 100% proficiency, as any sane person knew from the start, and I am among those who right away though NCLB was an intentional effort to find excuses to close schools and filter public funds to charters, and to resegregate schools through charter and voucher programs, which had been happening all over the South for many years before NCLB became law. But the emphasis on disaggregating and reporting student performance was the first strong indication that within every school district, whether rich or poor, there was a population of students who were not succeeding and who deserved more attention. Working with low performing districts in New York, I saw that NCLB mandates, while unrealistically high, pushed all districts to focus and report on the achievement of all their subgroups, and the performance of subgroups has steadily, albeit slowly, risen every year. So, within the flaws of NCLB there were bright lights of increased school district attention to the underserved. That’s not a failure.
Core Standards developers left out K-12 educators
Karp continues with a description of how Common Core Standards came about, and highlights the lack of classroom and K-12 experience among the Standards writers. That teachers and early childhood experts were not among the writers is true and relatively well-known, and this is a scathing criticism of the authorship. That a few parents and educators were brought in late to give cover to the process is clear, The definitions of ‘college and career ready’ are also criticizes as a numbers game without evidence that the levels of performance being posited for success bear a clear relationship to future college success.
Feds view CCSS as business opportunity
Karp appropriately quotes Joanne Weiss, former chief of staff for Arne Duncan, who noted that “…the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.” He also highlights the vast amounts of corporate and business-related foundations that are pushing the Core standards and that will profit from them. It’s hard to refute that many in business and government see the Common Core Standards as profit opportunities, and the presence of Broad Foundation and Gates Foundation and Walton Foundation representatives at high levels of the reform movement suggest that Karp has accurately represented this influence. The educational press is full of articles on the profits to be made as Common Core curriculum, assessments and technology products are marketed.
Overtesting squeezes the good out of CCSS
Finally, Karp suggests “test are on track to squeeze out whatever positive potential exists in the Common Core.” He noted Duncan’s suggestion that Hurricane Katrina was the best think to happen to New Orleans schools, and “..this new generation of state assessments will be an absolute game-changer in public education.” In my later professional career, I saw the potential for assessments to be a game-changer, if used to inform teachers about next steps to support student learning. But Duncan is a non-educator who thinks that test based teacher accountability is good, and if he and those reforms looking for a silver bullet solution to reform education win the day, then Karp is correct in his condemnation of Common Core.
Common Core meltdown is best hope for public education
He ends by noting that it took 10 years for NCLB to collapse under the absurdity of it’s false premises. He thinks “The Common Core meltdown may not take that long.” I think he’s right there, as I watch states pushing back, though often by throwing out the good because they don’t know how to separate the principles of common standards from the problems associated with how CCSS has been pushed onto the states. I hope educators will be able to do that. Karp concludes: “As usual, organizing and activism are the only things that will save us, and remain our best hope for the future of public education and the democracy that depends on it.”