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Is Common Core facing death by a thousand cuts?

Criticism of the Common Core State Standards and the implementation of the initiative in most states around the country (which are two different issues, actually) just keeps on coming. Though far-right critics get a great deal of the attention, people on all ends of the political spectrum are thinking through the Core. Here’s a new piece looking at who is saying what and what it all means, by New York Principal Carol Burris, who has been writing about King’s reform program on this blog for some time, exposing its many problems (for example, here, herehere,  here, and here.) She was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010,  tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She is the co-author of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student test scores wich has been signed by thousands of principals teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens. You can read the letter here. 



By Carol Burris

There is a picture of a billboard making the rounds on the Internet. The billboard is part of an ad campaign to motivate men to get yearly health screenings. It says, “This year thousands of men will die from stubbornness.”  Scrawled beneath the message is the ironic response, “No we won’t”.

We don’t need a billboard to tell us that stubbornness is the first line of defense when it comes to protecting the Common Core.  Even as it dies a death of a thousand cuts, its supporters dig in their heels repeating,  “no, we won’t”  change course.

This week the cuts came from left, center and right. The Chicago Teachers Union issued a resolution to oppose the Common Core with “whereas” bullets that capture its flaws.  This is more than mere noise. The influential and determined union president, Karen Lewis, will not stop with simply issuing a resolution.  She will lobby the Illinois legislature to reverse their approval of the Common Core standards and she will push the American Federation of Teachers to step up their critique.

New York Common Core reforms had barely recovered from the twitter tirade of Louis C.K., when reporter Gary Stern’ piece entitled, New York’s Reform Sidelined by Common Core, was published in the Journal News of the Lower Hudson.  The piece landed a blow from the center.  Stern recounts how a committee of outstanding New York educators several years ago worked to create new English Language Arts standards, only to see them swept aside when newly elected New York Board of Regents Chancellor Meryl Tisch and her education appointees, David Stein and John King, rushed to embrace the Common Core. Former Regent Saul Cohen told the Journal, “I was very upset, because the national standards weren’t as good. Now we have this mess.” Cohen claims Tisch promised him that school districts would have a choice between the Common Core and the standards that New York educators had developed.

That choice never came to be.  At the end of the day, Tisch’s response was “no we won’t”. When interviewed by Stern about that promise, her excuse was, “I don’t think there is much daylight between the standards.”

Not so, says former Skaneateles school superintendent, Dr. Walter Sullivan, who directed the work of the committee along with Cohen. While their proposed standards also emphasized problem solving and critical thinking, there were several important differences that distinguished them from the Common Core. Their work engaged the New York educational community in the creation of the standards in an open and iterative process that allowed educators to provide meaningful feedback that shaped their development. These proposed standards honored the teaching of literature and the arts, while downplaying the role of standardized tests. Perhaps most important of all, the standards considered the stages of childhood development.  They also recognized the challenges faced by English language learners by developing English Language Arts and English as a Second Language standards together.  Clearly there was, and still could be, an alternative to the Common Core.

Unfortunately, “no we won’t” stop spending money on fixing the unfixable in New York State appears to be the game plan.  The New York State Education Department is now recruiting teachers from across the state, to be paid full salary at taxpayers’ expense, to fix the modules they bought for more than $28 million.

The cut from the right came from Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriter, Peggy Noonan.  Her biting critique in the Wall Street Journal, entitled, The Trouble with Common Core, provided a conservative’s perspective devoid of Tea Party rhetoric. Referring to the reformers as “educationalists,” she characterized Common Corers as well-meaning folk who fell in love “with an abstract notion without considering whether and how national standards could work.”

Ouch. Like the physicist who reminds us that time matters only in the real world, Noonan accuses the educationalists of not considering the real life fallout from those who are suspicious of federal control. She then tells readers that parents, like Louis C.K., are more than smart enough to know junk when they see it.

Still the defenders of the Common Core battle on. The response to Noonan came from the conservative Thomas Fordham Institute. Checker Finn wrote their “no we won’t” rejoinder on the Common Core Watch blog.  Finn begins with the usual “she gives no alternative” defense as though state standards, some of which received high praise from the Fordham Institute itself, never existed.  This was followed by the “special interests” argument, but Finn goes beyond the usual claim that opposition comes from the extreme left and right.

Finn identifies the push back as coming not from parents but rather from “formidable interest groups…I have in mind textbook publishers, test-makers, teachers unions and political opportunists of every sort, lately and most prominently of the tea party persuasion, who will do and say anything to take down Obama and everything he’s for.”

Including “textbook publishers and test-makers” to the Common Core’s enemies list is certainly a new twist.  Are we to believe that Pearson, the largest producers of all things Common Core, including the tests, is secretly plotting the Common Core’s demise?  Is the test-making, publishing giant, McGraw-Hill, in on the plot?  Did I miss that episode of “24”?

Peggy Noonan is correct when she identifies pushback as coming from smart parents. And former Regent Saul Cohen is right when he refers to the present state of reform as “a mess.” The recent estimates of New York Common Core test Opt Outs range from upwards of 33,000 students.  Honestly Mr. Finn, Pearson employees just do not have that many kids in New York’s public schools.

It’s time to put the fork in the Common Core goose–it’s done. There are no golden eggs to be had.  “No we won’t” is getting old as a response.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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