Even the strongest supporters of the Common Core State Standards would likely admit if asked that the initiative has not so far turned out as well as hoped. Implementation of the standards has been severely troubled, the testing regime that is supposed to be aligned with the Core is falling apart and increasingly people from different parts of the political spectrum have distanced themselves from the enterprise.
So now what? Where does the Core go from here? In the following post, award-winning New York Principal Carol Burris offers three first steps toward cleaning up the Core mess. Burris has been writing about problems with the controversial school reform efforts and the Core for some time on this blog. (You can read some of her work here, here, here, here, and here.) Last month she participated in a debate about the Common Core, which you can read about 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.
By Carol Burris
Joey Garrison of The Tennessean recently reported that after three years of implementation, support for the Common Core among Tennessee teachers has dramatically dropped. If Common Core familiarity breeds contempt, the proof can be found in the Volunteer State.
Garrison reported on a Vanderbilt University Peabody College of Education and Human Development survey which found that only 35 percent of the teachers “believe that teaching to the standards will improve student learning — compared with 60 percent who said the same last year.”
What was even more surprising was that this was not a case of “we need more assistance with implementation”—56 percent of the 27,000 who responded wanted the state to walk away from the Common Core. An additional 13 percent wanted implementation slowed.
The Tennessee survey mirrors a national trend. An Education Next poll found a drop of 30 points among teachers in one year. Even a Scholastic/Gates Foundation sponsored poll, the only one that finds a majority of teachers still support the Common Core, shows that support has declined.
Those who dismiss this trend as political pushback are wrong. Many teachers are not only the deliverers of the Core, they are the indirect recipients of Common Core instruction as well. They see its effects on their own children, and their frustration with the Common Core is real.
Here is an email I received from one of my teachers whose young children attend a neighboring school district that heavily relies on the Engage NY modules. Commenting on my Answer Sheet post, she wrote:
This is excellent. Thank you for hitting the nail on the head. I went to my daughter’s back-to-school last night. On the board was the day’s schedule. Other than going to music and lunch, the entire day was some form of either reading or math instruction. When science and social studies were discussed as other curricular items in third grade, the parents were told that they would be covered essentially through reading passages as part of the ELA prep. Ugh.”
This email captures one of the many consequences of the Common Core—teachers narrow curriculum as they push students to reach unreasonable “proficiency “ cut scores, which, in New York, were benchmarked to SAT scores that total 1630.
And yet we are told we must forge ahead. The most recent argument given by Common Core supporters, such as the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, is that “the chaos in the classrooms will be great.” And therefore we must “follow through on what we started.”
I remember hearing the same rationale when parents and teachers challenged Whole Language. Luckily, Whole Language was a reading program that districts could modify or abandon. Even so, damage was done. Two of my assistant principals whose children experienced purist Whole Language, still lament the difficulties their now adult children had learning to read. And yes, even as with the Common Core, there were staunch Whole Language defenders. We were told that all teachers needed was the right professional development.
No matter what investments in time or materials have been made, here is the bottom line. The Common Core is a lemon and no amount of professional development will make it run right. As Mike Schmoker recently wrote in an Education Week commentary,
“Nothing could be more futile than doubling down on training, testing, and lesson planning based on the still-bloated, misconceived lists of standards.”
The question that states face, then, is what should they put in place of the Common Core. The logical option of going back to former standards and gradually revising them will earn the wrath and punishment of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as Oklahoma found out after it pulled out of Common Core this past summer and the Education Department decided that the state would lose its waiver from No Child Left Behind. Ohio lawmakers have put forth a bill to adopt the former Massachusetts standards; whether Duncan will approve what were considered the most challenging standards in the United States is anyone’s guess. Logic has not distinguished the Duncan Department of Education.
That does not negate the moral and ethical obligation of state lawmakers and Chief School Officers from doing what is right by students and taxpayers. If I were charged with the task of cleaning up the Common Core (and thankfully I am not), this is how I would begin. While there would be more work to be done, especially in mathematics, these are three relatively simple first steps.
Step 1: Insist that the State Education Department translate each standard into clear language that the public can understand. If the standard can’t be written so that the average parent can understand it, throw it out.
To see what clarity looks like, read the mathematics standards of Finland. You can find them here beginning on page 158. They are clear, concise and jargon free. They explain what students should know, while refraining from directing instruction. These standards are a fine model that has produced outstanding results.
English Language Arts standards also need review. Consider this Grade 8 standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.6, which Schmoker points out in his commentary:
Analyze how the points of view of the characters and audience or reader (e.g. created through the use of dramatic irony) create effects like suspense or humor.
What does it mean and why does it matter?
Step 2: Ask experts on childhood development to review the Pre-K to 3rd grade standards. Standards should be rewritten based on their consensus.
The Common Core has pushed down topics traditionally taught in later grades because of its backwards design approach. States should recruit early childhood learning researchers, psychologists who specialize in early cognitive development, and pediatricians to review the standards and recommend any needed revisions. Children deserve standards that respect their cognitive growth.
Step 3: Reduce the emphasis on informational text, close reading and Lexile levels.
There is no evidence that reading informational text in the early grades will improve reading. Informational text in primary school should be read as a one means of delivering content or included based on student interest. Ratios of 50/50 (informational text/literature) in elementary schools and 70/30 in high school are based on nothing more than breakdowns of text type on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, not on reading research. The force-feeding of informational texts in the primary years is resulting in the decline of hands on learning in science and projects in social studies, as my teacher’s email attests. At the high school level, literature is being pushed out of English Language Arts to make room for informational text. For example, take a look at the readings of Common Core Engage NY curriculum modules for 9th grade. Literature is minimal, replaced by texts such as “Wizard of Lies,” a biography of Bernie Madoff, and articles that include “Sugar Changed the World,” “Animals in Translation” and “Bangladesh Factory Collapse.”
And then there is the overemphasis on close reading in the standards. As Professor Daniel Katz in his carefully developed critique of the Common Core English Language Arts standards notes, “in Common Core, all literary roads lead to close textual analysis.”
According to Professor Katz,
“What Common Core does is take reading literature and purpose it entirely to close textual reading, which is a tool of literary criticism, especially for the New Criticism school of analysis. In New Criticism, the text is treated as self-contained, and it is the job of the reader to investigate it as an object to be understood via the structure of the text and without reference to external resources such as history, culture, psychology or the experiences of the reader.”
There should be a variety of strategies in the readers’ toolbox and students should have varied experiences with text—including (horrors!) reading for pleasure.
Finally, let’s put Lexile levels in perspective. Lexiles are measures of sentence length and word frequency, as determined by a computer program. They do not measure the literary quality and depth of a text. The Common Core obsession with grade level reading is unwarranted. According to lexile level, The Grapes of Wrath and The Sun Also Rises should be read in third or fourth grade. But please wait until 5th grade to read Bubble Homes and Fish Farts.
Correction: Earlier version had incorrect first name of Professor Katz. It is Daniel.