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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Common Core: Haven't We Been Here Before?

Dr. Allen Mendler

Author, speaker, educator

In watching the NFL draft recently, I was struck at how much attention and money is spent "breaking down" every player: how they run, jump, throw and move. Even the size of virtually every body part is fully analyzed. They are interviewed, as are their previous coaches and other important adults, to learn as much as possible about flaws and strengths. Much depends on getting things right for both the team and the player. The stakes are high. Yet with all the analysis, there are plenty of mistakes. Some "can't miss" prospects do miss, and others who weren't even drafted become stars. Most fall somewhere in between. Having standards that try to measure the likelihood of a player's success on a football field is inexact at best -- as much art as it is science.

So it is with the Common Core State Standards, the latest iteration of the standards we use in school that try to predict career success. Yet all too often, they are presented as the solution to all the underachieving that burdens our students and schools. Understanding what makes people successful so it can be replicated with certainty is as impossible with football players as it is with students. And testing to see if someone is measuring up to the standards will produce mixed results at best.

A New 800-Pound Gorilla

Pardon my skepticism, but it feels like we have been here before with earlier programs designed to address concerns about failing schools, like A Nation at Risk and No Child Left Behind. This time, however, there are higher stakes for educators, since many states and districts are tying student test performance to teacher evaluation -- which largely misses the boat. So while we have a new acronym (CCSS replacing NCLB), I have my deep doubts that these standards will truly transform education and make our students more "career and college ready." The Common Core Standards will do nothing to enhance the achievement of students in schools that lack the will or resources needed to deal with a preponderance of kids who can't relate to the importance of school because they don't see it in their own lives. Short of solving the many social ills that affect learning, what does make a difference is:

  1. Surrounding needy kids with others who are ready to learn and expected to go to college
  2. Leading them with knowledgeable and caring educators
  3. Creating a culture of high expectations that gets its students to believe there is something better, and that education is the key to access it

The Common Core is an impressive array of well-considered standards that students are expected to learn in order to achieve career and college readiness. When viewed as a set of guidelines that point to a goal and that allows for some give and take, standards can be very helpful. And I believe that was the intention of the developers. Unfortunately, it seems the CCSS have instead become the 800-pound gorilla, feared by many, understood by few and naively viewed as the latest salvation for the problem of our "failing schools."

More Specifics, Please

A major problem is ambiguity. While there are examples and suggestions of lessons that align with the standards, actual curriculum development is left to local educators. I applaud the respect to professionalism offered by that flexibility, but the "common core" is so broad and all-encompassing that you can "align" virtually anything you teach, and any way you teach it, to one or more of the standards. In fact, a wave of self-proclaimed experts has emerged to engage weary classroom teachers with a proliferation of books and seminars whose often-conflicting examples of lesson plans are all purportedly compatible with the Common Core.

Making things even muddier, end-of-year tests used increasingly in teacher evaluation are developed externally and may therefore be largely unrelated to what was actually taught.

Finally, while the standards purport to get students more college and career ready, there is simply no research that supports the mastery of any one academic curriculum versus another to best prepare students for overall career or college readiness. For example, it seems like a no-brainer to know that teaching the intricacies of electricity is necessary for a future electrician. However, it is far less clear that giving sixth graders a project on key Civil War battles that requires them to incorporate critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity (elements of a good lesson according to the Common Core) will better prepare them for college or a career.

Better Results?

Interestingly, there is growing pushback to Common Core from state legislatures that is largely due to their having had no input in developing the standards. It remains to be seen how that plays out, but until then, it seems that the Common Core's greatest contribution to date has been establishing a new rallying cry, albeit one with a familiar sound. Like NCLB and other previously promised panaceas, the cost is high-stakes, time-consuming tests culminating in teacher dread, parental confusion and some combination of student anxiety for kids who are achievement-motivated and indifference for those who are not.

Perhaps we would see better results if we took the proliferation of motivational assemblies and other incentives used to rally kids come test time, and traded them for increased support for stressed-out teachers throughout the year, helping them sustain the energy to make better use of known strategies that make kids want to come to school and do well. The best recipe for success is a mix of a little innate skill and a lot of intangibles that can't be measured, like the drive to succeed and the willingness to sacrifice, guided by the presence of a trusted adult who believes in you and shows you the way.

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Raylean Allen's picture
Raylean Allen
Second Grade Teacher

How successful can we be at educating our children as long as the people outside of education continue to make policies for education because they sound good in theory or look good on paper? Sometime it feels as if public school students are in a petri dish subjected to experiment after experiment. Educators, who are expert in the field of education, should be involved in policy making. I do not understand why this is not the case.

Eric J Pollock's picture
Eric J Pollock
AP English Literature Teacher at CheongShim International Academy, Korea

I am surprised that this is even under the heading of assessment. Anyway, I am not so sure that this will be better than anything less that has happened in education over the last 25 years. I saw the preview of the first wave of assessments, and if all it is is mostly multiple choice, then I think the CCSS have a long way to go. If all this is for is to say that we want more critical thinking skills but then boil answers down to one right out of five possible choices, I think it might be moving simply in a lateral direction.

ericpollock@yahoo.com

Cville Teacher's picture

CCSS does not equal NCLB or "A Nation at Risk." The latter were mandates imposed by the federal government in an attempt to set student achievement targets without defining the standards by which those goals would be attained. Common Core, on the other hand, is not a punitive system, but a system of standards to, hopefully, guide curriculum and instruction.

We cannot assume that adoption of Common Core standards will lead to further high-stakes testing, punitive school and teacher sanctions, and prescribed teaching and learning. While I agree that the Common Core could be problematic if they are imposed with a testing regime like those associated with NCLB, this is not a foregone conclusion. Indeed, the Common Core standards may provide an alternative to high-states testing regimes, an alternative that focuses on standards with the potential for local school systems to create their own methods for assessing student growth and development in a more authentic and enriching manner.

mvilleteach's picture
mvilleteach
Special Ed

Raylean you are exactly right...my colleagues and I always say our job would be so much better if the guys in suits weren't sitting behind a desk calling the shots. I have little faith in the idea that these people actually have been in a classroom.
The CCSS and Extended Standards are quite the burden as the Dr.'s blog said. I agree they just make things muddier rather than better. Interesting point that there is a lack of research to support any curricula over another. These CCSS drive our curriculum so our hands are tied as far as what we can teach even in special ed now due to the extended standards. I support the idea to focus our energy on supporting and guiding students and creating that drive for them to want to come to school. If we don't create such an environment these single end of the year assessments over the CCSS won't prove how remarkable the students really are.

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator
Blogger

Let's hope that CCSS leads to an alternative to high-stakes testing as suggested by Cville Teacher. but until that is shown, the current frenzy around common core is like the Surgeon General mandating a new cancer treatment before one scintilla of evidence is shown of its efficacy. No thoughtful person would stand for that! How about waiting until well designed pilot programs using CCSS show promise before following the new wave of experts who purport to know but who have yet to demonstrate effectiveness. I grow tired of unproven 'holy-grail' proclamations within the world of education.

Eric J Pollock's picture
Eric J Pollock
AP English Literature Teacher at CheongShim International Academy, Korea

Unfortunately, the CCSS has become its own high-stakes testing. If anyone has seen the new exams that were just rolled out, they are the new standardized tests. People are already planning how to teach to the test, and in a few months teams of people will be developing algorithms to defeat the tests like people have for the SAT, and it will just be another financial opportunity for people to take advantage of a behemoth system like the CCSS.

ericpollock@yahoo.com

Shelby's picture
Shelby
Special Ed Teacher from Baltimore

I often wonder what this is going to look like a few years down the road. I am worried that no one really knows what is going on and everyone is going to end up doing different things. If the purpose was to provide a common framework for education across the country, then why is there no central guidance? It's just a big mess right now and students and teachers will suffer in the meantime.

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