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The Common Core: Haven't We Been Here Before?

Dr. Allen Mendler

Author, speaker, educator
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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

Well, unfortunately, in my district, a test is already in the development stage to assess the students on Common Core Curriculum. They have already rolled out scripted "exemplar" lessons that are to be taught with fidelity. I find it ironic that no one seems to understand "one size does not fit all."

These types of practices seem to negate the fact that teaching all students are different. Children have different backgrounds and exposure and need to be taught accordingly. I find it quite disheartening to see people who are suppose to be experts continuously promoting practices on a trial and error basis.

It would be more effective to develop professional learning communities with the goal of making sure that all student learn. This would be more effective than what is currently taking place.

The common core may look good on paper and have what appears to be endless potential to expose students to rigorous activities and practices, but how effective it will be remains to be seen.

Cathy K's picture
Cathy K
High School Special Education Teacher

At first I didn't want to read this blog post. Educators are always complaining about good ideas. But then I read:

...what does make a difference is:

Surrounding needy kids with others who are ready to learn and expected to go to college

Leading them with knowledgeable and caring educators

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

I have thought a similar thing. Why do educational reforms never address quality instruction or the social impact teachers have on students.

Quality instruction can be addressed and I believe that there has been a gradual improvement in quality instruction since A Nation at Risk. I believe that most educators start as caring adults but with the demands thrown at us many seem to become callused. How can we address that problem?

Megan C.'s picture
Megan C.
Fourth Grade General Education Teacher

I am very impressed with the words of Dr. Mendler regarding CCSS. Just as he wrote, curriculum development is often left to local educators, such as myself. With only a few years of teaching experience, my school district expected me to not only research CCSS, but to develop a Mathematics curriculum for one unit based on the new standards. With few guidelines and no clarity, I spent hours planning a unit that was supposed to be common core aligned. I had very little curriculum writing experience prior to this. I was uncomfortable to begin teaching the unit because I knew it was not any better than the previous curriculum. After teaching the unit, I felt it lacked in many areas. After hearing the same results from many other teachers, my district decided to stop having teachers spend countless hours developing a new curriculum. Instead, they purchased new textbooks supposedly aligned to common core. I feel frustrated at the time wasted teaching an experimental unit. Time would have been better spent teaching a proven curriculum.
Children are being treated as guinea pigs for experimental lessons, programs, and curricula. Who is to say the new CCSS will improve education? I truly hope they do because it would be terrible to have a group of children with an education not as preparatory as those in the past. As stated in the blog, virtually anything can be aligned to common core because it is so vague. Rather than jumping on another bandwagon, I feel more research is needed to prove CCSS will better prepare our students.

Jenna Stoddard's picture
Jenna Stoddard
3rd Grade Teacher from Wellsville, Ohio


Being a new teacher I have found myself poundering quite often who makes these decisions and have they ever spent time in a classroom? I too think current educators should be involved in the policy making process. I think those people outside of education have only seen the most ideal of classrooms. It would be a real eye opener if some of them stepped into my shoes for a day.

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

Sorry for the long delay in responding Cathy. I get that it is easy to become "calloused" with all the demands thrown your way. The challenge is for educators to remind ourselves that if our goal is student success and we believe that caring is connected to that success, then expressing caring about our students in demonstrative ways is part of our job. We need to think like a great athlete who brings his "A" game every day even if he doesn't always feel like it.

porsche's picture
5th language arts/social studies from NE Ohio

I feel the same about the Common Core. They have been here before, but with a different name. College and Career Ready? What about the students who have zero interest in College or a professional career? Why can't schools offer tracks? One set of classes prepares you for college and career and the other is just for life skills/general education/technical skills? Let's face it, not all people are interested in receiving an education. I teach every day as if they will all become the next president, but by 7th grade, they deserve a choice.

Kendra's picture
3rd grade teacher from Tennessee

I really enjoyed this article! A few things come to my mind while reading. I completely agree with the idea of nuturing a child both academically and socially. I believe that a child will be succeed as long as he/she feels safe and loved. Acheivement and growth will also follow when these emotional needs of the students are met. The school that I teach at has recently adopted a college readiness program that plants the seed of college awareness in all of our students. We want every child in our building to realize that he/she can attend college. We focus on 6 character traits that teach children to be better behaved, in the classroom and out, which has also had a postitve effect on our staff. We all have a belief of universal acheivement and are committed to doing whatever it takes to help our students succeed in the classroom and life in general. The one good thing that I have witnessed since switching to common core standards has been the unified community of educators and schools. We all are responsible for the same cirriculum and feel the pressure of accountability. These standards are very deep and require many skills to master them. Personally, I am content with these since all of the skills that common core requires are also the skills that our students will need to succeed in high school and college. Everything is new to everyone and we will all be very happy when the kinks are worked out. One of the issues I am concerned with is the comprehensive end-of-year state assessments and how they will incorporate common core standards. Thanks again for this post! It is refreshing to read a post that is aligned with something near and dear to me as an educator!

Sue J's picture

by the way ...
callous -- the adjective for describing being insensitive
callus - hard covering like my fingertips from the guitar
callused -- when we have gotten that too-thick skin; akin to "burnout."

I, too, found the specific reference to getting kids in with successful kids, etc. the part of the article that resonated most with me (and my background is also special ed). It is extremely difficult to care -- *and* to be in a situation where it is completely impossible to do my job. "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" -- it's really hard to do that without the resources to facilitate reaching those expectations.

Dr. Michael Ben-Chaim's picture
Dr. Michael Ben-Chaim
Literacy specialist

How the Common Core Standards Lie

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been widely presented as a once-in-a-generation initiative to upgrade basic skills in literacy and math in public education. Already adopted by forty-five states and the District of Columbia, CCSS initiative is the most recent nationwide phase in school reform that, so far, has failed to demonstrate the path to progress in American public education. Last year, for example, reading scores on the SAT reached a four-decade low, down one point from the previous year and 34 points since 1972. These recent results reaffirm a major report by the National Endowment for the Arts dating from 2007, warning that "there is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans." It may take years to ascertain the success of the implementation of CCSS; but now is the time to question their promised efficacy to bring about much-needed change in the level of literacy education in public schools.

A close and critical reading of CCSS for English language arts shows how they lie on an inadequate notion of literacy, and reading in particular, that will most likely mislead teachers and students alike. According to this notion, texts are containers of knowledge and students are workers who are expected to unpack them as thoroughly as possible. As CCSS lead authors David Coleman and Susan Pimentel explain, the Standards "sharpen the focus on the close connection between comprehension of text and acquisition of knowledge" and "make plain that...drawing knowledge from the text itself is the point of reading; reading well means gaining the maximum insight or knowledge possible from each source." What the Standards and their authors fail to take into consideration is that texts are social devices for purposeful organizations of information, rather than mere containers of it. The point of reading is not knowledge acquisition, but rather participation in a social interaction that is mediated by literacy in order to achieve a purpose that the text is designed to serve. Reading, undoubtedly, involves gaining information, but the reader searches for and acquires information as a means to recognizing, appreciating, and achieving the purpose a text is meant to serve.

Students who are not aware of the purpose that the text serves and how it is designed to serve it cannot be intrinsically motivated readers. Blind to the value of the text, they lose sight of the point of gaining knowledge of it. Their emotional and intellectual engagement lessens, their attention to textual details is compromised, and their ability to monitor their comprehension declines. Lacking an intrinsic interest in the text, some students conform to the teacher's expectations as their principal reason for reading. Motivated primarily by the desire to respond correctly to the teacher's questions and assignments, they fail to grasp or even notice why the text is worthy of their attention. Other students find the reading assignment so pointless that they are not even motivated to please their teacher. In either case, the more complex the text is, the more confusing the information they retrieve appears to be. Implementing CCSS is likely to demonstrate once again considerable gaps between expectation and achievement in reading comprehension.

Texts serve a wide variety of purposes. Consider, for example, the difference between a cooking recipe, a parking ticket, and a scientific article. CCSS overlook the great functional diversity of texts in our culture and offers, accordingly, a generic definition of reading as knowledge acquisition. However, the problem of literacy education is specific rather than generic. There is a rapidly growing population of young and older Americans who are enthusiastic and competent users of digital social media literacy, for example, despite, and apparently irrespective of the national records of chronic mediocrity in reading school literature. The average American is a competent Twitter and yet does not know sufficiently well how to recognize, appreciate, and achieve the special purpose school literature is designed to serve. The main reason for this relative ignorance is that standards of literacy education have traditionally been too generic to address this specific knowledge explicitly and methodically. Unfortunately, CCSS reinforce this mistaken and misleading pedagogical custom.

Education has always been predicated on learning from the experience of others. The ultimate and most distinctive purpose of literacy education is cultivating the intellectual abilities of young people by introducing them to the intellectual achievements of past generations. The point of reading at school is learning from example rather than answering questions that are prefabricated in compliance with standards of education administrators. Like the tools of physical education, the poem and the scientific article offer exemplary exercises that are embedded in the virtual world they help readers to recreate. Their language is organized to display, on the one hand, dissonant experiences, contrasting opinions, or conflicting assumptions and beliefs; and, on the other, the resources to reconcile conceptual tensions by articulating more coherent, nuanced, and encompassing modes of thought and ideas.
Far from being a mere container of information, the educational text is the real instructor in the classroom. It is our best available means to learn how to question what is often taken for granted, revise and expand habits of thought and beliefs, organize and analyze ideas in ways that offer new perspectives on phenomena, articulate reasons for or against views of public concern, or develop theories and narratives that shed new light on human life and its habitats. The role of the classroom teacher is to help her or his students realize the educational value of the text in accordance with their personal abilities and life experiences.

Reading at school is and ought to be the student's personal investment in our shared intellectual assets. When a text is recognized by a community of adult readers as an intellectual asset, a younger generation of students can capitalizes on it by learning to use it to realize their innate intellectual abilities and the value of their cultural heritage. Public education must be regulated, but the endeavor to standardize it should not take priority over the intergenerational transmission of learning.

Michael Ben-Chaim

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