Guest Column: What does Common Core actually mean?

12/14/2013 8:00 AM |

Testing

The term Common Core has been used in these pages and elsewhere to describe the new policies and practices schools are being asked to adopt by the State Education Department. However, Common Core is just one portion of these reforms and, based on what I read in Michael White’s column and the overwhelming parent and teacher response at the education commissioner’s forums and on social media sites, folks are using Common Core as a catch-all term for the entire program. People are actually concerned about the new state assessments, the new teacher evaluation system (called Annual Professional Performance Review, or APPR) and potential profiteering by private corporate interests related to these reforms.

Common Core, on its own, is a relatively benign list of things that a student should know and be able to do by the end of a given school year in a given course. You can review the standards themselves at corestandards.org. These standards were authored by the National Governors’ Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the nonprofit Student Achievement Partners. Do these organizations have agendas? Of course they do. Every advocacy organization does. Are those agendas to steal money and autonomy from school districts? Hardly. Teachers will still be able to do good work in a Common Core classroom just like they were when the concept of standards was first introduced nationally in President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind reform initiative.

Claims that major publishing corporations like Pearson Inc. “wrote the standards” have no merit outside the fantasyland of sites like Breitbart.com  and its ilk. Any publisher worth its salt is aligning old materials and developing new materials to the Core, much as they did when the NCLB standards came out in the early 2000s, but they still must compete for district dollars to purchase those resources. New standards, same old publishing business. If you are interested in seeing a change in where schools spend their money, fighting Common Core is not where I’d spend your time or energy.

Ironically, the Common Core era, combined with the increased availability of inexpensive computer hardware like Chromebooks and tablets, has made it possible for teachers to implement inexpensive or free digital instructional resources, such as Khan Academy, Learnzillion and Brainpop. This movement has publishers like Pearson scrambling to hold on to their textbook and instructional materials revenues, as textbooks become dinosaurs and teachers are easily able to analyze results of a class quiz online and assign individualized activities to each student using a variety of free and open-source instructional programs.

Standards — Common Core or the old state standards — are goals, and teachers plan the path for getting students to the goals. If parents and teachers were only being asked to contemplate Common Core without the rest of the pieces that have come with it, we’d not have a rebellion on our hands. But, as they say, the horses are already out of the barn. Teachers are being given letter grades based on student test scores over which they may or may not have any control. Good teachers are getting disappointing grades and being told they must do better but, in some cases, doing better means magically removing a student’s learning disability, changing a student’s general motivation to take a multiple-choice test, or increasing the amount of exposure to literature and informational texts in a student’s home and family life. The APPR system has few defenders statewide, even in Albany. APPR can easily be removed or revised without disrupting the state department’s other initiatives, including Common Core.

The New York State Testing Program has been much maligned since it added the grades 3-8 assessments during the NCLB era. Pearson has the state testing contract, and there have been all sorts of problems and complications over the years, but Pearson has been making money by selling tests to districts and state departments since the invention of the test and will probably continue to do so throughout the next 100 years of rides on the educational reform roller coaster. In my work, I travel the country visiting with district leaders and educators and I can tell you pretty confidently that no state’s assessment contractor is respected or loved. Swap Pearson for CTB or Riverside Publishing and we’re probably having the same conversation here.

The movement against these reforms would be stronger if it divides and conquers. The State Education Department is not going to abandon its entire agenda, but it is conceivable to see them backing off from some of its components, particularly with such vocal and unanimous resistance across the state. Ask yourself: Would you be OK with a new set of learning goals for your children if the state department eased up on all the testing and if your child’s teacher didn’t feel as if she/he were under attack by the APPR system? Encourage your representatives in Albany to pick one component of the reform agenda and start there.

And give Common Core a second look. Without APPR and the new tests, it’s just a suggested list of things to teach in a given grade level and subject area, not the diabolical evil force it’s been depicted to be.

Doug Roberts is a consultant and entrepreneur in the educational technology sector who describes his work as standards- and publisher-agnostic. He lives in Greenport.