One Set of Standards to Rule Them All?

I have found that much of the rhetoric around Common Core State Standards are quite mythical. Based on some of the articles, you would have to believe the CCSS represent some dark, underworld’ish effort to bring human-kind under malevolent control. sleeping teacher

One Ring <Common Core Standards> to rule them all,
One Ring <Common Core Standards> to find them,
One Ring <Common Core Standards> to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them.

Beyond that though, the mis-information should be a point of concern to those that value real discourse over regurgitated fallacies, authentic inspection and dialogue over artificial divisiveness and political manipulation. Last week, our own hometown weekly posted an opinion piece by a fellow citizen cautioning our town, and all of California for that matter, to beware the dreaded Common Core State Standards for the types of personal data they are designed to collect for each and every student across the country to create a national database for the government to use in tracking our children. I submitted a rebuttal that was published the following week. In it, I pointed out that Common Core identifies that 6th graders should be able to “Determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.” I trust he understood what I was implying, but perhaps not.

It is important to see the standards for what they are, a set of clear skills that begin with foundational concepts in the areas of Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening, and Math at the early grade levels that then develop in complexity as they move up through grade 12. I think most of them represent reasonable, sound expectations for teachers and kids to be engaged in for a 4th of their school day. (They only represent two subject areas of the 7-8 subjects most schools support on any given day) I don’t agree with the level of rigor of some of the standards introduced at a given grade level, and question whether students who have no interest or inclination in becoming fictional writers should be expected to write creatively enough to utilize “narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.” as a condition of going to college or entering the work-place. Regardless, a real conversation about the standards proves to be elusive when a local political hack or a nationally recognized educational expert like Diane Ravitch who recently wrote an article (The Biggest Fallacy of the Common Core Standards) condemning the new standards on a number of fronts, devolves the conversation into meaningless polarizations tertiary to the standards themselves.

  • They will cause our students to question their own abilities
  • They are written in stone and can not be ammended by states
  • They will marginalize the individuality of a given teacher’s instructional style
  • They will be used to help the government track students’ personal information
  • They will not bolster students’ access to college
  • They will not increase students’ success in careers
  • They will not aid in our country’s economic recovery
  • They will not stimulate more students opting to take Math and Science-based courses
  • They will not help strengthen the security of our nation

She goes on to imply that states like Massachusetts were made to abandon their existing, exemplary standards as a means of securing large amounts of federal money in a manipulative move made by the US Dept. of Education. No they were not. States (including Mass.) participated and led in the very development of these standards, and were even then allowed to autonomously:

  1. review them against their existing standards and consider adopting them as is,
  2. take the CCSS and further modify them by up to 15% and then adopt,
  3. revise their own standards to make them at least as rigorous as the CCSS, or
  4. independently determine that their own existing standards are as, or more rigorous than the CCSS and document that analysis as proof

In the end, the claims lambasting the Common Core State Standards are not synonymous with the central rationale forwarded by the politically pluralistic team that created them . The Core Standards authors have openly made their mission statement available for all to review from the beginning:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

We have worked with many of the “CCSS insiders” in various capacities and do know that years of work went into reviewing a number of state’s existing standards considered to be the best in our nation. The teams reviewing those standards were made up of a cross-section of pre-K to post-secondary educators, educational leaders, business and industry leaders, and were all gathered at the request of state governors and states’ schools superintendents from both red and blue states equally. They were asked to take the best of the existing academic standards for schools, keep what was still relevant, remove what was archaic, revise and add skills necessary to both aid students interested in attending college and ultimately in participating in the types of 21st century careers needed to keep our country competitive economically. I will admit that, with the diversity of people serving on these teams, I quietly assumed that they would stale-mate on almost all levels due to long-standing political and philosophical differences. In retrospect, it is both quite amazing that did not happen and at the same time, quite believable they were able to accomplish a very rare unity of purpose in developing these standards.

What all seemed to recognize as one of the biggest detriments of our current education system was the severe disparity in academic expectations existing across schools from state to state. Some students were required to take at least 3 full years of math including Algebra and Geometry as a graduation requirement while others were allowed to exit our K-12 system with a rudimentary understanding of multiplication and basic fractions. While some districts required students to read and write with an eye for critical and factual analysis and at the same time include in their schedule at least two years of fine or technical arts ranging from graphic design to welding, other schools cut most of the liberal and industrial arts programs that spoke to students’ own interests and aptitudes. The bi-partisan work unified long-time political opponents and competing educational theorists in assuring that every student, including those attending Armite Elementary in rural Liberty Mississippi, or Sonora High School in the foothills of central California, or P.S. 179 in the heart of South Bronx have similar expectations and skills that their teachers and educational institutions are expected to provide them. These standards do not represent a set of subversive skills, as claimed by folks like Karen Bracken who heads up Tennessee Against Common Core, but largely resemble much of what any parent would want their student to encounter as part of a well-developed education:

  • 1st Grade Reading: Describe characters, settings, and major events in a story, using key details.
  • 3rd Grade Math: Represent and solve problems involving multiplication and division.
  • 6th Grade Writing: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
  • High School Math: Use volume formulas for cylinders, pyramids, cones, and spheres to solve problems.

As I stated earlier, I am not in love with all of these standards and feel like the measures in place to discuss and debate them should be exercised by concerned and informed citizens. I would merely ask that anyone interested in reading articles regarding the standards (pro or con) should spend at least the same amount of time reading the standards themselves. And those penning opinions should definitely consider keeping the ink in their instruments until their basis of understanding is more fact than fiction.

I do not see the standards as perfect yet, but I do see them as hope. Hope that each child’s school can be tailored to fit the aspirations of its community, framed to support the values of its families, and at the same time adhere to some “common” expectations that provide all students a pathway to the academic skills and competencies that are advantageous to gaining access to college and/or a respectable wage in a meaningful profession. And while they obviously don’t assure those things will happen in and of themselves, they do set a framework to assure that the opportunity exists regardless of where a given school is and how it is. They acknowledge that each student can and should be allowed access to dream without being inhibited at the outset by the thinking and the borders of the community in which they live. And that is worth examining and discussing with more legitimacy and less rhetoric.