In Defense of Common Core: A Battle Guide to Defending Education’s Latest Innovation

In the early nineties, a movement began in the states to adopt what was called a “standards-based education.” For example, when I taught 8th Grade Social Studies in California from 2002 to 2005, I was provided a list of subjects and benchmarks I was expected to cover. As a teacher and devoted fan of history and civics, I was pleasantly surprised with the content of these standards (which can be viewed here, beginning on page 33). It is clear the standards were created with a tremendous amount of input, thought, and differing perspectives.

The standards-based movement was designed for several worthwhile reasons including: (1) uniform standards across a state ensure students get all of the important information, as opposed to perhaps learning about the War of 1812 four years in a row, but never getting to the U.S. Constitution; (2) provides guidance to teachers who may have felt rudderless or wished for some direction; (3) assisted with the manufacturers of textbooks so that a book could be designed to match the standards; and (4) makes comparisons of schools within the state simpler (more of an apples to apples comparison) so that we can learn from those schools doing well and provide more support to those schools doing poorly.

Taking a more personal perspective, I am sure anyone reading this can think back to a time in his or her own education when standards would have been useful in one’s own life. My 6thth grade Social Studies was essentially a year of crossword puzzles, hidden pictures, and hanging out with my friends. In 10th Grade Social Studies, we spent every Friday (20% of the instructional time) playing a trivia game. It was a lot of fun (at least for those few 16-year olds into trivia), but had little educational value. I remember my 11th Grade Spanish II class where literally the entire year was spent socializing and then every so often everyone in the class would find the one person who actually completed her workbook (thanks, Sunny!), and we’d copy her answers. By the way, I can’t speak Spanish. When I taught school, I had a colleague who chose to ignore the state standards and spent six weeks doing a 9/11 unit. An important topic to be sure, but I know that meant he never got to Reconstruction, the Industrial Revolution, the Women’s Rights Movement, or World War I. So standards are, if nothing else, a quality-control mechanism. There are now measurable consequences for teachers who utilize such reprehensible lesson planning and/or inadequate pacing. I suspect that in a state relying on state standards and follow-up testing, no administrator would allow such practices to continue. That is progress.

In 2009, the standards movement took a leap forward with a national movement to create national standards, now known as “Common Core.” These efforts were spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. These groups took on the painstaking task of creating a national set of standards in the areas of math (viewable here) and English (viewable here) by reviewing each state’s standards and taking what appeared to work best; interviewing countless teachers and other educational experts; and collecting almost 10,000 comments in two public comment periods. Then, once the standards were drafted, they were submitted to the states for approval (for a detailed account of how the standards were crafted, go here). To date, 44 states and Washington, D.C. have chosen to adopt these standards.

This is exciting! There are many benefits we expect will come about from this. Those include: (1) We will be able to reliably compare all participating states’ education systems. This will allow us to study and emulate those states that produce better results, and assist those producing worse results; (2) Costs to states of standardized testing will shrink considerably as no longer will each state need to create its own tests; (3) By taking the best of the best standards from each state and creating one master set, it appears we will have a single set of standards better than any one state produced by itself; (4) A shared set of standards will make it easier for educators to share curriculum and teaching strategies across the country; and (5) It will assist families that move around the country a lot (e.g., military families) so that their children will be able to pick up pretty close to where they left off in their last school.

While there have been many voices singing the praises of Common Core, I will site just one. Professor William H. Schmidt of Michigan State University described Common Core by saying, “Rather than a fragmented system in which content is ‘a mile wide and an inch deep,’ the new common standards offer the kind of mathematics instruction we see in the top-achieving nations, where students learn to master a few topics each year before moving on to more advanced mathematics.”

Despite these exciting prospects, there is a large and vocal movement in this country that has made it their crusade to discredit the Common Core movement and scare states into opting out of Common Core.

Before proceeding, I will point out that one purpose of this blog is to arm thoughtful people with information to take on loud know-nothings whom we all have the misfortune of coming into contact. This is a challenge. It is a lot easier for a person to form opinions and make up statistics than it is for a person to truly become knowledgeable on a subject. This dichotomy is especially clear with regard to education, a subject prone to people assuming a self-righteous heir because they sat in a public school for 12 years—thereby making them an expert.

The following represents the attacks you can expect to hear against Common Core and why those arguments are weak. The most shared characteristic of the attacks against Common Core is that they are vague and filled with scary language. It really is fear politics at its worst. I will add that I did not create a single one of these arguments as a straw man. Each argument comes from articles criticizing Common Core and encouraging people to fight its implementation. Without further ado, here are the arguments against Common Core:

Argument #1: Common Core was created by “federal bureaucrats.”

The statement is not true. The federal government played no role in the development of the standards. Common Core was a movement led by state leaders, including governors and state education experts, who worked from existing state standards and interviewed teachers, parents, and experts from around the country. Creation and implementation of Common Core has been funded in large part (to the tune of $170 million) by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—again, hardly federal bureaucrats.

Argument #2: Common Core disrespects teachers by telling them how to do their job and telling them how to teach, which will also stifle teacher innovation.

This is perhaps the biggest misconception about a standards-based education. Common Core tells teachers what to teach, not how to teach. To put it in education terms, Common Core represents content, not curriculum. Teachers are still able (and required!) to create their own curriculum for how they teach the information contained within the standards.

For example, the state standards I was required to follow discussed the importance of teaching the U.S. Civil War and certain aspects of the war on which my students should become knowledgeable. Nowhere did it say how I should teach it. I took it upon myself to turn my Civil War unit into a six-week role play in which the students marched outside; stood in formation to start and end class; assumed the identity of a Civil War person (some as spies); and countless other tasks. The kids learned a ton, and it was the most fun unit the class had all year. To teach civics, I had the kids watch the State of the Union address every year (even though it was always President Bush when I taught); had them form mock election teams for presidential candidates; and had them volunteer at local campaign headquarters of their choice in the evenings (for extra credit). Each of these activities fit into the standards I was required to teach, but the way in which I chose to teach those things was very much my own. At no time did I feel restricted or constrained by the standards.

Which goes to a more manifest point, what exactly do these people opposing Common Core want taught that is not getting taught? Would they prefer geometry be skipped? Or is there a new field of math they know about that isn’t being covered? If someone has a problem with Common Core, challenge them to provide specifics. Spoiler alert: they won’t be able to.

Argument #3: Implementation of Common Core will cost $16 billion over the next 7 years.

That sounds like a lot…but it isn’t. Here’s why. As a nation, we spend about $600 billion a year on public education. Assuming the critics of Common Core are using the correct number, $16 billion in additional costs over the next 7 years represents an increase in education costs of about ¼ of 1%.

The $16 billion figure does not consider that much of the costs will be for new computers for the school that the school likely would have, or should have, purchased anyway. The $16 billion estimate also fails to consider the cost savings to the states which will no longer need to create their own tests every year.

The other problem with the financial argument is that it makes no consideration for the possibility that Common Core may produce tremendous results. If that is the case, we would surely be willing to pay much more than ¼ of 1% of our education budget to make it happen.

Argument #4: The transition to Common Core standards is going to be difficult on teachers, and will encourage some to leave the profession rather than change how they teach.

This critique is not entirely without merit. Public school teachers have to put up with a lot of shit. No question. It seems every year they have a new hoop to jump through or some new fandangled program they have to work through. I get it. I lived it. It’s not fun.

With that said, let’s step back for a minute and understand why things keep changing in education. It is because we have the most expensive education system in the world that produces a result that pleases no one (a system where we are average or below average in math, reading, and science as compared to other industrialized nations). A new way of doing things means someone has a new plan for improving an expensive system that is not working as well as we would like. Changes should come and we should welcome those changes. Educators are quick to point to those changes that were tossed aside, but no so quick to recognize those changes that have made real improvements. For example, I know that after the Columbine shooting in 1999, bullying awareness became all the rage. Teachers and students were required to sit through classes and seminars and talk about it in their classrooms. Well you know what? It made a positive difference. As a middle school teacher, I saw those changes. As a parent, I see those changes in my children’s school. That is a success story.

We need to all recognize that every part of our society and life is (or at least should be) a social experiment. We should always be trying new ways of doing old things. If a new way of doing something doesn’t work (as Common Core may not work), we toss it aside. If it does work, we incorporate it into our lives and look for the next best way to build a better mousetrap. If an educator does not approve of change or innovation and wants to move on, I say, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” This does not mean legislators and policymakers get to abuse teachers, but teachers need to appreciate that the field in which they work, is one that will constantly require tinkering. The only truly crazy plan is to change nothing about an education system that makes no one happy.

Argument #5: Specific problems with the standards.

This is probably the rarest of arguments against Common Core because it requires an actual reading and consideration of the standards. For example, some have argued that Algebra I is being taught in the wrong order or that the English standards do not place enough of an emphasis on the great classics. To this argument, I say, “Welcome!” While reasonable minds can certainly disagree about the content of each standard within Common Core, a disagreement over the precise language of a particular standard is not an argument to scrap a standards-based approach to education. Rather, I would submit that these are precisely the types of discussions we should be having every year. These standards should be tinkered with as the years pass, and we obtain more information and feedback.

Argument #6: Common Core standards are too vague and broad.

This is an example of the Common Core opponents trying to have it both ways. Which is it? Are the standards taking over the lives of teachers, or are they too vague and broad? The answer is neither. The standards are quite specific with respect to content to be taught, but intentionally vague with respect to curriculum (i.e., how the content is to be taught). I think most people would agree that is a reasonable approach.

Argument #7: The Common Core standards are an averaging of the various state standards. This means that some states are going to be dumbing down what they are teaching.

This argument misrepresents how the national standards were adopted. An average was not taken of the existing standards (I am not even sure how that would be possible). As stated above, Common Core attempted to take the best of the 50 states’ standards and create one model. To look at one and say it is easier than the other, is misguided. I would challenge anyone to look at the Common Core standards and ask yourself if you would be unhappy if your child only learned what was in those standards. There is a ton of information in there. If your son or daughter mastered the Common Core standards by 12th Grade, they would be ready for college, without question.

Argument #8: Common Core requires that Americans lose more privacy as we turn over even more information for the federal government to data mine.

Are you scared? There was a lot of spooky language in there? Data mine? Loss of privacy? Federal government? What these people are referring to is that the results of student information (e.g., demographics, test scores) will be tabulated and studied. Remember though, this information is already being tabulated by your state. State adoption of Common Core simply means the information (presumably without identifying fields such as name, address, phone number) will be shared amongst researchers and education experts at private institutions and all levels of government. This is not so Big Brother can…actually, I am not sure what nefarious plot could be carried out with children’s test scores.

Information is key to understanding what works in education and what does not work. The more information we have the better. If a person is concerned this information could be used in some way that would adversely impact our rights, let’s talk about that. Let’s put appropriate safeguards in place. The solution is not to stick our heads in the sand on education, and keep all of us willfully ignorant in order to protect us from a paranoia-induced bogeyman.

Argument #9: Common Core forces teachers to “teach to the test.”

This is an argument I have never understood. The test reflects the standards the students are to learn. That being the case, yes, please teach to the test. As Comedian Daniel Tosh reminds us, some people that do poorly on tests need to be reminded that tests are that part of education where we find out what you know. Unless a person has a mental handicap or impairment, teaching to the test and teaching the standards (which I encourage everyone to review—links provided above) are the same thing, and both good. If a teacher is not teaching to the test, what are they teaching to?

People also complain (perhaps justifiably so) that our children are being tested too much. That may be the case, but that does not change because of Common Core. Students are already being tested a great deal, and Common Core actually attempts to address this problem by introducing innovative testing that will ask students for not just the answer, but also how they arrived at the answer and to defend the answer. This is another area that we can expect will be constantly tweaked so as to refine Common Core and make it more effective.

Argument #10: Common Core ignores the root of poor student performance, which is poverty.

This is the one criticism of Common Core that truly holds merit. It is completely true that poverty is the biggest indicator of a poor education and Common Core does nothing about that. With that said…so? Are we really going to take the position that because we can’t fix every problem with education that we won’t fix any problem with education? While eliminating poverty would be great, and something we should always be striving to do, let’s not wait to solve that behemoth before tackling others.

Argument #11: No fair. States were forced into adopting Common Core against their will.

Not true. No state was forced to adopt Common Core. The federal government cannot force a state to adopt educational standards. What the federal government did do was tell each state that it would be easier to obtain federal grants if the state adopted Common Core. Was it a bribe of sorts? Sure, just the same way the federal government tells states that if they want highway dollars, they had better make their minimum drinking age 21. This is nothing new, and it is not a huge deal. In fact, five states have not adopted Common Core and one state (Indiana) adopted it, but then changed its mind and opted out—something any state can do at any time.

The Crazy and Dishonest Arguments: Common Core prohibits free thinking; This is an attempt by Obama to indoctrinate kids; This is another step in our march towards Communism; etc.

To anyone who actually entertains this lunacy for any increment of time, I encourage you to actually read the standards (again, math here, and English here). I am sure you will find them quite reasonable, and follows an outline of study you would be fine with your children learning.

The Funny Argument: Standard is another word for “like everyone else.”

Yes, because when I taught the Revolutionary War, I was quite upset that I knew tens of thousands of teachers were teaching the same subject matter that year. I wanted my own unique historical events to teach, just as I assume the math teachers wanted their own sets of numbers and the English teachers wanted their own alphabets. Teaching is so boring when I have to teach the same stuff as everyone else.

More seriously for a minute, this goes back to the content versus curriculum distinction…a distinction that matters a great deal. Everyone learning to read does not make everyone the same. Quite the contrary is true. Education provides people with the tools to think critically, reach their full potential, and lead happy and successful lives.

The “Puke-Inducing” Argument: “The Common Core Standards’ stated aim—‘success in college and careers’—is at best pedestrian, at worst an affront. The young should be exploring the potentials of humanness.”

I am not kidding someone actually wrote this. You can see it with your own eyes here. I have nothing to add to this. I just thought it was worth sharing so those advocating for Common Core can see the degree of self-righteousness and misplaced self-assuredness they are up against. 

It is my hope that this piece has provided you with two valuable things next time you hear an old person rail against Common Core (they are usually old). The first is the knowledge to remain calm in the face of such terrifying claims that the sky is falling, and the second is the knowledge to rebut these misplaced concerns. Good luck.

– Dylan

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One Response to “In Defense of Common Core: A Battle Guide to Defending Education’s Latest Innovation”

  1. A reader of this blog asked me to review this article and let her know if it changed any of my thoughts. Short answer: definitely not. The longer answer is below the link.

    http://www.lynnerigby.com/blog/2014/05/why-i-am-pulling-my-kids-from-public-elementary-school-a-letter-to-the-powers-that-be/

    I read the long post, and I gotta say, I am really disappointed. It was really bad—not because I disagreed with it, but because I found it woefully under-researched (or more accurately, not at all researched), sloppy, and not at all thoughtful. It was really just a large collection of random complaints about her children’s schools and only dealt with Common Core tangentially.

    Anyway, I have put together some of the many problems I have with this author’s piece

    1. I have a lot of points to make about this article, but this one pretty much sums up why this article is an example of a well-meaning parent who is essentially a loud know-nothing that we would all be better to ignore. The author writes, “I cannot, in good conscience, allow [my children] to be the guinea pigs for a curriculum that has not been proven.” Now for the cheap seats, “COMMON CORE AND STATE STANDARDS ARE NOT CURRICULUM.” Common Core is content (a critical distinction). How a kindergarten teacher does not understand this blows my mind. Teachers and school districts are 100% free to choose whatever curriculum they want. This is essentially the thesis of her entire piece and it is factually wrong.

    2. When attacking her state’s standards, the author writes, “Shouldn’t our Florida kids learn about things like the Everglades and the delicate ecosystem with our many lakes, springs and oceans or all about hurricanes?” Ummm…they do. The link below is a list of Florida’s state science standards and how one group created a curriculum around them to teach Florida kids about the Everglades. This author very clearly does not understand what state standards are, or how they differ from curriculum, or how any teacher is free to teach them in any way they wish. Her talk of standards taking away teacher’s freedom is completely wrong. As a former middle school teacher, I can tell you first-hand that standards do not limit teacher flexibility (unless the teachers wishes to teach something completely inappropriate—like the six-week 9/11 unit I discussed in my piece). http://www.evergladesplan.org/education/educ_docs/teachers_guide/Appendix.pdf

    3. This article is a very difficult read because it is all over the map. Topics change constantly—many times in the same paragraph. Likewise, the author is constantly, seemingly without noticing herself, careening from complaints with her school district, her state, her country, and then bounces between complaints about poverty, teaching environment, grading systems, and on and on. What is the theme here? How are all these random, vague complaints tied together? And weren’t most of these things true 10 years ago? It sounds like an old geezer that is about to yell at some kids to get off his lawn.

    4. Much of the article goes after curriculum called “Pearson materials.” I have never heard of this and cannot speak to its quality, or lack thereof. The author seems upset the curriculum is not “proven” but what does that even mean? What curriculum is “proven?” If you read my piece, you will understand the difference between content and curriculum, and further understand that Common Core does nothing to control, dictate, or even suggest curriculum. Curriculum is to be decided by local school districts and teachers. If this author does not like the curriculum her child’s teacher has chosen, take it up with the teacher. Her nephew in California is likely getting a completely different experience.

    5. The author writes that “Obama’s ‘Race to the Top’ dictates these tests.” That is not true. That is another example of this woman either being very sloppy with the facts or just being dishonest. These are state tests in a wide array of subjects. Remember, Common Core is only English and Math, and in Florida, only grades K-2.

    6. “If you told me that I had to take 14 hours of testing in a two week period, I’d shut down.” Ummm…the hyperbole is so far off the charts I shouldn’t even have to address it. Assuming her numbers are an accurate representation of Florida’s tests (which I can’t easily do since she did not provide a single link or source for a single fact she asserts), and we further assume the national test will mirror Florida’s test (which we already know it will not), this works out to less than 84 minutes of testing a day. You get 45 minutes in during the morning and 40 minutes in during the afternoon. No…big…deal. I remember my testing in Oregon schools during the 1980s and when we did our standardized testing, we did it in a lot bigger chunks than that.

    7. The mother is upset that Florida’s standards are too strenuous and do not leave time for in depth analysis. That may be a fair point. In California, I concluded there were too many standards, and decided before the year was done that I would not be getting to WWI. That, however, is an argument to reform standards, not abolish them.

    8. Much of the article is filled with, to put it kindly, gibberish. The author writes, “Art and music teachers are being ‘graded’ on how well the kids who come to them once every seven days do on their math and language arts FCAT. That is nonsense.” What does this even mean? In a 3,000 word article, she can’t bother to explain what this means? It seems like an important point. She goes on to write, “The same company who came up with the widely maligned ‘Value Added Model’ for teachers is writing our new standardized test.” Again, what does this mean? What company? And what standardized test? Are we talking Florida or some national test? And the “Value Added Model?” What is it? And who says it is much maligned? We simply have to demand better from people who ask for our attention on important topics. This is just really sloppy and lazy writing.

    I am a strong believer in standards and testing. That doesn’t mean we can’t always make them better and should try to do so, but we shouldn’t toss them aside because they are imperfect. And if someone does want to toss them aside, they have the burden of offering something else up. Like most noisy malcontents, this author offers up nothing but a bunch of diffuse whining.

    – Dylan

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