Common Core: Myths, questions and answers

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WASHINGTON, April 13, 2014 — Common Core is one of the most hotly debated issues of the day.

On the one side are advocates, who say Common Core provides a strong standard that will raise the tragically failing education level in this country. They laud the program for providing basic mileposts that students in each grade level must meet to move ahead.

They say the program is designed to encourage educators to help struggling children meet the standards, leaving fewer students unprepared for the next grade level and higher education. The standards, in theory, will allow colleges to assess each student equally, knowing they have achieved the same standards even if they used different materials to meet those standards.

For detractors, however, Common Core is an imposed set of standards dictated by the federal government. Their concerns center on neutering teacher and parent input into the educational system. They also express concern over what they see as a one-size-fits-all approach to the learning process and education.

Unions have expressed mixed views over the standards. According to a National Education Association poll, most members of the NEA support the standards, but others have serious concerns. One question is whether unions will have the ability to protect members from termination if their students fail to meet minimum standards. Their concern is that unions will no longer have sway over firing of their members.

The viscous vitriol from both sides makes it difficult to find unbiased facts about Common Core. While there are numerous questions and misconceptions about Common Core, here are a few of the most often discussed:

Is Common Core a Federal Program?

Traditionally, education has been the purview of individual states. The Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, considered public education extremely important, but intentionally did not include any provisions about education in the Constitution. Any issue not specifically noted as a federal power in the Constitution is allocated to the states, so education falls under individual states.

Moreover, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act forbids the Federal government from intervening in school curriculum development.

However, federal involvement in education hit its peak in 2001, when then-President George W. Bush proposed the No Child Left Behind Act. Congress passed the bill and President Bush signed it into law in January 2002. Under that Act, all schools receiving federal funding were required to assess students with an annual standardized test.

Common Core was developed under the auspices of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers starting in 2007. The intent was to create a national standard to reduce differences in programs between states. Each state voluntarily decides whether to accept the standard. Some states have rejected the program all together, and others have adopted only parts.

Common Core is not tied to No Child Left Behind or any other federal initiative, including Race to the Top. The Race to the Top initiative awarded more than $4 billion in federal grants to states that showed a commitment to education reform and innovation. The federal government does give a competitive advantage to Race to the Top applicants that demonstrate they are implementing a standard that prepares all students for college or career, and Common Core meets that requirement.

The bottom line: Common Core is not officially a federal program and is not administered by the federal government. The Obama Administration is, however, strongly supporting the program and is pressuring states to adopt it, using federal funds to incentivize its acceptance.

The standards are aimed at creating a national, comprehensive standard across states.

Does Common Core Neuter the Role of Teachers?

Because Common Core is not specifically a curriculum (see below), it does not specifically tell teachers how or what to teach. The information from Common Core says, “Schools and teachers will decide how best to help students reach the standards.”

Common Core provides “guidance” but requires teachers to select their own materials and decide their own method of presenting the information.

However, because teachers will be working to meet Common Core Standards, and will be under pressure to make sure students meet those standards, there is likely to be a temptation to use Common Core materials. There are materials, instructional approaches, test prep packets and other items specifically tailored to the Common Core, and teachers may find that using those materials gives them a stronger chance of meeting Common Core Standards.

Teachers who do not prepare students to meet the standards could lose their jobs. This doubles the incentive to meet the standards, even if it means using pre-packaged materials.

The bottom line: The idea behind Common Core is to allow teachers flexibility and creativity in meeting standards. The reality, however, may be different. Teachers may find that using a standard, pre-packaged approach allows them to more easily meet the standards, ensuring that students pass the tests and that they maintain their jobs.

What Exactly is in the Common Core Curriculum?

Common Core is not a curriculum, but is a set of standards and of progressional learning milestones. In other words, it does not specify what to teach, but does specify what students at each grade level should know before moving on to the next grade.

For example, it may require students to identify main characters in a story, but does not set which stories to use to teach the standard.

The standard applies only to English/language arts and math. The English standard does require that schools include classic myths and international stories, study of the documents that founded the United States (Constitution, Mayflower Compact, etc.), American literature and Shakespeare.

Math standards progress from a foundation of mathematical calculations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) to applying mathematical concepts to real-world issues.

Part of the goal of Common Core is integration of subject matter across the board. While Common Core does not address history, for example, the goal is for students who are reading The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank to simultaneously study the Holocaust.

The Common Core does not dictate which textbooks schools will use or require specific readings except as listed above (the Constitution and Shakespeare), and does not dictate what stories these kids will be reading or what textbooks schools should use and does not prescribe reading lists, except for a few obvious essentials, again, including America’s founding documents and a bit of Shakespeare.

Also, special programs such as the gifted and talented program will continue and are not impacted by Common Core.

The other side of the argument is that authors of the English/language arts standards also wrote curriculum guidelines for textbook publishers. The pre-packaged lesson plans which meet Core standards include specific texts and readings.

The bottom line: Common Core is not a curriculum, but includes standards and a sequence for teaching those standards. As the Core becomes adopted, however, curriculum’s are likely to develop that are designed specifically to meet Core standards. This could, over time, lead to a single-curriculum – or at least very similar curriculum’s – for each grade level in each state, aimed at providing information to allow students to meet Core standards.

Will Core Standards be Expensive to Implement?

Because states will use the same Common Core standards, they will save money on developing and scoring tests.

However, the implementation process could be expensive. George, for example, says the price for new tests is $2 million more than the existing assessment budget.

Some states also lack funding to upgrade equipment or attain the technical support necessary to create and score the new tests. Many schools lack the bandwidth or operating systems necessary to test large numbers of students simultaneously.

Buying new books, computers and other resources to implement the new standards could also be pricey. Some school districts are purchasing iPads for the Common Core Technology Project, further raising the costs.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute estimates that the national cost for adopting Common Core will run between $1 billion and $8 billion.

The bottom line: No one seems to know exactly how much it will cost to implement Common Core, and each district has different numbers. Regardless, it does seem that at least the initial implementation will carry a heavy price tag, although that may be offset by smaller annual purchasing costs once the Core is in place.

If you strip away the political spin, Common Core appears neither inherently good nor bad. However, there are still numerous unanswered questions and grey areas that need clarification before moving forward.

For example, it remains unclear how much latitude states, school districts and individual schools will have in deciding how to meet standards, and whether those standards are really the best criteria for student success.

The most important objective is ensuring that each student has the best possible opportunity. Every year, students are overlooked or passed over, and leave school without the skills they need to meet educational or career goals.

That has to end.

America needs to take action to make sure our young people are better prepared to reach whatever goals they have.

We need to strip away the political rhetoric and the entrenched interests on both sides of the aisle and take a hard look at Common Core: is it the answer we are looking for? What are the true advantages and disadvantages, and how can we make it better?

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Lisa M. Ruth
Lisa M. Ruth is Editor-in-Chief of CDN. In addition to her editing and leadership duties, she also writes on international events, intelligence, and other topics. She has worked with CDN as a journalist since 2009. Lisa is also President of CTC International Group, Inc., a research and analysis firm in South Florida, providing actionable intelligence to decisionmakers. She started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service. She holds an MA in international relations from the University of Virginia, and a BA in international relations from George Mason University. She also serves as Chairman of the Board of Horses Healing Hearts, and is involved with several other charitable organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and AYSO.
  • thinkingabovemypaygrade

    Seems like they mainly are setting up standard they would like nationalized…but with the possible penalty of teachers losing their jobs.

    A possible unintended consequence…just from my understanding of this article…
    —. Wonder if we will have “selection wars” in picking kids to go in any given classroom (fighting over who gets the smart kids…so the teacher’s job is safer)

    Also. we already have some measurement tools out there. For instance, high schools have the SAT ACT results…to know if they’re generally on target or not.

    In Indiana (which has rejected common core) we have state mandated yearly tests (ISTEP tests) which measure each school’s students. And we have some mandated tests on certain key High School subjects…which thestudent must pass in order to graduate. (For instance, the biology test is late this spring. He must get 70% or better to graduate.)

    So…why does the federal government have to step in?

    • thinkingabovemypaygrade

      And…each college student takes the SAT and/or the ACT. So…the school has a measure there also which is basically national already.

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