Guest column: It’s time to stop distorting truth about Common Core

By David Musselwhite/Michigan PTA

The Common Core, a comprehensive set of internationally-benchmarked and comprehensive K-12 standards in mathematics and English Language Arts, has fallen prey to exaggerated and dishonest criticism from educators and Washington think tanks. It isn’t difficult to find naysayers who lump the Common Core into arguments against what they call “corporate education reform.”

Common Core critics, in their haste to paint anything related to standardized testing as “the intellectual maiming of an entire generation,” to quote Scott Baker's commentary in Bridge, ignore the many benefits Common Core will provide to teachers, parents, and students.

Before the Common Core, our 50 states created 50 different sets of educational standards, or statements of what students should be able to do after completing a grade level or course. We didn’t have a common set of rigorous expectations for our children. In a country that strives to achieve fairness and equality of opportunity, we were targeting different outcomes for students based solely on where they lived. Not lucky enough to be born in New York, Massachusetts, or another state with high-quality, challenging standards? Too bad.

Aside from raising expectations for the vast majority of our nation’s students, the Common Core encourages collaboration. Using Common Core as a blueprint, teachers can develop lesson plans, materials, and assessments that can be shared widely. This keeps teachers from constantly reinventing the wheel and allows the best methods and tools to rise to the top.

I’ve watched this effect in action with a former colleague of mine. A geometry teacher in Detroit Public Schools, she purchased a set of PowerPoint presentations online for $10. These slides were created by a teacher and aligned completely to the textbook DPS uses and to the Common Core. Instead of spending hours creating PowerPoints, her time can be spent designing engaging activities to reinforce learning, or creating meaningful assessments that reveal gaps in student understanding.

Educators are finding opportunities to work together at all levels. The Tri-State Collaborative, a forum of educational leaders from New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, has created rubrics for evaluating the quality of Common Core-aligned lesson plans and units. Educators working together to improve outcomes – it isn’t “corporate education reform,” it’s common sense.

Parents realize the benefits of Common Core as well – that’s why the National PTA and Michigan PTA have fully endorsed these new standards. For too many parents, moving from one state to another has meant that their children were far ahead of or far behind their peers. The Common Core addresses that concern, which is especially relevant to our military families. In addition, the standards’ focus on clarity means that parents will be able to understand exactly what is being asked of their children, allowing them to assist teachers in preparing students for college and the global work force.

The most common criticism of the standards is that they seek to industrialize teaching and turn students into filing cabinets for knowledge. This could not be further from the truth. It is still the job of teachers to deliver content in ways that engage learners and activate their imaginations.

Standards are not curriculum, they are not scripted lesson plans, and they are not indoctrination. This is not an attempt to enrich testing companies or bring about the end of public education as we know it. The Standards simply seek to raise expectations, make it easier for professional educators to collaborate, and provide better guidance to parents who seek to help their children succeed.

The benefits are already visible. When will these critics start telling the truth?

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Tue, 10/09/2012 - 1:33pm
Oh and here I thought from the title of this article it was going to be the truth. The first line gets it wrong that these were internationally benchmarked. They were not. I quit reading the article but noticed David is with the PTA when I saw his picture caption. National PTA received $2 million from the Gates Foundation to promote Common Core. In fact, the Gates Foundation has put in over $100 million to create and promote Common Core. In fact, the Gates Foundation signed an agreement with UNESCO in 2004 to create a global education system. Common Core is simply part of that agreement the Gates Foundation is working to fulfill.
Scott Baker
Tue, 10/09/2012 - 10:54pm
Do they offer a course in ethics at Cornell, Mr. Musselwhite's alma mater? Besides failing to mention his organization's ties to Bill Gates, he also failed to mention his affiliation with the Broad Foundation funded Teach For America, or TFA (a.k.a. Teacher For Awhile). Apparently he did a brief stint in the Detroit Public schools and is now being groomed as another mouthpiece for the corporate takeover of public education. It pays well, I understand, and is certainly easier than actually teaching. Ask Michelle Rhee.
Wed, 10/10/2012 - 9:03am
As a PTA volunteer, I am not paid one penny for the work I do on behalf of children and families. Additionally, I was a teacher before my affiliation with TFA, and have been a vocal critic of various aspects of the program. It is disheartening to me to see people who claim to care about education playing the same blame game as always, pointing fingers and leveling accusations at other adults instead of thinking about what is best for students. I am in no way an advocate of a corporate takeover of schools, and that statement is not at all inconsistent with my avid support of the Common Core. Students deserve better than the bickering among adults typified by Mr. Baker's comment.
Scott Baker
Wed, 10/10/2012 - 9:27pm
If you truly cared about students, wouldn't you still be in the classroom working with them? There in the trenches you might learn what real education is and how much you don't know about it. You would gain a better appreciation for the advantages you enjoyed growing up - advantages out of reach of millions of students growing up in poverty across the country. The effects of poverty on student achievement are well documented. Just what, exactly, does the latest round of new and improved standards do to mitigate the effects of poverty? Absolutely nothing. Spend 20 years in the classroom working with challenged and challenging children as I have. I'd wager afterwards you would have some original thoughts to offer on the art of teaching and wouldn't have to rely on the same tired, worn out, and thoroughly debunked talking points you've been provided by Mr. Gates and company. I don't care who wrote the standards. I don't care who approves of the standards. I don't care which countries use the standards. If they affect the education of my children, they must pass muster with me - the parent. If the Common Core Standards are worth a damn, than they can come in through the front door, through my local school board, rather than slip in the back via legislative fiat. There is no "conspiracy." The efforts of the National Business Roundtable, Achieve, Inc., the Koch brothers, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and others to undermine public education are well documented. And when Bill Gates' children are sitting next to mine in our little public school, I might be interested in his opinions as to our children's education. Until then, he's at the back of the line. He knows this. That's why he paid the National PTA to do some of his marketing for him.
Tue, 10/09/2012 - 10:17pm
Perhaps Mr. Norton and I have conflicting definitions of "internationally benchmarked?" The authors of the Standards, especially in math, evaluated the content and sequence being taught in various high-performing countries and modeled the Common Core after them, incorporating what we have learned from research about how children learn mathematics. I fail to see how Mr. Norton's comments detract from the fact that the Common Core will be good for parents, teachers, and, above all, students. Conspiracy theories do not drive student achievement -- the consistent, rigorous expectations of the Common Core do.
Chuck Jordan
Wed, 10/10/2012 - 10:06am
There is much to like about the common core curriculum standards, but it is not unreasonable to be wary. With most good ideas, it is how they are implemented over time that measures their value. I particularly like the attention shifting to non-fiction reading and writing. However, I would not like to see the pendulum to shift too far and limit or exclude literary analysis. There is still too much emphasis on standardized testing which again is not bad in of itself, but there need to be other assessments that measure critical thinking and ways to use the knowledge students learn. There also is the variety of good and bad standardized tests and worse the pressure to teach to the test to raise test scores. These concerns are not a misrepresentation of the truth, but legitimate concerns. The common core curriculum standards have the possibility of doing great good, but also great harm. One of the down sides will be that as we raise standards, what happens to poor and minority students who don't measure up, who don't have parents who will support and encourage them. Will the drop out rates increase? Again, these are legitimate concerns that if ignored can do great harm, but if addressed and counteracted can help these students. To ignore the critics of common core curriculum standards is not wise.
Wed, 10/10/2012 - 3:16pm
Thank you for your comments, Mr. Jordan. I agree that many of your concerns need to be addressed, and would not characterize your comments as the dishonest criticisms I was addressing in my column. As for literary texts, they will still be present, though they will become a smaller proportion of focus as students get older. The American Federation of Teachers has wonderful resources on exactly what the shifts in standards look like in both English and math, and I encourage you to seek them out. Many other groups provide similar summaries as well. As for questions of equity, you couldn't be more correct. Without faithful implementation in districts serving large English language learner, special education, and economically disadvantaged populations, we will not see the kinds of gains we might from Common Core. Solving problems in those and many other districts will not be accomplished by the Common Core alone, but with a renewal of common purpose among teachers, school administrators, parents, and communities as a whole. Common Core is not a silver bullet, but it provides educators a common framework from which to build a more successful education system.
Sandra Stotsky
Thu, 10/11/2012 - 2:17pm
Common Core's English Language Arts and Mathematics Standards were nor internationally benchmarked. I was on Common Core's Validation Committee, and we were never provided that information despite regular requests. If David Musselwhite chooses to claim they are, then provide citations to the countries whose curricula were used for international benchmarking. This country deserves first-class standards in both subjects. Common Core's standards are not. No mathematician or literary scholar finds its high school college-readiness standards adequate for admission to credit-bearing coursework at 4-year public or private colleges in this country. In March 2010, at a state board meeting, one of Common Core's math standards-writers told us that college readiness in math meant meeting the requirements for admission to a non-selective community college. Sandra Stotsky
Scott Baker
Thu, 10/11/2012 - 9:58pm
Sandra, This is the first I've heard of a "validation committee." What, exactly, was this? Was it a Dept. of Ed. thing? Scott Baker
Sandra Stotsky
Fri, 10/12/2012 - 1:19pm
CCSSI set up a Validation Committee in the fall of 2009. I was one of about 27 people on it. If you browse around on Common Core's website, you will find a reference to it. Jim Milgram was the only mathematician on it, and I was the only one familiar with ELA standards on it. Among other things, we were to "validate" the standards. Jim and I were among the 5 people who refused to sign off on the final version of the standards, released in June 2010. My letter is available via Google. Here is is: June 6, 2010 Mitchell Chester, Commissioner of Education, Massachusetts Charles Quigley, Center for Civic Education Susan Wolfson, Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers Vance Ablott, Triangle Coalition Michael Petrilli, Thomas B. Fordham Institute William Gorth, Pearson Evaluation Systems David Saba, American Board for Certification in Teacher Excellence Peter Wood, National Association of Scholars Barbara Davidson, StandardsWork Leonard Sax, National Association for Single Sex Public Education Gene Wilhoit, Council of Chief School State Officers Dane Linn, National Governors Association Dear Gene and Dane, I feel that I owe you, as well as all the individuals and organizations that recommended me for Common Core’s Validation Committee, an explanation for why I could not sign off on the final version of the Common Core State Standards. I did not sign off because I could not “validate” the criteria we were given to affirm. All members of the Validation Committee were asked to affirm that the final version of Common Core’s mathematics and English language arts standards met the seven criteria below. My reasons for not signing off relate to the standards for English language arts, with a focus on the secondary grades, 6-12. 1 “Reflective of the core knowledge and skills in ELA and mathematics that students need to be college- and career-ready.” In my judgment, Common Core’s standards for grades 6-12 do not reflect the core knowledge needed for authentic college-level work and do not frame the literary and cultural knowledge one would expect of graduates from an American high school. The standards do require familiarity with foundational U.S. documents in grades 9-12, foundational works in American literature in grades 11/12, and a play by Shakespeare in grade 12, but there is little else with respect to content in lower grades. These minimal requirements, laudatory in themselves, would not be considered adequate to frame a literature and language curriculum in any country. In addition, the distribution of literature and informational standards indicate about a 50% division between imaginative literature and informational texts in the English language arts/reading class at all grade levels, a division that is inappropriate at the secondary level given English teachers’ academic background and what they are prepared to teach based on their undergraduate or graduate coursework. Moreover, there is an implementation issue that is not addressed; Common Core does not make it clear that English teachers will need to take academic coursework (or a significant amount of specific professional development) in history and political science to understand the historical context, philosophical influences, unique features, and national and international significance, historically and today, of the foundational documents they are being required to teach students how to read. 2. “Appropriate in terms of their level of clarity and specificity.” Many standards are paraphrases of the “anchor” “college and career readiness standards.” Many others are unclear in meaning, not easily interpretable, or unteachable. The “college and career readiness standards” that govern all grade-level standards have no discernable academic level; for the most part, they are simply a set of poorly written, confusing, content-empty, and culture-free generic skills with no internally valid organization of their own. They cannot serve the function academic standards are intended to serve—to frame a curriculum with common intellectual goals that build coherently from grade to grade. Nor can they (or do they) serve to generate academic grade-level standards in coherent learning progressions. (See Milgram and Stotsky, 2010, for a detailed explanation.) Moreover, they dictate a muddled and prescriptive approach to vocabulary study. 3. “Comparable to the expectations of other leading nations.” The two English-speaking areas for which I could find assessment material (British Columbia and Ireland) have far more demanding requirements for college readiness. The British Commonwealth examinations I have seen in the past were far more demanding in reading and literature in terms of the knowledge base students needed for taking and passing them. No material was ever provided to the Validation Committee or to the public on the specific college readiness expectations of other leading nations in mathematics or language and literature. 4. “Informed by available research or evidence” No evidence was ever provided to the Validation Committee supporting the specific “college and career readiness standards” as a group and their use as an organizing scheme for generating grade-level standards. In fact, the evidence that can be located is either counter-evidence or misinterpreted evidence (see Stotsky and Wurman, 2010). Nor is there clear evidence that career readiness is similar to college readiness. 5. “The result of processes that reflect best practices for standards development.” I am unaware of any study providing information on “best practices” for standards development aside from my own published work in a Brookings Institution publication (Stotsky, 2004) and a Peter Lang collection of essays (Stotsky, 2000) and my own recommendations to Senate and House Committees on Education in the Ohio and New Jersey legislature (Stotsky, 2009a; Stotsky 2009b). Based on my experience in the Massachusetts Department of Education from 1999-2003, where I was in charge of the development or revision of Massachusetts K-12 standards in all major subjects, and on my extensive experience in local government on a variety of committees for different boards, my judgment is that almost every aspect of the process in which Common Core’s standards were developed profoundly violated almost all civically appropriate procedures for the development of what would become a major public document (see Wurman and Stotsky, 2010, for details, as well as the model procedures used by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel on which I served from 2006-2008, outlined from p. 79 on in its final report of March 2008). 6.“A solid starting point for adoption of cross state common core standards.” For the reasons given above, I cannot affirm that Common Core’s final standards are worthy of being our “national” standards. 7.“A sound basis for eventual development of standards-based assessments.” Based on the analyses cited above, Common Core’s standards are an unsound basis for the development of common assessments. Moreover, in order for test developers to develop “curriculum-based” assessments, they will essentially remove control of curriculum from the local level if not the state level. Sincerely yours, Sandra Stotsky Member, Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Professor of Education Reform, University of Arkansas