- What is Common Core?
The Common Core, upon first inspection, is based on one logical idea: getting all students across the country, from kindergarten to high school graduation, onto the same level – by instituting a universal curriculum and testing policies with consistent educational standards created by a variety of experts and based on the best data. The ultimate goal of the Common Core is to produce students who are college and career ready upon high school graduation, a life landmark that a significant number of students fail to achieve every year. Establishing the type of standards the Common Core demands, however, is a monumental task that is not easily undertaken by any school, and which has created rifts across the American school system, dividing educators, administrators, policymakers, and parents over what is best for the American student population.
Exceeding Community Standards?
Because individual teachers do not fully design their own curriculum following local guidelines under the Common Core, but rather adopt a fully formed curriculum that is beyond their control, the Common Core is full of surprises. One fourth grade student worksheet derived from the Common Core traces the career of Carl Terrell Mitchell, a performer also known as Twista. Mitchell’s career includes a number of interesting musical landmarks such as a feature on the hit song “Po Pimp,” and membership in a group called “Speedknot Mobstaz.” When a student in Louisiana who was assigned this sheet came home to inquire of his mother what a “pimp” was, a different type of inquiry began.
- Seeing this assignment, parents posed the question: why is the word “pimp” appearing on my child’s worksheet? The response by administrators was simply to point to the Common Core and the task of learning words through context, though parents objected that those were not words they were interested in their children learning. As Common Core is crafted outside of the immediate community, there is always the possibility that the work will fall outside of community standards, as seems to be the case here. The problem noted was not the task of vocabulary building – an area that received particular focus under the Common Core – but the vocabulary itself that was being built. This, argued parents, was age inappropriate and a tactless move on the part of the teachers.
- In Arizona, similar community concerns were raised by parents whose high school students were assigned Cristina Garcia’s novel “Dreaming In Cuban” in their English class. The novel is recommended under the Common Core, and was assigned by teachers at Buena High School as part of conforming to those standards. According to many parents, however, the novel is sexually explicit and inappropriate for their children, as well as for other children around the country who are likely to encounter the book under the Common Core.
- Garcia’s book, while noted by the Common Core as what is known as an “exemplar” text, is not necessarily recommended reading in the way many understand it, contrary to what this designation might suggest. Rather, exemplar texts are intended to model for instructors the appropriate reading level they should be assigning. For those who developed the Common Core, then, it is not Garcia’s content that is age appropriate, but rather the grander mode and vocabulary of the book. Teachers are free to choose on their own what books will actually be read by their classes.
- Teachers are also free to choose how they instruct their students on the task of persuasive writing. Being able to make a convincing argument is an important skill in both daily life and at higher academic levels, and so it forms a central part of the Common Core standards. In one New York school, however, an instructor offered up this unorthodox assignment: “argue that Jews are evil… convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!” The assignment of an anti-Semitic argument raised community hackles as parents found out that their children had been made to support the position that Jews were a disposable population. The situation was immediately intercepted by an apology from the Albany school Superintendent, but this left the larger question about the Common Core unaddressed: is this kind of content what the Common Core teaches?In reality, what the Common Core teaches is interdisciplinary thought, a skill that is critical in today’s global marketplace and in many emerging fields. This is how history gets into English, and vocabulary sneaks into math and science. Drawing connections, such as understanding world history well enough to make a Nazi argument in the context of an English lesson, is emphasized by the Common Core, even as anti-Semitism is not.
The English Emphasis
- If these three assignments challenged community moral standards, parents in Illinois found their basic sense of logic to be the thing offended. Because the Common Core focuses largely on vocabulary and communication, the thinking that goes on in a math classroom can take an unfamiliar shape, a point that seemed underscored when one curriculum coordinator struggled to simultaneously express the importance of accurate computation and the importance of clear thinking and articulation of math ideas. It was the following statement that left parents perplexed:
- “But even under the new Common Core if they said 3 x 4 was 11, if they were able to explain their reasoning … in words and oral explanations and they showed it in a picture but they just got the final number wrong? We’re more focusing on the how and the why.”
- While the curriculum coordinator did not intend to make the impression that incorrect answers might be rewarded, this seemed to be the takeaway for many parents. A closer examination finds the coordinator emphasizing the importance of correction, but that still leaves many parents wondering how, under the Common Core, English skills have seeped into math lessons.
- English skills pervade the majority of Common Core work, as the designers see clear, precise, and persuasive communication to be the most important skill when it comes to creating career and college ready students – this is how English and math begin running together. Or, English and music: one New York State principal who speaks regularly with parents of young elementary school children was disheartened to find that in music class, where children should be exploring and listening and playing music, second graders were being asked to define the word “commission” by reading it for context in a sentence about the musician Mozart.
- Such assignments occur because even music teachers are likely being held in part responsible for Common Core testing results; the teacher was simply doing her part within the system. Common Core is, in some sense, an opt-in project, and New York, like many other states has opted to teach its children within this system. In other respects, the system is mandatory – significant education spending, such as No Child Left Behind money, is tied to the adoption of Common Core. Which poses the question: is it really “common” if the Common Core is an opt-in program?
- Opting In Or Opting Out
- Parents certainly have questions about the opt-in component Common Core, particularly some New York parents. Responding to objections by teachers that the Common Core is not a beneficial program, and to their own feeling that children have had inadequate time to learn the Common Core material before being tested on it, these parents have tasked their children with an important task: refuse to take the test.
- As tests arrived in April, a group of parents in Rochester coached their children on how to not take a test, a task quite contrary to the usual nature of childhood. Don’t pick up your pencil. Don’t write your name. Tell the teacher, “I do not need to take this test.” Those were the simple steps the children were to execute. It was a simple and yet highly visible way of objecting to the Common Core as a whole.
- The Common Core is intended to be a state led effort, but is held under a federal umbrella – somewhere out there are the national standards that each state aims to meet for kindergarten through 12th grade. And these state led efforts are not just influencing curriculum in public schools, but rather making their way into charter schools and private schools as well, a move which could have wide ranging effects on overall school quality and could potentially bring educational disparities into line. Schools began adopting the Common Core in 2010 and the program was meant to bring clarity, consistency, and reality-based learning along with it. As an evidence and research-based initiative, the Common Core promised to be just the thing that would reform American schools and help us rise in the ranks among schools globally.
- It remains unclear what the impact of the Common Core will be. The standards are widely supported by a range of organizations, including many individual state education leaders, the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Hunt Institute, ACT and the College Board, and many others. Teachers groups, such as the National Education Association and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, helped to draft the standards. Even with such broad based support, the final word on the Common Core is still to come.