Common Core: no two words in the English language have summoned as much fierce political vitriol over the last few years (unless you opt to throw a space between “Obama” and “Care”).
But what, exactly, is everyone so angry about? And more to the point, is everyone actually angry, or is it just the loudest voices in the room?
Everyone from Louis CK to Glenn Beck has criticized the educational initiative, while support has created some unlikely bedfellows, including Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, who are both thought to be preparing for a 2016 presidential bid.
To help you understand what the Common Core hubbub is all about, we’ve broken it down to its most basic of basics below.
A Brief History
Try to remember back to the mid-late nineties: then-Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano was envisioning an American public education system that was keeping up with the rest of the world and preparing students for the 21st century. As chair of the National Governors Association in 2006 and 2007, Napolitano assembled a task force of some of the top people in the education world, which released an exhaustive 2008 report on the state of American education.
The report’s two biggest recommendations were that the U.S “upgrade state standards by adopting a common core of 24 internationally benchmarked standards” and “measure state-level education performance globally by examining 31 student achievement and attainment in an international context.” In layman’s terms: more unified national standards for learning, and more tests to measure progress.
Following the report, the National Governors Association partnered with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and Achieve — two non-partisan non-profits — to develop national education standards for reading and math. The standards were released on June 2, 2010, and states began adopting them shortly thereafter.
Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have already implemented the standards. Eleven states are slated to start next fall.
Indiana became the first state to withdraw from Common Core in April. Currently, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Louisiana are either threatening to, or are in the process of, pulling out.
According to an April 2014 Gallup poll on Common Core: “Thirty-five percent of public school parents have a positive impression of the new education framework and 28 percent have a negative impression. Thirty-seven percent haven't heard of it or don't know enough to say.”
The same Gallup poll found that “three in four parents (73 percent) say having one set of educational standards across the county for reading, writing, and math will be positive for education.”
A 2013 Gallup poll revealed that the public was uninformed, confused, or a combination of both when it came to Common Core. According to the results: “Many said — erroneously — that the standards are based on a blending of state standards, that the federal government is insisting that all states adopt the standards, and that there is a plan to create standards in all academic areas.”
A May 2013 poll conducted by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) found that overall, 75 percent of teachers supported Common Core, but only 27 percent felt they had the resources necessary to teach the standards.
Common Core’s main function is outlining math and English standards for K-12 students nationwide in an effort to normalize previous standards that varied wildly from state to state.
The English language arts curriculum has been designed with an emphasis on logic and modern life. For example, media production and analysis is part of the curriculum, and while keyboarding instruction is mandatory, cursive handwriting instruction is not.
Reading lists are malleable from district to district, but the standards include “foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare.”
Math standards are aimed at problems in real-world logic and reason rather than the abstract.
Common Core amps up standardized testing. While states across the country are currently at different places when it comes to assessment implementation, most will implement extensive computerized Common Core testing in 2015.
Although the program was set in motion before his presidency, President Obama has been a big advocate, giving states financial incentives to adopt the standards using the Race to the Top program. Race to the Top has also (quite controversially) incentivized tying teacher assessments to Common Core testing results.
Bill Gates is one of the biggest reasons Common Core was able to gain steam. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spent $233 million on the initiative.
What the Supporters Say
Among Common Core supporters, the bottom line seems to be: “It doesn’t have to be perfect; it’s a set of basic guidelines with plenty of flexibility.” Or, in the words of Jeb Bush, “I want to hear their solutions for the hodgepodge of dumbed-down state standards that have created group mediocrity in our schools.”
Essentially, the idea is the United States can’t continue to do nothing in the face of huge state-to-state differences in public education quality, increased international competition, and a demanding job market. Plus, many supporters believe the standards are more based in 21st century realities than previous standards, preparing kids for a world where proficiently analyzing media carries a lot more weight than, say, being able to spot the difference between a cursive “m” and a cursive “n.”
Advocates also argue that Common Core is flexible enough that adopting states have no reason to feel like the program is a massive federal overreach, as opponents have claimed. (In fact, besides incentivizing Common Core adoption through Race to the Top and allocating grant money, the federal government has had little to do with the program’s standards or implementation.) States decide when, how, and if they want to opt into the program, and they’re also given wiggle room: states only need to adopt 85 percent of the standards, and many teaching choices are still made at the state and local levels.
What the Critics Say
The criticism is complicated and the critics are many, so crack a beverage of your choice, throw on some light jazz, and bear with me. The broadest argument against the program is that Common Core will take control away from state and local governments. These arguments range from conspiratorial claims that Common Core is, somehow, a step towards a totalitarian model, to more practical (read: real) concerns about a “national curriculum.” The latter is a legitimate qualm — Common Core does outline major education standards for enrolled states — but once again, the decision to opt in is ultimately up to the state.
There are countless smaller issues politicians, teachers, and academics have taken issue to regarding Common Core, even if they theoretically support national standards. First, many teachers have raised the concerns they’re not equipped to teach the standards, and that the standards and tests have been hastily introduced. Plus, as you might imagine, they’re not especially fond of being evaluated based on the standardized test performances of their students. The idea that Common Core tests will incentivize instructors to teach their students to become good standardized testers instead of good learners has come up on both sides of the aisle.
And while some Red State politicians have painted Common Core as liberally-slanted, in top-tier public education states like Massachusetts, nationwide standards have caught heat for another reason: they might actually be less rigorous than the ones currently in place.
There are also big cost concerns. Even the Common Core State Standards website notes that “There will be some additional costs associated with the Common Core, such as training teachers to teach the standards, developing and purchasing new materials, and other aspects of implementation.”
Phew. Are you exhausted yet? If not, here are some articles that might help further flesh out the debate.
Adrienne Lu of “The Washington Post” discusses the pitfalls of Common Core testing.
Stephanie Simon and Caitlin Emma of “Politico” break down the war over testing contracts.
Javier C. Hernandez of “The New York Times” explores Common Core from the perspective of 9-year-old in Brooklyn.
John Ewing of “USA Today” argues that when it comes to Common Core, patience will need to be a virtue.
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Klein, A. (2014, June 18). Teacher Evaluation Changes Could Cost New York a Slice of Its Race to the Top Grant. Education Week. Retrieved July 14, 2014, from Education Week
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