Common Core Conniptions

So there’s this bit in the education field that’s beginning to get people yelling, and I thought I’d go into it a bit.

It’s called Common Core. It’s from an initiative of the National Governor’s Association by way of the Department of Education. It’s a set of educational standards for K-12. Presently the standards are out for Language Arts and Math.

States are not required to use these standards, and indeed five states won’t. (Actually, four – Texas, Virginia, Alaska, and Nebraska – are absolute and one – Minnesota – is taking Language Arts but not Math.) The federal government has offered grants attached to accepting these programs.

The reason for this change is pretty simple. No Child Left Behind screwed things up, and needs fixed. And we’ve got problems in that some areas of our nation can’t get into college and fail basic literacy (math and language both) requirements. By several measures our academic performance is declining, and we want to reverse that for the good of the nation as a whole.

There are two types of objection I’ve seen. One I agree with, one I don’t. The latter, however, is the one that’s getting all the press and noise. So while I’ll mention both it’s the latter that I’m going to lambast.

The objection with which I agree is the one espoused by people such as Diane Ravitch. The standards we use have a bad habit of making teachers ‘teach the test’. We should instead be focusing on curriculum. Rephrased: how are we getting to the objective, not what the objective is. The biggest problem with the latter is that while we want the objectives to be qualitative we wind up having to make them quantitative. It’s not the quality of our reading but whether we can read and comprehend a certain difficulty that matters. That the quantitative measure is easier for evaluation does not change the fact it’s worse.

However, the actual objections you’ll see, while they’ll hint at this problem, do so in the context of the standards themselves. And often they misstate or outright lie about the standards.

For example there’s this recent claim that teachers will be forced to select books for reading based on Lexile scores. Lexile scores are quantitative and one of the bases used for determining AR (accelerated Reader) books. They’re a measure of word difficulty and sentence construction and that sort of thing. And as anyone who takes a basic look will discover it puts books like Jane Eyre at middle elementary reading level.

The problem with that particular little claim is that it’s not what the standards say. In fact the standards don’t break down items till you get to the appendices, where you discover in both appendix A and appendix B that the designers know about the quant scoring problems and specify teachers need to evaluate for content as well as complexity. Jane Eyre, for example, is specified as an example of a grade 9-10 item, despite the claims of others.

The easy way to test what you’re reading in an objection is to use the common sense test. If the writer is claiming that the common score will force readers to dumb down their reading and not read this, that or the other great work (Dickens and Huck Finn being typical examples) you know they’re talking out their … First, because there is no approved ‘only’ list, only a list of examples. Second, because that list includes Shakespeare (frequently claimed not to be there), included Tom Sawyer, included Faulkner and Hawthorne and Austen and Fitzgerald and, well, you get the idea.

Now, I’ve got an opinion as to why these objections are so rampant. I think there are a couple of drivers.

The first driver is a general anti-federalism/centralism. It’s the belief nothing good comes from outside, whether outside is outside our community or outside our state. There’s a degree of validity to this but it’s carried to extreme (as shown by the fact it generates lies about the standards).

The second driver, and one which I despise, is the one that fears exposing its culture to outside beliefs. This becomes fairly obvious when you realize the biggest pushes aren’t against the existing programs but against two not yet released: history and science.

The problem with both is that the people being educated aren’t going to be just members of that little community. They’re part of the nation, and as such there are national requirements of things to know. They must master math, they must know that the south lost the war, they need to know the basic theory of evolution and how scientific theory works, they have to have common cultural references that underpin the governmental philosophy of our nation.

You can’t be a contributor to democracy if you can’t read the ballot, and you can’t be a functional member of our nation if you can’t reason about what you read, if you don’t understand how the law works and why the post-bill of rights amendments exist and apply the way they do.

So here’s my simple test. If the complaint is that the standards will force something absurd, I dismiss it. If the complaint is that the standards are inappropriate I will listen to see if there’s an alternative. If not, if it’s just a vote for no change, I’ll dismiss it.

We have a problem and it needs fixed. If you aren’t proposing an alternative to the suggested fix get out of the way. And if you’re going to say the fix will make things worse, don’t lie about what’s in the fix. Otherwise I’ll ignore you – or scoff at you, as I feel the urge.

And while I’d prefer Ravitch’s solutions, the common core is what we’ve got majority agreement upon, and they will make things better.

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