On Thursday, March 20, my colleague, geology professor Robert Thorson, published a well-intentioned piece in his regular column in The Hartford Courant in which he defended the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.
Let me say that I believe the Common Core Standards, separated from the politics surrounding their development and implementation, are a good, even excellent, set of standards. I find that the writing standards, for example, are very consistent with the expectations for college-level writing courses at UConn.
However, there are some widespread misperceptions about the standards and about parents’ and teachers’ objections to the standards that I would like to address.
First of all, the standards are skills-based, not content-based, so Professor Thorson’s example about the revolution of the earth around the sun is misleading. Such content would not appear in the standards. Furthermore, the only science standards we have so far are subsumed to the language arts writing standards, oddly enough.
Second, there’s no evidence that Connecticut’s students suffer from the level of deficiency suggested by this example. On the most recently released NAEP and PISA tests, students from Connecticut were among the highest performing in the nation and in the world. All the political and journalistic attention to the nation’s mediocre performance on these tests were about the national average. Connecticut students (and those from Massachusetts, as well) far exceed the national (and the international) averages. So the sky really isn’t falling, at least not here.
Third, the Common Core Standards were not adopted in Connecticut because our existing standards were deficient. In fact, when the SDE announced in 2010 that we were adopting these new standards, officials routinely pointed out that Connecticut’s standards were among the most closely aligned to the Common Core in the entire country. If anything, the new national standards brought the rest of the nation closer to our level.
Fourth, the real reason the standards were adopted was that they were a prerequisite for federal funds, which we failed to get — twice. Later, the standards became necessary to qualify for a federal waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act. This was necessary because NCLB had an impossible provision that 100 percent of students achieve proficiency in math and reading by 2014 or states would face sanction. This law was so fraught with problems such as this one that candidate Obama campaigned against it in his first run for president. But because President Obama has failed to achieve a revision of the act, he has had to implement these waivers, which came with certain strings attached. So, really, adoption of the standards in Connecticut was about trying to get money and avoid punishment.
I’m not sure about parents, but, despite all this, most teachers do not object to the standards themselves. Their objections are to their implementation and to the political agenda of their proponents.
Professor Thorson rightly points out that “our educational leaders must guard against the pitfalls of teaching to the test, prioritizing content over creativity, treating teachers as vendors of information and devaluing the emotional significance of the student-teacher bond,” but those pitfalls are precisely what our teachers are experiencing, along with a rapid rollout of unproven new student tests and teacher evaluations for which there has been inadequate preparation and funding. As a result, teachers are under extreme pressure to teach to the tests, to narrow their curricula, and to sacrifice instructional and preparation time to data collection and analysis, all under the Damoclean fear of reprisal if their students do not perform well enough.
And none of this addresses the biggest elephant in the room. What many teachers fear most is the privatization movement that the Common Core is part of. Make no mistake, the people who would like to bust the teachers’ unions, replace public schools with charter schools, and make a profit from education have their fingerprints all over the new standards and their implementation.
So we can defend the standards because they are well-written and fairly well designed (I do have some objections), but if Connecticut’s old standards were so closely aligned to the new ones, and the new ones were adopted mostly for monetary reasons, and our students have been outperforming just about everyone in the world on the two most respected, non-partisan assessments of student learning in existence, then why is it necessary to shun the concerns and objections of teachers and parents? Why is it necessary to rush to implementation, not just of the standards but also of the unproven new tests and evaluations? Why not take the time and make the effort to implement effectively and with the support of parents, teachers, and — dare I say — research?
Honestly, I like the standards in and of themselves, and I believe that they can promote good teaching, but not without the necessary time, funding, support, and preparation to do it well. (A problem under the old standards, too). Unfortunately, fear and misinformation have driven too many of our political leaders to move too fast and with too little evidence, and too many of our educational leaders to cut so-called non-core subjects and to strong-arm teachers into narrow, test-driven instruction.
I agree with my colleague that teaching should promote “personal growth” and “societal understanding.” Unfortunately, those skills aren’t listed in the Common Core Standards, and the way things are going, if they’re not in the standards, they won’t be on the tests, and, sadly, that dooms their fate in the classroom.
Jason Courtmanche is the Director of the Connecticut Writing Project at the University of Connecticut, where he specializes in teacher education, composition, and American literature. He taught high school English for 12 years. He can be reached at his blog.