Kicking the Common Core in the Teeth? Get a Life.

by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

It seems I can’t turn any way these days without seeing someone who has a grudge against the Common Core Standards. And while I can certainly point to political leanings on these issues, the truth is that the right and the left don’t like the Standards.

I don’t get it.

Without digressing too much, the reality is that this nation, the United States, needs some common element in its curriculum across states, districts, and schools. There is so much diversity in American education, which, to a degree, can be good. But mostly it is a bad thing. We have teachers being prepared in over 2,400 programs at 1,200 higher education institutions across the US[1], who, according to US News and World Report, are ill-prepared for the classroom.  We have 50+ state educational systems that differ greatly, politically and otherwise, in how they view education. And we have over 55 million students in 110,000 schools; some with local control; some without. In the end, it’s a mess of expectations, credentials, standards, and outcomes. It’s no wonder we don’t do better on PISA and other international benchmarking instruments. We have diversity beyond diversity. Economically, culturally, and politically. A mess.

Fox News today proudly portrayed a Colorado teacher who quit because of the standards. She wrote:

“I can no longer be a part of a system that continues to do the exact opposite of what I am supposed to do as a teacher – I am supposed to help them think for themselves, help them find solutions to problems, help them become productive members of society. Instead, the emphasis on Common Core Standards and high-stakes testing is creating a teach-to-the-test mentality for our teachers and stress and anxiety for our students. Students have increasingly become hesitant to think for themselves because they have been programmed to believe that there is one right answer that they may or may not have been given yet. That is what school has become: A place where teachers must give students “right” answers, so students can prove (on tests riddled with problems, by the way) that teachers have taught students what the standards have deemed are a proper education.”

I agree with almost all she has to say, with the exception of one egregious error: she linked Common Core Standards with high-stakes testing as if they are the same thing. They are not. If she thinks they are the same thing, it is better she does not teach our children. Are they linked? Yes. Should they be? Yes. But the problem isn’t with the standards; it is with the testing. Don’t confuse that truth.

A teaching and learning system without standards is of little utility for society. No standards assures inequity of intellect by the sheer reality that geography and socio-economic status trump other important issues. The best teachers teach in the best schools in the best districts. Surely not always; we hear of the Jaime Escalantes and other teachers of great significance. But those stories and individuals are few and far between in poor districts. To think that our youth should or can learn different levels and types of mathematics or history or social studies or English in various states and districts is disturbing to me. It doesn’t make any sense. And when I see a politician stand up and say that their state does it better and doesn’t want the standards (like my state of Virginia has done), the hair on the back of my neck stands up. The standards are not a ceiling for learning; they exist as a floor. Any state can excel and overachieve; standards do not deter any state from doing better. But to disassociate with standards because they may act as a governor on learning? That’s simply preposterous and acts only as a political battering ram.

It is simply a shame.

And for teachers and other somewhat “liberals” to suggest that the standards take away their freedom to teach and, as the Colorado teacher above, stop students from learning, that is even more preposterous. We have had decades of high-stake testing. We have lived through the WASL, the TAKS, and even Virginia’s SOLs, and we have seen devastation. We have seen teaching to the test; we have seen watering down of the curriculum. I, myself, was in a classroom within the Microsoft shadow where teachers were forced to put away student laptops (donated by Microsoft) for two months in order to study for the WASL. Someone give me strength.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this argument isn’t about the Common Core Standards. It’s about politics: the politics of teaching (no, not dancing); the politics of education; and the politics of educational funding.

The real question is how we use high-stakes tests as a lever for better teaching and learning, not for filtering and not for castrating our youth. This is a legitimate argument for discussion. The standards aren’t.

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[1] http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/editors-note/2013/06/18/teacher-prep-colleges-are-failing-the-teachers.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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