The Need to Know Basis

In 2004, Indiana went big for George W. Bush. A veritable landslide. The opinion sections of Indiana newspapers slammed his opponent, John Kerry, as a flip-flopper. They paraded out Kerry’s measly defenses of “I voted for it before I voted against it,” pointed fingers, and laughed. Today, however, Indiana has the dubious honor of being the first state to have been for the Common Core Standards before they were against it.

Before I begin pointing my own finger and laughing, however, it might be worthwhile to take a moment to point out what the Common Core Standards actually are, and where they came from. To set the table, we’ll start with No Child Left Behind. This was the lofty goal set forth by the Bush administration in 2001 that dictated that schools eventually reach a 100% success rate of student aptitude by the year 2014. Which is the year it is now, in case you weren’t aware. As the onus of “adequate yearly progress” caused more and more school districts to implement questionable tactics to meet the rapidly rising standards, more than a few places realized that while NCLB required certain levels of aptitude on standardized tests, they didn’t really provide much direction for how high the bar for those tests should be. Students in one state could get a passing score with knowledge that would be inadequate in meeting the standards of another state. There was actually incentive to dumb down state requirements.

In 2006, the governor of Arizona (Janet Napolitano) posed the question to the rest of the country’s governors: “What should students know by the time they graduate in order to be competitive with the rest of the world?” The resulting task force, which was made up of a diverse cadre of state leaders, business leaders, and leaders in education, examined that question and eventually put forth an answer in the form of a report that listed what students should reasonably be expected to know and be able to do in order to be prepared to enter either the work force or further studies in college.

This is where Achieve picked up from. Achieve is a bipartisan, non-profit organization focused on making students of the education systems of the United States well prepared to enter a competitive global workforce. Although located in Washington, D.C., Achieve was already working on a way to build up from state education standards a common foundation of academic knowledge that would prepare graduates for the rest of their lives. They incorporated the report the task force had released and began to form what is now known as the Common Core. It is important to note that BECAUSE Achieve specifically did not want a product that diminished states’ rights, they built up from existing state standards as much as possible, establishing benchmarks that equalled or exceeded the highest requirements set forth by any state.  For some states, this raised the bar a little. In others, it raised the bar a lot.

Their efforts were aided by numerous educational organizations — teacher’s unions, researchers, scientists, councils on mathematics and literacy — all with a vested interest in developing strong foundations for math and language arts. In addition, every stage of the proposed standards were open for public review and comment. Parents, teachers, CEOs, college admissions officers, and more poured thousands and thousands of critiques and assessments upon the developing standards. But throughout it all, development was done with bi-partisan (or perhaps better stated, non-partisan) reviews/criticisms, and without any federal government input.

The thing only became political when President Obama suggested that he thought the Common Core was a pretty good idea, and encouraged states to use it in 2012. This immediately prompted red states to perceive the previously benign Common Core like a hot, toxic, radioactive mutant potato of government overreach. This included Indiana, which formally adopted the standards shortly after their 2010 release.

The speed with which red states did an about face is an astonishing indicator of just how much people hate Obama and anything he purports to approve of. I sometimes wonder if Obama were to go on the record for being a big fan of breathing, if millions of right wingers would either claim that Obama is really not a breather or would perhaps try to give up breathing cold turkey in protest. And like all good political donnybrooks, a vast majority of the people taking the loudest, firmest positions have no idea what the hell they are talking about.

This goes beyond both not knowing where the Common Core comes from and its complete disassociation of federal governmental control. It goes right to the heart of what the Common Core standards are–the criteria–and awareness of how criteria are assessed, which is to say curriculum and testing. Just about every day I see someone on Facebook or Twitter forwarding a meme example of how “stupid” the Common Core is because it “makes” kids use this stupid method. Or is it THIS stupid method? Or maybe THESE stupid methods? They’re not really all that clear, but they all agree that it is Common Core’s fault and that the Common Core is stupid because it is different from how they learned it, which is to say by doing subtraction through “borrowing.” (Which their parents or grandparents probably thought was stupid compared to understanding “sets” as illustrated by Cuisenaire rods).

But this is all beside the point, which is to say INDOCTRINASHUN!!!!!

I bang my head against the wall at cries of “indoctrination” because the Common Core standards for math (which you can see in this nifty PDF, among other places) are composed with the express intent of getting students to not only understand that 89-17=72, but WHY 89-17=72 other than simply “because it is.” This is, in fact, the exact OPPOSITE of indoctrination. In indoctrination you are told what the answer is and don’t worry about the whys because we know best so trust us.

I once talked to a person who admitted that they had never known until recently what the “tens place” was — only that it was “second from the left, or the dot.” This caused them to regularly get confused with the number “to the right of the dot,” which was the “tenths place.”  This was because they saw math only as a linear subtraction of columns and had never been taught the concept of factors of ten (or Base-10, which you’d think a stereotypical liberal would reject because it disenfranchises the hexydactyls).

The Common Core strives to impress upon a student the mathematical concepts that underly the surface math itself. This leads us to all those “stupid methods” above. The criticism is that all of these curricula make math “unnecessarily complex” when it should be simple, which is like saying that a car gets to be overly complex when you start thinking about all those moving parts under the hood when really all you need to know is that when you move the stick from P to D, the car moves forward. Each of those “stupid methods” from curriculum publishers are attempts to let second and third graders visualize how written numbers represent sets and subsets of hundreds, tens, and ones.

I say second and third graders, even though the grades are not listed on the homework examples listed, with certainty because I know that working with adding and subtracting numbers less than 1000 is a second grade Common Core standard and multiplying two-digit numbers is a third grade Common Core standard. Fifteen years ago a piece of homework filled with double-digit multiplication problems could have just as easily been from the backpack of a second grader in Massachusetts or a fifth grader in Tennessee.

As a freelance writer, I’ve helped craft language arts materials for the last fifteen plus years. In a way, the mid-2000s was a boom time because curriculum publishers needed to compose material for dozens of state standards, meaning they needed authors for a dozen different reading programs. But in another way, that process was quite jarring. The same 150-word passage about how hail forms might have been at level for a fourth grader in Oregon, a fifth grader in Minnesota, and a seventh grader in Texas. Now when I create a passage about photosynthesis for sixth graders, those sixth graders might be from any of forty-plus different states.

When a person points to a pre-packaged worksheet and says “This is what’s wrong with Common Core!” because of the visualization method it chooses to use to meet the innocuous standard of understanding ones, tens, and hundreds, I get very agitated.  It’s sort of like if there were lots of people who wanted to toss the requirement of being able to summarize the main idea of a newspaper article simply because the newspaper article that gets used on the day the kids are practicing that skill happens to be about Occupy Wall Street and you totally object to all those God-damned hippie terrorists getting in the way of capitalism and newspapers are all on the side of the liberal left anyway and why should you be forced to learn about newspapers when you can just go to the Internet? Oh, wait a minute….those people exist.

To my mind, there are only a limited number of valid angles of criticism I can accept about the Common Core. Those are as follows:

1.) The reading and math requirements from one state to the next are too greatly varied to allow for common standards.
2.) I disagree with the level at which a particular skill is taught
3.) An indicated skill is unnecessary for global competitiveness
4.) The scope of the Common Core is too broad/limited
5.) What’s with all the standardized tests?

If you’re arguing #1, I would have to ask “Why?” Why is it too much to ask for a group of bi-partisan experts on education to be able to identify any sort of a reasonable baseline by which to measure the progress toward a standard of expectation for a high school graduate in the United States? Nothing about Common Core restricts a student from knowing MORE than expected, so maybe the concern is about the feeling that maybe some states should be learning less? That doesn’t make any sense.

Which leads to #2. If you think a skill is being taught too late, push your schools and kids to ramp up the difficulty. God bless you. If you think it’s too much, too soon, what do you base that on? I can see how framing math for second graders in algebraic terms might seem a little much, but why not set the table for the more advanced mathematics that we’ll need to stop being embarrassingly out-classed on the world stage.

Three: I’m open to the idea that the sun has set on the need for certain disciplines. Cursive and touch-typing come to mind. But I’m still waiting for a critic to point to a specific Common Core standard and say “there’s no real benefit to learning that.” This also touches on four, where I also buy that an over-emphasis on Common Core and Common Core testing short changes other subjects — science, music, and civics, for instance –. Even the literary arts feel a bit slighted.

Perhaps the criticism with the most momentum is the charge that along with the setting of standards at each grade level, the Common Core opens itself up to an increase of the flow of education dollars toward private sector testing firms who are situating themselves in a niche to be the judge of whether or not students are meeting the expectations of the Common Core. On that I actually agree. It’s unfortunate that a teacher and school cannot be the judge of their students’ comprehension and ability. Bizarrely, the teachers’ unions and those who criticize teachers’ unions for wanting to avoid all manner of results-based job evaluation have somehow landed on the same side. I’m not even sure the Common Core critics are even aware of it. A common complaint I see is that because the NEA was involved in shaping Common Core, it must somehow provide some secret means of shirking responsibility or any movement toward merit-based pay despite being completely structured around measurable standards across the board. Eventually the armchair union-bashers and the teachers are going to realize they’re agreeing on something and somebody’s head will probably explode.

Or perhaps they’ll just flip-flop, for the good of political balance.


Author of over sixty children's books, as well writer of textbook materials and standardized exam text. I may have helped teach your children...

Posted in Politics, Semicoherent Rambling, The Kids

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