Common Questions on Common Core Part 1: About the new school standards

Common Questions on Common Core Part 1: About the new school standards

Photo by chelle_1278 on Flickr Creative Commons

Editor’s Introduction:

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Photo by chelle_1278 on Flickr Creative Commons

This year, in a major shift in public education, states across the nation have been implementing a new set of standards known as the Common Core. Common Core appears as a subject in national and local news media and is a constant subject of debate, particularly in conservative circles.

Despite all this attention, Common Core still remains a confusing topic for many people. In this three-part series answers some basic questions about Common Core. The first part will focus on the Common Core itself and how it was developed, while parts 2 and 3 will look at the standards, how they are working in Maryland and what they will cost.

The series was edited by associate editor Meg Tully and Part 1 was written by Margaret Sessa-Hawkins.

1. What is Common Core? Why was it developed?

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are “a set of high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (ELA)”. These standards lay out a set of academic benchmarks that establish what every public school student in the United States should have learned by the end of each grade. Whether students have reached these benchmarks is measured by standardized tests.

Common Core was developed based on the premise that the United States was falling behind its international peers academically and that, to compete, the nation should develop a uniform set of academic standards. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, each state established its own standards for what students would learn. The CCSS expands on this by creating a set of uniform standards states can choose to adopt.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is the most recent authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which has been in place since 1965. Because ESEA was not rewritten by Congress as scheduled in 2007, NCLB remains in effect even as the Common Core State Standards are being adopted.

To continue receiving federal funding through No Child Left Behind, states had to ensure that 100% of their students had achieved proficiency in statewide assessments by 2014.

To date, no state has been able to meet this requirement. However, as of 2011, states have been able to apply for NCLB waivers from the U.S. Department of Education, which allow them to delay the year by which they must meet NCLB standards.

One requirement for receiving a waiver is that states adopt a set of common national standards. Another is that they implement a teacher evaluation program that uses student performance on standardized tests as a factor in evaluations.

2. Who developed Common Core? How much input did states, educators and parents have in this development?

Common Core was created by a coalition of groups; the three most prominent are the National Governors Association for Best Practices (NGA Center), a research and development organization specializing in public policy concerns facing the nations’ governors; the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a nonprofit group made up of top state education officials; and Achieve, a nonprofit group which advocates for “college and career ready” standards in education. The actual architect of the majority of the standards is widely acknowledged to be David Coleman, who has since become head of the College Board.

Since the federal government is prohibited from funding any national educational curriculum, the initiative was supported by several charitable foundations. By far the largest donor has been the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which reported giving out roughly $200 million worth of grants associated with Common Core. Other organizations that substantially financed the initiative were the Carnegie Foundation ($47 million), the Helmsley Trust ($20 million) and the Hewlett Foundation ($15 million).

One of the main controversies associated with Common Core has been whether or not teachers were involved in its development. The CCSS website claims teachers played a “critical role” in the development process. Opposition groups have staunchly maintained teachers were barely involved.

While teachers were technically involved in the CCSS development process, the portion they were actually involved in was the review process. The American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers union, said they provided “dozens” of teachers who were part of the review process. Although they do not list numbers, the National Education Association, another national union, also says they sent teachers to be part of review workgroups.

Additionally, there were two public comment periods in which the NGA and CCSSO say they received more than 10,000 comments on the standards. Ultimately the decision of whether or not to listen to or adopt suggestions made in both the CCSS review process and the public commentary period lay with the developers themselves. Thus, it’s not surprising that many feel teachers were not well-represented in the process.

3. Is Common Core a federal curriculum?

It is against federal law for the U.S. government to either create, fund or mandate a national curriculum (see above). While the CCSS does detail what English and math skills every student needs to know at the end of each grade, there is no mandate as to how these standards should be taught. Therefore, argues the CCSS website, Common Core is not an official curriculum.

Furthermore, adopting Common Core was technically optional for every state. But CCSS does have the Obama administration’s approval.

States were encouraged to adopt the core through a set of federal grants known as the Race to the Top grants, where states received an extra 40 points out of 500 in their application if they adopted Common Core. The federal requirements for being granted waivers to No Child Left Behind also provided additional incentive for states to adopt the core. Finally, several of the foundations listed above gave grants to help states implement the Common Core.

4. How was Common Core tested?

The short answer: It wasn’t tested. Instead, the CCSS was developed by comparing standards employed by successful states and countries, as well as by examining scholarly research and evidentiary data. However, there has never been any conclusive data or studies proving that having national standards significantly improves students’ education.

The two tests that will be employed to measure students’ knowledge of the standards — the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium — are just now being field tested. This is one of the reasons why Maryland recently voted to delay the use of student data from these tests in personnel decisions until the 2016-2017 school year.

5. What are some common objections to Common Core?

Complaints range from parents and teachers believing that the implementation of Common Core has been problematic, to pundits declaring that it is a cover for publishing houses and technology companies looking to make money.

Unlike other current political issues, objections to Common Core do not fall along partisan lines. The far-right generally objects to Common Core because they believe that it is a federally mandated curriculum and that it harvests large amounts of private student data. Many on the left object to the uniform teaching standards and to using standardized tests for student and teacher evaluation.

Many in state governments, including representatives in Maryland, believe that the implementation of Common Core has been problematic. Scores of teachers and parents have protested the standards, which they feel are stressful and are not accurate measurements of student knowledge. Advocacy groups are also concerned with how the Common Core will affect learners of English as a second language and those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The overarching worry, however, is that Common Core is an untested method that will ultimately harm, rather than help, the nation’s students.

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