Common Core, Common Problems

The Common Core Standards were supposed to get our schoolchildren on the same educational page. But is the federal program doing more harm than good?

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

The 2014-15 school year was supposed to serve as the glorious consummation of the Common Core State Standards. They would be fully enacted, the new assessments launched and the U.S. public school system would flourish.

But it’s not quite working out that way. Forty-five states began implementing the standards four years ago—largely because federal grants were tied to adopting them (or similar ones). Now several states, including Indiana and South Carolina, have dropped the Common Core, more are considering it, and thousands of students are planning to “opt out” of testing. Antipathy toward Common Core is increasingly widespread and may be the only thing that can get Glenn Beck and the Chicago Teachers Union on the same page.

So, how were the educational standards for the nation’s 49 million public school students developed? Same way any successful business creates a product: Get a bunch of smart Ivy Leaguers from the best companies to come up with a bunch of great ideas, then do a big rollout with huge marketing.

In 2009, the National Governors Association appointed a panel to create new national standards for mathematics and English language arts. Many members were staffers for Achieve Inc.—an educational organization with funding ties to testing/publishing giants Pearson and McGraw-Hill/Scholastic—and Student Achievement Partners. Both groups also received chunks of the almost $200 million that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invested in developing Common Core. When it came to creating the program, “development teams” were formed that had a number of consultants, or representatives of lobbying organizations or testing corporations, along with school administrators and college professors. Out of about 50 members, only two on both the English and math teams were actual classroom teachers.

The lack of input from those who are in schools working with kids every day may account for some of the issues with the developmental appropriateness of Common Core. By the end of kindergarten, students are supposed to be able to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding” and “for any number from 1 to 9, find the number that makes 10 when added to the given number.” In other words, not just reading, but knowing why they’re reading and why the book was written; not just adding, but finding missing addends (a.k.a. algebra.)

The Common Core’s goal was supposedly to emphasize creative thinking and problem solving, to get students to explain how they got an answer. But if students don’t employ the expected processes and vocabulary, or explain solutions correctly, even a right answer can be wrong—resulting in legions of vexed parents to post tests and homework on the Internet for mass face-palming.

Writing is a large part of the Common Core standards in all subjects, but the writing is focused almost entirely on making and supporting arguments. Other genres—descriptive, narrative, creative—are de-emphasized, if not axed altogether. But can you form an opinion on something—and defend that opinion—before you can describe or explain it? Some may insist creative writing has no practical use, but creative writing can also be a motivator. A student who “can’t write” five sentences for a book report might be able to write 20 about being a superhero or going to a haunted house—which might make them see that writing five sentences for a book report is not so impossible after all. Common Core seeks to narrow students’ focus, but is it at the cost of blocking other paths to learning?

But we can fix all these bugs in Common Core 2.0 or 3.0., right? Well … no. There’s no process or timetable for revisiting and revising Common Core, and no plans to do so. Even as states decide that getting rid of Common Core is worth losing federal funding. Even as the unions retract their support (the National Education Association called the implementation “botched”). Even as teachers drown in paperwork while struggling to support overwhelmed students. Even as parents howl in protest and yank their kids from testing (or from public school entirely). Even as children break down sobbing during eight-hour tests and learn to hate the subjects they once loved.

Maybe it’s time to take another look at Common Core.

Lissa Townsend Rodgers was an elementary school teacher in the Clark County School District for eight years.

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