Education Standards And The Common Core

The Common Core — the tough, new, nationwide standards to get America’s students back in fighting trim — is here.  We’ll look at what it is and the debate it’s fired.

A sixth-grader at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, works on a new netbook in Austin, Texas. (Harry Cabluck/AP)

A sixth-grader at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin, Texas. (Harry Cabluck/AP)

Have you heard of the Common Core?  In 45 of 50 states, it’s coming. A new — and, for many states, tougher — set of standards and tests for assessing how American students are doing, from kindergarten right on through.

The idea is to standardize and raise the level of American education, aim it to prep for college and career, to compete globally, to put everyone to the same test.

Fans say it’s long overdue. Critics say it’s  heavy-handed, it’s window dressing, it’s scary.

Up next On Point: We’re digging into the Common Core and what your kids are going to be expected to know.

— Tom Ashbrook


Catherine Gewertz, assistant editor and lead Common Core reporter for Education Week. (@cgewertz)

Andrew Hacker, political scientist and professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Queens College in New York. He is the co-author of “Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money And Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It” and “Two Nations: Black And White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal.”

Andrew Rotherham, co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a non-profit organization which works to improve education for low-income students and which has been researching the implementation of Common Core for the last three years. He authored the blog post “7 Common Core Challenges.” (@arotherham)

Show Highlights

Gewertz on why Common Core came about:

One of the reasons that the initiative got going was that states began to see that students varied quite a lot from district to district and state to state on what their standards were. In other words, states had created very different levels of expectations for their students and they had set very different cut scores, or passing scores, on their tests. So there were very, very different pass rates and success rates from state to state. And there was increasing awareness that on international tests, the U.S. was a fair to midland — not real great. And we weren’t looking real good.

Gewertz on the challenge of designing curricula:

Of course, between standards and tests lies curricula. And that’s where some of the heat is being generated here — of course, the tests are generating heat too. Many stripes of heat. But the curriculum that goes between the standards and tests — in other words, how do you turn standards into day-to-day instruction. That’s going to vary a lot. But one of the fears and one piece of the backlash is it will sort of create a lockstep kind of instruction. There are people who disagree with that criticism, but it is a fear out there.

Gewertz on testing and the challenge of enough time to teach the standards:

The common assessments, the tests, are due to make their debut in the spring of 2015. But for several years now, states and districts have been phasing the Common standards, writing curriculum for them, et cetera. [TOM ASHBROOK: Because you have to teach it before you can test on it.] One would hope. And that’s actually been one strain of criticism, that teachers and schools have not had enough time with these very complicated standards to really be expected to be evaluated, to have teachers evaluated on them, to have schools rated on them. So that’s one strain of the pushback here.

Rotherham on teachers and the need to support them in developing curricula:

There is a lot of concern on will we support teachers adequately to do this, and I thought Catherine [Gewertz] really put it well: You’ve got the standards, and they’ve been developed and people can look at them. The assessments are being developed. In between is the curriculum for teachers — lesson plans, things like that. And people are scrambling to develop good content.

Because I think most people would be surprised at the low quality of a lot of lesson plans, a lot of curricula that exists now. A lot of things that people are frustrated about, a lot of stuff that’s off the shelf from commercial vendors is very bland; it’s not really enriching, the kind of things we want kids to read. But there’s an effort to revamp that here.But how successful that effort will be — we ‘ve taken a look across the states at what’s going on. What you see, even in the leading states, is not yet up to the scale of the challenge. And collectively around the country, the efforts really pale against the challenge here.

And teachers will be, if they’re not supported in this, they will end up frustrated. The teachers unions, which currently support this would very likely turn into adversaries. And so there’s a big risk here that if we don’t really over the next couple of years make a quantum leap forward in how we support teachers in doing this work, that there will be a backlash.

Right now, because of all these different standards, teachers in different states can’t really talk about their work at a granular level together. There’s huge promise in this commonality that we’re going to be able to have better ways to support teachers, more innovation and so forth.

But, as I said, there’s tremendous risk. And the risk is that we will do what traditionally, frankly, we have done in education, which is sort of weak kinds of implementation without a lot of fidelity to the core ideas, no pun intended.

Hacker on “teaching to the test”:

We can talk about curriculum. We can talk about standards. But when you have this test looming every child, every teacher, every school, you’re going to teach to the test. And for all the talk about critical thinking or moral reasoning — there’s not going to be that. They’re going to teach test techniques — anticipating questions, how to get which of the five answers is the right one.

Hacker on why a national test would breed failure:

The real issue to me is not the standards, so-called, but the testing. A national test which every student from a shack in Alabama to the suburbs of Scarsdale is going to have to take. It’s going to be essentially a single test and guess what? There’s going to be a huge failure rate. It’s going to exacerbate the 22 percent dropout rate we have among high school students already. If you set this high seven-foot bar for the kid in the shack, and you keep setting  the bar, and you say “Come on. It’s rigorous. It’s higher. You got to meet it.” Is that kid going to get over it? But it’s not just one kid. We’re talking about not just the 22 percent dropout rate, but others who manage to stay in school and are still going to be deemed “non-proficient” again and again in this national test. They’re going to be like ex-convicts, walking around without a high school diploma.

Rotherham disputes Hacker and explains the different kinds of tests being developed:

These new assessments that are being developed — and it’s not a single national test. That’s inaccurate. There’s two state consortia that are developing tests right now. Different states are in these different consortia. Some are actually in both; they want to see what’s going to happen. And then there’s some states that are going their own way — Utah, Alabama have said they’re going to get tests from existing private sector vendors, and they’re going to go that way to get their new tests. There’s going to end up being a multitude of tests, at least three or four, possibly more, approaches as Catherine [Gewertz] said during the intro. This is still unfolding.

TOM ASHBROOK: This is something much closer to standardized than what we’ve had when it’s all over the place?

How standardized it’ll be remains to be seen. The hope is today’s assessments are not as bad as people make them out to be, but they’re certainly not nearly as good as our students and teachers deserve. And the hope is that this next generation of assessments, because of the research that’s being put into them, the development, some federal money, that that’s going to help develop a better set of assessments that are going to more accurately reflect what students know, be more useful for teachers. Again, that’s the hope. There are some big risks there as well.

Hacker on granting different types of high school diplomas:

First of all, Texas has three types of diplomas. It has the one diploma that can get you into Harvard or Yale, another diploma perhaps to San Marcos in Texas, and a third diploma where you could start at a community college, maybe doing air conditioning repair, but moving up to a four-year college later. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Rotherham on systematic discrimination that results from putting students on tracks:

The problem you see with these different routes — and the GED is a piece of this — is low-income kids and minority kids systematically get put into those routes. And so what you have to believe the professor’s [Hacker’s] very deterministic position about this, you have to believe that poor kids and minority kids, systematically, they don’t want to go to elite schools. They don’t want these things. They want to go and they want to be air conditioning technicians — which is, by the way, a very respectable way and if you want job security these days, there’s nothing wrong with learning to work with your hands. It’s a very good path to it. But you have to believe that these populations are systematically making that choice.

Or you can believe, as the evidence shows, that they are systematically being put into lower tracks, they’re taking less rigorous curriculum. They’re then not prepared to do the things necessary to get into these elite schools. And then that’s why we a) see the really poor participation of low-income kids at elite schools, and b) why we see very much of the social mobility that we see. Because the data is very clear on this…the best thing you can do in this country if you want to improve social mobility is help low-income kids go to college.

Rotherham on high school preparing students to have many options in the future:

Some people do know what they want to do at a relatively young age. Many don’t. And you could think about many people whose own life experiences and trajectories, they went in different directions. Where I come down is you want high schools to essentially be trampolines to push kids to higher levels of learning and have lots of different choices in front of them. My concern is that kid who really thinks they want to do cars and they’re really good at that and that’s what they do through high school — and then a couple years later, they decide they don’t want to do that for the next 40 years after they’ve been out and doing it.

You want to have that kid set up — and this is not a hypothetical example, I know kids like this in rural communities. You want that kid to be set up to then go back to college, go back to community college to go on a different path. And if we just let kids specialize in high school and make them purely vocational, you’re essentially putting people on a pretty fixed path that it then becomes harder and harder to bounce back from. They decide they want to go to college, they’re way far back from even taking credit-bearing college courses, for example.

And you can blend these things — there’s absolutely nothing in the Common Core that’s incompatible with a terrific program in auto mechanics and shop. You can do these things; good schools do this now. And you get really good outcomes when you combine rigorous academics with vocational education, so it’s not a choice.

Rotherham on advantaged and disadvantaged students and leveling the playing field:

That child from Scarsdale does enjoy all sorts of advantages. And it is the job of the public schools to level the playing field as much as possible for that child from Alabama. And I’ll just put one statistic out there that I think illustrates this. Right now in this country, about 8 percent of low-income students can expect to get a BA by the time they’re 24 — 8 percent. So if anyone says we’re doing about as well as we can, we can’t expect more, we should put these kids into vocational education — you’re essentially saying that 8 percent is a realistic ceiling. I think that’s not true. I think there’s plenty of evidence from some communities that do better, schools — both public, private and public charter schools — that do better, that show we can actually have much higher expectations for students.

Gewertz on the challenge to implement Common Core:

There’s large swaths of the civil rights communities that have advocated historically for disadvantaged children in particular that feel this is a great thing — the argument being why should our kids be held to lower standards than kids in the high-flying suburbs? But these things are hard. I just spent six months hanging around in one classroom in one school in the District of Columbia, watching them trying to put this on the ground. And the gaps between what kids know and what they’re expected to know with these standards are big. And it’s a heavy lift. It’s going to be a heavy lift not just in disadvantaged zones but in the vast swaths of the country.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times: Who’s Minding The Schools? – “Whether the Common Core is called a curriculum or not, there’s little doubt that teachers will feel pressured to gear much of their instruction to this annual regimen. In the coming years, test results are likely to affect decisions about grade promotion for students, teachers’ job status and school viability.”

The Washington Post: GOP Fear Of Common Core Education Standards Unfounded – “The Common Core standards are actually an attempt by governors — including many conservative, Republican governors — to set some coherent standards on what children should know about math and English by various grade levels.”

The Wall Street Journal: Conservatives And The Common Core – “For most states—which have lacked demanding standards for years—the Common Core represents a remarkable advance in rigor and academic content. Since the standards call for a coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum, those states that have signed on to the Common Core are now having a serious discussion about the specific subject matter that must be taught in the classroom.”

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