Friday, October 10, 2014

Thoughts on Common Core

Common Core is a hot topic and generates a lot of hoopla. However, when folks on both sides of the issue are pressed, they tend to provide simplistic explanations that do little to illuminate the debate.  
Supporters of Common Core argue that if you are against it then you must be for our children living in the “intellectual darkness” of inferior standards. Those in the opposite camp argue that Common Core is a “Big Brother” top down initiative from politicians in Washington and a gross over reach by the Federal government. Both these explanations are simplistic and ignore the reality of the situation.
The truth of how Common Core came to be is quite complex and is thoroughly documented in many well researched papers on the Internet. If you are really interested, I’ll be happy to provide links to thoughtful and generally non-hyperbolic discussions of the topic.

That said, I offer the following points:

1)      The historic education standards used in Tennessee and other states are content standards, i.e. the standards define the information or content that we want students to master.  Common Core differs markedly in that it is a “process standard” designed to teach children to “think” and “solve” problems critically.
2)      Anyone who has tried to solve a 3rd grade Common Core math problem knows  that assessing Common Core is much more complex that just grading a multiple choice test. Since we now want to assess “how” the student thinks, we must use artificial intelligence algorithms that have not been properly researched or tested for this purpose. The Common Core tests are being developed by a consortium called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). A full review of this group is beyond the scope of this brief narrative. However, representatives from the testing companies are prominent among the members. These tests are expected to raise the cost of student testing significantly (along with profits to the testing companies). The increased costs for this testing have been largely hidden from the public and legislatures. These increased test costs are highly significant in a time when most states are faced with budgetary limitations.
3)      In order to be eligible for the administration’s “Race to the Top” initiative, states had to agree to implement Common Core. In the quest to secure “Race to the Top” funding, Tennessee signed on for Common Core very quickly. So quickly in fact that the adoption was rushed and not well thought out. Many teachers feel they were inadequately prepared for the implementation. Despite the fact that it is implemented in Tennessee classrooms, we are still utilizing the previous TCAP exams. Although the test data from last year has been very slow to emerge, it appears that these tests results suffered during the last class year. Our legislature has wisely held off implementation of the PARCC testing. However, this puts our children in a very precarious position of once again being tested to the new Common Core standard with tests designed for the old state content standards.
4)      During my interface with classroom teachers in the 2013-2014 school year, I was told that Common Core “shoe horns” all the students into a prescribed “proper ways of thinking”. Most of the brightest students already develop unique problem solving paths and several teachers I have spoken to feel that the Common Core rubric adversely affects them by forcing them into “appropriate” ways of thinking that do not make sense to them. Having tried to follow the Common Core “appropriate ways of thinking” to solve problems, I can totally relate.

In summary:

·         The people pushing Common Core the hardest may be more motivated by profit or the promise of Federal funding than our children's well being.
·         Rather than blindly pushing Common Core, our state administrators might want to look at the evidence where it has been attempted. Most of the evidence I have found is either inconclusive or negative.
·         The legislature needs to take a close look at the cost impact of PARCC testing and its impact on our students and education budgets with an eye to scrapping the Common Core all together. 

·         As parents and concerned citizens we need to get the facts and be prepared to counter the loud (and well funded) forces who are pushing Common Core.
As a very respected national educator put it at the 2013 American Education Research Association (AERA) conference, “When the world's largest software company (Microsoft) and the world's largest testing company (Pearson) are the biggest proponents of Common Core, it should give one pause to wonder why.”

The Tennessee Legislature will again address the Common Core during the next session. As concerned parents, grandparents, and community leaders we need to make sure we understand the issues and share our concerns with our legislators in a respectful, informed manner.

Lastly, According to the Heritage Foundation, the federal government provides just
9%-10% of the funding for public education in the states, yet it is the source of 41% of the administrative

compliance burden for the states. Perhaps the time has come to do a cost benefit assessment on the impact of accepting Federal funding. 

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