Opinion: The Common Core's role in the myth of failing schools

On Board Online • December 15, 2014

By Chris Cerrone

The Common Core is championed as developing critical thinking skills and preparing our students for "college and career." Perhaps we should apply the former to the latter. Can we predict exactly what university programs or job opportunities will be available many years from now? How do we know that the Common Core will prepare students for what awaits after graduation? Is making students "college- and career-ready" a worthy goal, or would we prefer that our children become "life ready" - caring, responsible, well-rounded, community minded individuals who can adapt to whatever the future holds?

The front page of On Board on Nov. 10 contained a short piece about how six of 10 New York students who took the SAT were not at the level that the College Board claims will show readiness for college and careers. But many studies (including one mentioned in the Nov. 24 edition of On Board) have shown that the most important predictor of college success is a student's high school grades, not standardized test scores. As a school board member, teacher and parent, my concern is that our state and nation's focus on test scores feeds the myth that our schools are "failing" (and could easily be manipulated when state officials set cut scores).

More students are graduating high school and attending college than ever before in American history, and the United States remains the world's leader in innovation and an economic powerhouse. Yet, despite these achievements, there are those pushing the panic button over public education in the United States.

Many proponents of the Common Core and other educational reforms say we need to prepare students to compete in a global economy, particularly with "emerging" China. Such international comparisons have been going on for decades, including worries about falling behind the Soviets during the Cold War Era. Alarms have been raised over PISA scores, yet our overall results have remained consistent ever since PISA's inception. When looking at PISA results compared by wealth, American students in schools with low poverty rates are at the top of the international assessment rankings. The real issue is how to improve the achievement of students who grow up in poverty.

While we can disagree about whether there is a crisis, we can all agree that we want to see schools improve, particularly in areas with high poverty rates. Those who favor current education reforms claim that the best way to do that is to use high-stakes testing and have school and educator evaluations based partly on student test scores. The Common Core is married to these assessments and has been implemented as a way to hold states and local districts accountable.

Educators have always tested what they taught. But now what is tested determines what is taught. As long as Common Core testing is tied to school and educator ratings, schools will focus on the tested subjects of ELA and math, neglecting other disciplines.

While there is nothing wrong with the idea of creating a loose set of national educational benchmarks, it should have been done by the right people for the right reasons. The Common Core was primarily created and driven by the testing industry and related non-profit groups. Educator authors Anthony Cody, Mercedes Schneider and Julian Vasquez Heilig have debunked the claim that teachers played a major role in the creation of the Common Core. K-12 educators had little input in the process other than as part of validation groups.

Notably, the validation committees lacked early childhood and special education educators as well as teachers of English language learners. If early childhood experts had been involved in creating the Common Core, we would not be hearing so many concerns about the appropriateness of the standards for our youngest students. A group that wants to restore play to kindergartens and preschools called the Alliance for Childhood has called for the suspension of the Common Core Standards for grades K-3. The group's advisory board includes many prominent professors of education including Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford, Deborah Meier of New York University and Dorothy and Jerome Singer of Yale.

All students need to be challenged, but the Common Core is an unproven framework that hampers teachers' efforts to diversify instruction for all learners. In the first two years of the Common Core assessments in New York, the achievement gap between white and black students has increased. What about children with learning disabilities or English Language Learners? Will the Common Core leave all of these groups further behind? What will be the impact on graduation rates as students will be required to pass Regents Exams aligned to the Core?

The absence of working K-12 educators in the creation of the Common Core has led to questionable instruction methods in both math and English Language Arts (ELA). As noted on the front page of On Board on Nov. 24, educators are concerned that the Common Core encourages an overreliance on non-fiction and informational text. ELA teachers are also troubled by the approach to fiction. In some modules available on EngageNY, students will spend several grueling weeks "close reading" a novel, frustrating and boring both advanced and struggling readers. Other lessons require only reading an excerpt from a novel - a practice that mirrors test-preparation. As noted in the Chicago Teachers Union's trenchant Common Core Position Paper, students need to find joy in reading, personal connections to previous knowledge and experiences. Boring "canned" readings and excerpts that mirror standardized exams will not inspire a love of reading.

Then there's math. Some of the new standards emphasize learning a visual process of breaking down a mathematical problem that may be helpful to some students. But Common Core math has become more about learning the language of math as opposed to understanding math itself. Many of the new math processes are confusing and take longer than traditional methods to solve problems. On social media, parents who have degrees and are employed in STEM fields have questioned how the new math would apply to their real world job tasks.

Many people ask: If not the Common Core, then what? New York has had excellent standards across various disciplines for years. Gary Stern of the Journal News recently looked at the "lost standards," an effort by actual New York educators to update the Empire State's educational benchmarks. This laudable process to update our standards was tossed aside as the Board of Regents moved towards adopting the Common Core as part of receiving $700 million from the Race to the Top initiative.

How should New York proceed? We should drop the Common Core Standards and revive and continue the progress that created "lost standards," known as the Regents Standards Review and Revision Initiative. The recent completion of the Social Studies Framework shows that quality standards can be created by New York educators who know their students, content, and age-appropriateness of curriculum.

While standards are important, they have been a distraction from other issues that desperately need attention in Albany. Imagine if all the major political and financial supporters of the Common Core put their energies towards advocating for small class sizes, along with diverse program and course offerings. What if the proponents of the Core began applying their considerable resources to work for community school models that can provide wraparound services for schools in areas of poverty to meet the needs of the whole child? There are many ways we can move education forward in New York State without tying our future to the Common Core and the failing schools myth.


Chris Cerrone is a member of the Springville-Griffith Institute school board, a middle school educator in Hamburg Central Schools and a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education. This article does not necessarily represent the viewpoints of organizations of which he is a member.

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