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Commentary: The Idiot’s Guide to the Common Core Standards

Ellie Herman | December 19, 2013

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images-1How much do you know about the Common Core Standards? Choose all that apply. The Common Core is:

a) a new set of nationwide standards that will encourage deep thinking instead of rote memorization

b) a new round of edu-crap, like No Child Left Behind

c) replacing state standards in 45 states including California

d) causing surprisingly large numbers of students to freak out and start weeping uncontrollably during initial tests all across the East Coast

e) causing Arne Duncan to infuriate opponents by dismissing them as “white suburban moms”

f) going to push fiction out of English classrooms

g) going to have no effect on the teaching of fiction

h) going to change everything

i) going to change nothing

j) going to make testing companies billions of dollars

If you picked any number of the above, congratulations! Whether you know anything about Common Core or not, you’ve grasped one of the central notions of this new set of national standards: the embrace of ambiguity and the possibility of multiple, contradictory correct answers.

Reality is, after all, a shape-shifting beast whose very existence is a matter of opinion. In other words, if you are an idiot, you may be onto something.

Which is an idea I wholeheartedly support. Still, I would say that at this point, I would check all of the above on my mini-quiz. I have extremely mixed feelings about Common Core for a variety of reasons.

The first thing you need to know about Common Core is that it is already happening. If you don’t like what you’re about to read, you’re too late. If your child is in public school here in L.A., he or she is going to be learning under the new standards.

The second thing you need to know about Common Core is that it is intended as a radical re-envisioning of education. From the beginning of public education in America, low-income students of color have been disproportionately relegated to underfunded schools that were accountable to no one. A variety of measures, beginning with desegregation and going through No Child Left Behind, attempted to redress this imbalance. But No Child Left Behind quickly devolved into a further hot mess of inequality. Different states had different tests. Schools cheated. The entire state of Texas has been accused of fraud.

On a deeper level, there was a creeping concern among just about any teacher I knew that our students, however proficient on tests, did not know how to think.

The Common Core standards are a response to this concern. What’s radical about Common Core is that unlike No Child Left Behind, which measured the accumulation of skills and information, the Common Core standards value process. Under Common Core, it matters more how you think about something rather than what you already know. Instead of reams of state-produced standards for every subject, CC has a compact national list of four standards: Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language.

Sounds great, right?

Well, yes. In theory. I mean, if what was actually about to happen was that students across America were going to learn to think critically, synthesize knowledge and communicate clearly, I’d be dancing in the streets.

The problem is that all of this is coming awfully close to magical thinking. Yes, our kids need to learn to think critically. We knew that before. I guess it’s a good thing that we’re making it official. You have to state a problem before you can solve it. Analytical thinking is a complex web of painstaking logical procedures and the vocabulary necessary to manipulate abstract concepts. It is not innate in even the most brilliant students. I am not aware of anyone who has unpacked it to a teachable level.

So in theory, it’s great that we’re shining a light on this need to figure out how to teach critical thinking. But…

The final thing you need to know is that Common Core is not just a theory — it’s a test.

Even though we don’t yet know how to teach critical thinking, we’re going to be testing it. Soon. And at enormous, almost inconceivable expense. Right now, California is playing chicken with the U.S. Department of Education over whether it has to hold schools “accountable” for their test scores on the new Common Core tests, which are still under construction.

And the tests for California are not yet very good. First of all, the company creating these tests is called “Smarter Balanced.” Yes, you read that right. No, there is no noun. But does that make any less sense than spending billions of dollars on testing when we’re so broke we’re cramming 45 or 50 kids into a classroom?

The sample test I took online seemed only a slight step up from the SAT, with computer-graded short answers rather than multiple choice questions. So did the so-called “performance task,” which requires internet access but is really not dissimilar to the SAT Writing section in terms of measuring skills.

Even if we use these tests only experimentally for the first couple of years, LA Unified is going to need to spend an estimated $3.6 million this year just to pilot them. That’s on top of the billion or so we may be spending on iPads—since Common Core tests are computer-based, students without access to computers will bomb the test from lack of practice unless this imbalance is redressed immediately.

I could not agree more that all the district’s students deserve equal access to technology. But this need would not be a five-alarm emergency if they were not about to be held accountable for their lack of access to it.

In another five-alarm emergency, since nobody knew how to teach Common Core skills, companies purporting to know how to do it are now selling these untested systems to desperate schools for billions of dollars—on top of the estimated billion we’re paying for development of these tests.

Meanwhile, across Los Angeles, I frequently visit classes that cannot afford books for their English classes. Some schools ration photocopies because they can’t afford paper. Teenagers have stunned the district by breaking down firewalls to access social media and by losing stuff. Who exactly needs to learn critical thinking here?

But don’t take my word for it. Take the sample test yourself and decide whether it’s worth billions. Together, we’ll decide who’s an idiot.

Ellie Herman is a guest commentator. Read more of her thoughts at Gatsby in LA.




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