The Verdict Is Out
Does Common Core really advance education, or does it hinder learning for kids?
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are intended to set clear college- and career-ready standards for K-12 in English language arts/literacy and mathematics at the state level, according to the CCSS website.
“The standards establish what students need to learn, but they do not dictate how teachers should teach,” the website states. CCSS enables collaboration among states in developing textbooks and teaching materials, and assessment systems that replace current state testing systems to measure student performance.
“The CCSS are true internationally benchmarked standards that will raise the bar for all Michigan students,” said Shaton Berry, vice president for leadership and CCSS team lead, Michigan PTA. “We think expectations for our students should be the same as those in other states that are reaching higher to ensure students are prepared — and CCSS provide those rigorous expectations. We want all children — and all teachers — to benefit from the opportunities that common standards provide, things like better textbooks and online learning materials and the many resources that are being developed and shared by teachers throughout the country.”
State Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods, said CCSS began as an effort through the National Governor’s Association and is heavily funded through private foundations — most notably the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which contributed $200 million.
“States were offered federal incentives to join one of two testing consortia,” she said. “Michigan joined the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium in 2009. This was done through the State Board [of Education] and the MDE [Michigan Department of Education], not via the legislature.”
Lipton said she is skeptical of CCSS “and its heavy emphasis on high-stakes, standardized testing and the lack of educators in creating the standards.
“Corporations and corporate philanthropists see the enormous profit potential in creating a unified set of standards and a test (and test prep materials, etc.) that goes along with it,” she said.
“The corporate reformers see education as nothing more than a simple transfer of knowledge and subsequent test score to measure accountability. Public education, of course, is so much more than that. Educators understand this, but very few were involved in the creation of the CCSS.”
There is no way for Michigan to opt out of the CCSS program unless it wants to lose the $521 million of a $13.8 billion national pot in Title I funding from the federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act.
“A state’s receipt of federal dollars is contingent, in part, upon adoption of the CCSS and a test to measure ‘proficiency,’” she said. “The only option is for the U.S. Department of Education to grant a flexibility waiver under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This can happen on a state-by-state basis. The debate is far from over as states continue to exit the consortia and seek waivers from the federal government. However, no state has been willing to risk its Title I dollars.”
Criticism Of CCSS
Some say it is the federal government takeover of the local public school system; that the curriculum is too difficult for the younger students but too easy for the older students; that the curriculum was written without input from actual teachers, and does not actually teach students as much as it prepares them for standardized tests; and that although CCSS might try to improve the No Child Left Behind program, neither program allows teachers to actually “teach” students.
It is one of the few subjects that Tea Party advocates, like Glenn Beck and Michele Malkin, have in common with teacher unions, Democratic legislators and philosophy professors.
Marcie Lipsitt has been a lay advocate in education for years and is in favor of national standards in education, but not the way that CCSS is perceived.
“My core belief is that our children cannot be the property of 14,000-plus school districts in Michigan,” she said. “They are America’s kids and they have to be educated equally in order to compete across America and across global nations.
“The problem with CCSS is that it was not designed by academia. It was not designed by our nation’s best in educational sciences. It is being driven by corporate America for all the wrong reasons,” said Lipsitt, citing the Pearson Corporation, an education company that supplies educational curricula around the world and has developed the CCSS curriculum.
“The CCSS, private money and public education are not serving the children. It’s incongruent. When I look at the private money from the really big philanthropists — Bill and Melinda Gates, Edyth and Eli Broad, Mark Zuckerberg and the Koch brothers — they are all, no matter what their politics are, what I call toxic philanthropy. Letting the 1 percent control how we educate children in America is not serving children and America.”
Lipsitt said CCSS expects too much from younger students.
“The notion that all children are born with exceptionally developed higher-level thinking skills in elementary school is outrageous, especially since research tells us that our executive functions are not fully functioning until we’re in our mid-20s,” she said.
“That is the problem with the history and the English lessons. It expects children to make these very early text connections that require high-level thinking skills — the interpretation of text — that are not in place.
“We need national standards; we need to overhaul teacher preparation in America, but not by corporate America or by toxic philanthropists,” she said.
In a speech at the American Society of News Editors Annual Convention in 2013, Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan touted Common Core standards.
“The problem is a lot of children, in a lot of places in America, have not been getting a world-class education. But rather than recognize that, for far too long, our school systems lied to kids, to families and to communities,” he said, “they said the kids were all right — that they were on track to being successful — when in reality they were not even close. What made those soothing lies possible were low standards for learning.”
Common Core could level the playing field, he said.
“When these standards are fully implemented, a student who graduates from a high school in any one of these states — who is performing at standard — will be ready to attend and succeed in his or her state university without remedial education,” he said.
“Historically, in far too many communities, more than half of those who actually graduated from high school needed remedial help in college.”
Ericka Lipman, mother of three children (Ryan, 12, and twins Austin and Haley, 8), said that CCSS began in the Walled Lake School district last year. She said all her children love to learn.
“The teachers go above and beyond in teaching,” said Lipman, a speech pathologist. “But they are forced to follow certain guidelines. They have to spend extra time and effort to learn how to teach it.”
Lipman said her kids are adjusting well to the homework, but “Ryan says he’s sick of solving everybody else’s problems.”
A Teacher’s View
Meredith Summer has been an elementary school teacher for 16 years and chose her profession because she “wanted to make a difference in my students’ lives the way my teachers did for me,” she said. “The best teachers I had were creative and inspired me to want to learn. I want to do that for my students.”
Summer said CCSS is just another form of No Child Left Behind, a test-based curriculum.
“Teaching to a test narrows the curriculum down so that there are no opportunities for ‘teachable moments’ or creativity,” said Summer, who teaches in a Detroit public school. “The standards are too high for K-3, and then are too low for the upper grades. It causes students to feel defeated early on.
“For instance, kindergarteners are expected to be able to take tests on a computer, which means they need to be able to read and know how to work the computer at a very young age. Some of the questions for kindergarteners include things they have not learned yet, such as multiplication,” she said. “Students learn in different ways. A test is a mere ‘data point’ in their school career. A student who performs low on a test might be very intelligent, but a poor test-taker.”
Summer said that she teaches CCSS in her fourth-grade class.
“The math curriculum is especially confusing, and the strategies are time-consuming,” she said. “If a student struggles with reading, he or she will also struggle in math because it is largely story-problem based. The ‘old-school’ way has been tried and true for ages. Parents are unable to help their kids at home, because they do not know these convoluted strategies.”
Elysa Koppelman White is concerned about CCSS professionally and personally as an associate professor of philosophy for 13 years at Oakland University, and as a married mother of two primary school-aged children.
School “standards” are not needed, she said. “If you compare apples to apples — districts with adequate funding, involved parents, kids who have basic necessities, etc. — our schools are not broken and never have been. We do just as well as any private school and just about any other country. The failure of kids to thrive academically is mostly due to poverty and lack of parental involvement.”
High-stakes testing is ruining education on many levels, she said, and students will not be ready for college with these standards in place.
“Teachers are no longer able to use creativity in teaching concepts. If everyone is learning the same concepts at the same time in the same way, then this undermines the marketplace of ideas. No one brings anything new or unique to the table,” she said. “And the creativity and sharing of different ideas that drives our economy and inventions and entrepreneurial spirit will die.
“I’ve already seen the damage No Child Left Behind has had on students’ readiness for college. This takes it further — it will only get worse.”
She cites her students’ lack of critical thinking and writing skills in her classroom.
“They are much less able to think critically and formulate arguments and counter-arguments as students in the past,” she said. “They have a hard time taking essay exams because they have a hard time explaining themselves. Universities like mine now have writing across the curriculum programs and requirements for writing intensive courses, and this is for sure a direct result of teaching to a multiple choice test.
“I have also been asked several times, ‘Can’t you just tell us what’s on the test and give us multiple choice?’
“As a parent, as a professor and as a member of society, I am gravely concerned, and I feel trapped,” she said. “Because the SAT will soon be aligned with CCSS, private schools will have no choice but to adopt them, too.”
In its place, White wants to see control of the classroom given back to teachers, parents and the community.
“This is a democracy,” she said, “and public school ought to reflect that.”
By Harry Kisrbaum, Contributing Writer