( – promoted by Michael Bersin)

Thoughts on the Common Core Standards

By Heath Oates

On Tuesday, December 16, I attended a meeting convened by the Missouri Moms Against the Common Core in Raymore, Mo. I attended the meeting because I wanted to better understand the opposition to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  As the Director of Curriculum for a school district of about 1000 students in western Missouri, I have been working with the standards almost daily since the public first had a look at them. I have thought, since first reading the standards, that it would be good for kids if they left high school with the skills listed in the CCSS.  So for me, I took the standards as a given, as a set of goals for our kids to meet that progressed logically up the grades. The goals seemed to provide clear focus for a set of useful skills, and while they are challenging, they would not be impossible for most students to achieve.

I was honestly surprised when I first heard opposition to the Common Core State Standards. At first, the opposition I heard came mostly from the right side of the political spectrum criticizing the standards as a federal mandate with a larger, nefarious agenda. I then began to read some criticisms inside educational circles about the lack of educators in the room when the standards were being developed, and how some of the nonfiction reading standards didn’t seem appropriate for younger students. I also heard from teachers who have anxiety about how these standards will affect their job performance evaluations.

Criticism of the Common Core standards has now picked up pace. I would not call the opposition to the CCSS a unified movement because the various factions are as splintered as the criticisms of those standards.

I did learn something important at that meeting on December 16th. Criticism of the “Common Core” often has little to do with the standards themselves. The words on the page which make up what students need to know in English Language Arts and Mathematics are beside the point to a sizable group of folks who are against the Common Core. The three hour meeting I attended only contained a couple of mentions of the actual content of those learning standards. None of the standards themselves were put before the audience. After the meeting, when I asked Representative Rick Brattin and a handful of people who are against the Common Core what it was about the standards that bothered them, they said it was mainly the process by which they were adopted, and not necessarily the standards themselves.

Only then, after attending this meeting and thinking about it for a couple of weeks, did I understand. The phrase, “Common Core” does not simply denote a set of learning standards adopted by all but a handful of states. For a certain population of people in the United States, the phrase “Common Core” refers to large parts of the infrastructure of America’s education and testing system. It refers to No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Smarter Balanced and PARCC testing. It refers to the system of data collection and sharing within all the different cogs of the education and testing machine that already occur and are planned to occur. It refers to behind the scenes political deals and a corporate/government/New World Order takeover of local public education. It refers to a set of values that many people feel are an affront to Christianity. For many people, the term “Common Core” has come to encompass all of the anxieties people feel about the institution(s) of education in the United States.

The lack of agreement on terms, the amount of misinformation floating around in cyberspace, and the emotionally charged association of those terms is going to prove difficult to move this discussion forward in a productive way. Certainly, an ongoing discussion about the goals, the structure, the funding, and the evaluation of our educational system is important in a democratic society. However, if the recent discussions of health care, federal spending, unemployment benefits, torture, government surveillance, are any indication, I am not hopeful that the debate over education will be enlightening or productive. This says less about our teachers and students and more about our current culture and citizenry.

I would like to maybe help cut through some of this by writing out fifteen questions which are debatable and clear. I am under no delusion that a consensus about these questions is forthcoming. What I do think is that if people can communicate with the goal of clarity that perhaps we can come to understand one another better.

The questions start with a focus on the Common Core Standards themselves, and then proceed to other questions about federalism, testing, data, and funding.

1. Are the College and Career Readiness Standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics appropriate educational standards for students graduating from high school? Why do you think they are or are not?

2. Should the Common Core Standards be treated as a floor or a ceiling for our students?

3. Which grade-level standards in the Common Core Standards are the ones which are the most troubling (or most appropriate)?

4. How do the Common Core Standards compare with other standards internationally?

5. How do the Common Core Standards compare with the state standards they replaced?

6. Who should have sovereignty over educational standards? (possible answers below)

a. An international agency of some type (like the United Nations)

b. The federal government

c. State governments

d. Local school boards

e. Teachers in a classroom

f. Disciplinary groups (the National Science Foundation, the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics, the FFA, etc.)

g. Parents should determine the learning standards of their kids individually.

h. Other

7. Is it better for America if we have one set of national standards, fifty sets of state standards, or thousands of sets of local standards?

8. What role should standardized testing play in education?

9. What role should the following entities play in the development, delivery, and scoring of standardized tests?

a. For-profit corporations

i. Testing companies

ii. Book publishers

iii. Software developers

b. State universities

c. State departments of education

d. Teachers

e. Non-profit organizations

10. What is reliably quantifiable in education and what is not?

11. Which subjects should be mandated for all students and which should be optional (and who gets to decide)?

12. What information about students and student performance should be collected by school districts and with whom should districts share that information?

13. At what age should involvement with the public education system begin?

14. How should the following be evaluated?

a. Student performance

b. Teacher performance

c. A school district’s performance

d. A state education system

e. Our nation’s education system

15. How should schools be funded?