Saturday, November 23, 2013

Common Core: Will it water down education?

Note:  Below is a story I wrote and that appeared in a Massachusetts parenting magazine, baystateparent, in August 2013.  There were some editing errors as the story was laid out in the magazine so what appears below is the final, edited piece by the editor before it was moved into production.

An interesting note about the debate over Common Core:  Frederick Hess, an adjunct professor at Harvard University and the executive editor of, told me, while I interviewed him for this story, that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was prone to heavily criticizing opponents of Common Core.  He held to his reputation, when, recently, he said the only people complaining about Common Core were "white suburban moms."

One wonders what the outcry would have been had Mr. Duncan been a Republican, not a Democrat.

Here's a link to The Washington Post story about Mr. Duncan:

Common Core:  Will it water down education?


  Those pushing Common Core see the country’s schools in a desperate situation, needing an immediate fix if the nation’s youth aren’t to be condemned to future economic failure.
  Even Massachusetts schools require further improvement because too many Bay State public high school graduates take remedial classes in math and English in college or if they go directly into the work force, lack the reading and math skills required for the job, according to the Commonwealth’s top education officer.
  But those against Common Core see it as a nefarious plot to reduce the state’s exacting standards for K – 12 education, making them more compatible to the whims of the man putting financial muscle behind the effort – Out-of-state Billionaire and Microsoft Founder Bill Gates – and not in the best interests of the kids.
  One detractor says it’s like something out of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” an effort to tailor the country’s workforce to Microsoft.
  Given these two, very opposing views, what’s a parent to believe?

Ripe for Change

  American public schools remain vulnerable to reform because standardized test scores, like the one administered two years ago by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), showed only 32 percent of U.S. eighth graders proficient in math.
  “Until the test scores improve, schools will be seen as needing to be reformed,” says Paul Peterson, director of the program on education policy and governance at Harvard University.
  Massachusetts students, however, are bucking the trends.
  About 50 percent of all Massachusetts fourth and eighth graders who took the National Assessment and Educational Progress (NAEP) exam two years ago were considered proficient in math and English.
  In another standardized test, also taken about two years ago, called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which measured math and science abilities of Massachusetts eighth graders against their peers in 63 countries and nine U.S. states, Bay State students scored near the top in math, just behind children from South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
  In the science portion of the TIMSS exam, Bay State eighth graders also scored near the top, falling only behind kids from Singapore.
  But Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester sees it differently. “Massachusetts citizens should be proud (of the schools), but having said that, our biggest disadvantage is complacency,” he says. “And so we point out that 50 percent of our students are proficient, but 50 percent are not.”
  “As top-rated as our public school system is, 40 percent of our public high school graduates who matriculate to public universities or community colleges in Massachusetts take at least one remedial, non-credit class because they don’t have the math and English skills needed for college,” Chester says. 
  “Too many of our students can’t read complex texts, technical information and non-fiction information, which is what they have to tackle in college courses,” he says. “They can write a personal essay, but when it comes to critiquing material they’ve just read, they don’t have the skills.”
  “Too many students are also without the math skills that let them tackle more advanced classes. They also struggle to apply math to real-life situations. These are the criticisms I’ve heard from many employers,” Chester adds.

What About MCAS?

  The standardized test kids have been taking since 1998 in the state, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Study (MCAS), will likely be replaced by a new, standardized test that’s given in 22 other states.
  The new test, called Partnership for Assessment Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), will test kids in grades 3 to 11, says J.C. Considine, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
  PARCC tests for what Common Core is all about – career and college readiness. 
  Chester says many high school graduates taking a remedial math or English class in college did well on the 10th grade MCAS test and that’s the reason for the new PARCC test.
  “We’ll know (with the PARCC test) whether someone in the 10th grade or 11th grade is performing on track to finish high school and do well in college or in their career.”
  The first PARCC test is expected during the 2014 – 2015 academic year.

Common Core Defined

  Common Core’s has two components, mathematics and English. 
  The math portion focuses instruction on fewer topics and goes into greater depth. This means first grade math not only introduces addition and subtraction but also makes kids understand the reason behind the answer.
  In the fifth grade, according to Common Core, children are adding and subtracting fractions and graphing data.
  There’s also a push, from the people developing Common Core, to move Algebra 1 from eighth to ninth grade, but Commissioner Chester says that doesn’t apply to Massachusetts.
  “School districts can continue to teach Algebra 1 in the eighth grade,” he says.
  A retired Stanford University math professor, R. James Milgram, who worked on Common Core standards, has expressed much concern that the new Common Core math will put American children behind their peers overseas.

Watering Down Education

  There’s much skepticism about Common Core because leading scholars on education, English and math take issue with it.
  Board of Massachusetts and Secondary Education Member Dr. Sandra Stotsky was on the Common Core’s Validation Committee and refused to approve its standards.
  “We’re dumbing down the entire population,” she says. “That’s what you get when you have standards that have been lowered and you don’t provide any understanding of history and the heritage of the English language.”
  She fears high school English teachers, instead of focusing on literature, drama and poetry, will be forced to teach the writings of political philosophers and how they’re relevant to high school students’ understanding of the U.S. Constitution.
  Massachusetts Education Commissioner Chester disagrees. “Literacy skills are the teachers’ responsibility. You don’t expect English teachers to solve this problem alone. This requires history teachers and science teachers to make sure their students understand the vocabulary being used, how a textbook is structured and how to read critically what’s being presented,” he says.
  When the commissioner was asked if he expected high school English teachers to teach informational texts as they relate to U.S. history, Chester said, “No. They’re not teaching U.S. history.”
  “If Common Core standards are going to be set at the international level and against the NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) standardized test, then the American public is in for a very rude shock,” says Harvard University’s Education Policy Professor Peterson.
  He says Common Core is a step up for weak public schools, like those in California, but, he says, “I’d be upset if I was a parent in Massachusetts.”

Who Controls the Curriculum of Common Core?

  Worcester School Committee Member Donna Colorio has just formed a group, The Massachusetts Coalition for Superior Education, that’s opposed to Common Core.
  She worries it’ll lower the educational standards Massachusetts set when it reformed its curriculum about 15 years ago and, eventually, nationalize the K – 12 school curriculum and standards.
  “This is a top down approach to education,” Colorio says. “There’s no local control.”
  She says teachers are worried they’ll be held to a timeline to keep students on track as they teach material that’s part of Common Core and, as a result, won’t be able to help their slower learners.
  Commissioner Chester takes issue with this prediction.
  “There are some states that specify the curriculum and give you textbook lists and have a syllabus of what high school biology will cover,” he says. “We don’t.”
  “We’ve adopted frameworks that include the Common Core standards for English and math. We’re developing resources and model units of study,” Chester adds.
  “Teachers can still customize and individualize education and meet students where they are to move them forward,” he says. “Even if you wanted a lock-step curriculum, it’s not a day-by-day or month-by-month plan. It’s end of the year expectations.”

The Funding Behind Common Core

  The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was awarded a Race to the Top (RTTT) grant of $250 million by the U.S. Department of Education in Washington.
 The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped Massachusetts win the grant by paying a Boston-based company, The Bridgespan Group, to prepare the Bay State’s application for the grant.
 Critical to receiving the grant is that Common Core will be introduced into Massachusetts’ educational system as well as into local school districts applying for a portion of the grant.
  So far about 65 percent of the state’s school districts have accepted RTTT funds, including Boston Public Schools as well as the districts of Brockton, Haverhill, New Bedford, Springfield, Worcester, Revere and many others, according to Commissioner Chester. 
  In addition, 44 of the state’s charter schools have also received RTTT funds.
  Common Core came from the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers about six years ago, Harvard’s Professor Peterson says, because results on a standardized test by the National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) differed from standardized test results conducted by individual states.

Future Problems

  The biggest potential problem for Common Core, says one education expert following its progress, is that it’s been done so quietly.
  “Common Core advocates have been perfectly happy to have states quietly sign up for Race to the Top dollars,” says Frederick Hess, a faculty associate at Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Executive Editor of Education Next. “They’ve been perfectly happy to take their bureaucratic victories and just go home.”
  The best reason for Common Core, he says, is the standardized test results around the country.
  “They’re all gobbledygook,” Dr. Hess says. “Massachusetts has some of the best national assessments as the National Association of Education Progress test show, but parents in other states are not getting reliable information about their schools.”
  “While maybe this idea has merit, Common Core’s been done off the radar by a couple of hundred folks, operating out of sight, with the U.S. Department of Education leaning on states to apply for Race to the Top funds, all the while paying little attention to what Common Core means in practice,” Hess says.
  “Common Core advocates want to change the way schools think about math and reading instruction for 50 million kids, and they’ve been very reluctant to publicly debate why this is good,” he says.  “They’ve tended to dismiss critics as ‘no-nothings’ and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said they’re part of some crazy fringe.”
  Emory University English Professor Mark Bauerlein, who’s against Common Core, looks at this reform movement as similar to a science fiction novel.
  “This is more ‘Brave New World,’” he says, with one person, or group of people, determining how future generations will think, act and how they will be employed.
  Indeed, The Boston Globe, recently reported Google and Microsoft executives want Massachusetts public schools to teach computer science and “add computing questions to the state’s standardized tests.”

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