Critiquing the Common Core on its Merits and Demerits

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Criticism of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has sadly devolved into theater, when it and schools would benefit from critical analysis. CCSS criticism is all-too-often hyperbolic while CCSS defense delves in dismissal of concerns or even ridicule. That’s a shame because CCSS could use a critical eye: one that understands the standards as an educator and is able to negotiate the good and the bad. A good-faith critique as it were. That’s what I aim to do here as an educator, a parent, and an instructional coach.

Before we get into it, I suppose I should give a full disclosure of all my work-related comings and goings, because that’s apparently a thing that gets called into question these days: I generally support Common Core. I’m a former math teacher (so I naturally gravitate toward critiquing CCSS-Math) who became employed in my current position starting with a grant awarded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to professionally develop teachers toward CCSS implementation. I’m still employed at the same non-profit, but no longer under that or any grant.

Here are four things I think about CCSS.

1)   National standards are basically a good thing, but they do pave the way for mass-assessment.

The concern about horizontal and vertical alignment is real. Pro-CCSS folks often point to student mobility from state-to-state as a reason to have nationalized standards, but I’m not even sure you need to go that far. I taught in a district that wasn’t aligned from school-to-school. It would have been nice to have a clear playbook of standards that we were all working from so I knew roughly where kids were (or should be) from day 1.

However, a nationalized set of standards makes it really easy to test and develop tests. While No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was the genesis of national high-stakes testing, a common set of standards may well accelerate it. A nationalized set of standards will make it such that an environment where School X is compared with School Z is inevitable. While I’m a big fan of data generally, that kind of cookie-cutter analysis is troublesome. Even if next generation assessments are “better” (as is alleged, whatever it means), the impetus to benchmark students like crazy will be there.

 It’s also true that killing the CCSS won’t end the over-benchmarking of students via standardized test. Neither will scrapping NCLB.

2)   The standards are generally better than current state standards.

I had a conversation this weekend with a Scientist and kindergarten Teacher. We wound up talking a bit about Common Core. The Scientist was mentioning that he saw one of those Facebook posts where the parent shares a confusing worksheet and then it goes viral and then that’s supposed to be evidence that Common Core is dumb. The Scientist, however, said “I saw the worksheet and was like ‘that’s how I do arithmetic in my head.’ The Teacher was a fan of conceptual understanding, promoted in CCSS in a way that until recently was oft absent in state standards.

Conceptual understanding of numbers and number-sense is crucial for (among other reasons) future Algebraic understanding. CCSS attempt to get at that. However, it leaves many parents – even educated parents – frustrated. Within the past few weeks I’ve had to google “Story Mat”, “Base 10 Drawings”, and “bar model” – which aren’t even in the Common Core Math standards, but rather, idiosyncratic terms developed by curriculum publishers – to help my daughter with her math homework, and I’m allegedly some sort of math expert. I’ll admit it’s frustrating, and there will be a gap between those of use that learned procedurally and those that are learning conceptually. Still, the ability to break apart numbers and recombine them is an essential mathematical skill.

Moreover, state standards are often kind of a mess. They can be a mish-mash of best-intentions, over-prescriptive, lengthy, poorly-aligned, and not terribly well thought-out or research-based standards. Sometimes they look like the worst of things that were invented by committees. I can primarily speak to the context I taught in (Texas), but I’ll say that CCSS-M are fewer, cleaner and simply better standards than the ones I had to wrestle with. There’s an emphasis on reasoning and conceptual understanding that wasn’t there in the previous generations’ standards.

It’s interesting that Indiana, which opted out of CCSS, has adopted standards that look conspicuously like CCSS. It’s one reason that I’m optimistic that even if CCSS becomes so politically toxic that all states abandon it, it will still have been for the greater good. The folks actually in charge of standards and standards-writing generally see the good that CCSS has to offer.

3)   Common Core has had an awful rollout strategy and has been accompanied by virtually non-existent training.

The Teacher in the aforementioned conversation was a fan of Common Core, but did describe that many of her colleagues were struggling to teach math conceptually rather than procedurally. That’s 100% understandable given the means of CCSS rollout, which wasn’t much of a rollout at all.

I can’t say exactly what the “correct” rollout would have looked like, but it wouldn’t have been this. Teachers are often left to interpret and teach the new standards on their own. There’s a gap between how teachers (and you and I) learned (or didn’t learn) math and how teachers are expected to teach. Almost every teacher working today was trained in a decidedly non-CCSS pedagogical environment.

While that’s understandable in any seismic shift in education standards, what’s inexcusable is the lack of time and resources devoted to professionally develop teachers, particularly at the federal level. Race To The Top (RTTT) is kind of ridiculous as an avenue to professionally develop teachers: “show us that you can demonstrate proficiency in Common Core and then we’ll give you money to develop teachers to teach using Common Core State Standards.”

What’s worse is that many states and districts are tying teacher pay and employment to success on standardized assessment. And they’re doing it now, instead of after a few years of trial! I’ll be honest, if I knew my employment was tied to my students being successful on a math assessment, I’d probably “play it safe” and try to push as much algorithmic instruction as possible as a temporary band-aid rather than try a new avenue of fighting for conceptual understanding. So there may even be a misalignment between the current instruction and the current standards.

There have been disparate tools here and there to help teachers out, but no nationalized training or systemic interpretation. It’s been largely grant-based which is, by nature, sporadic and not systemic. Pro-CCSS folks like to chortle at the vitriol directed toward Bill Gates for awarding CCSS-related grants, but grants as a mechanism to drive systemic and ubiquitous change is a sketchy proposition.

But once again, my optimism shines through: now that math education programs and teacher training programs actually have standards (good ones!), they’ll hopefully start being able to prepare teachers properly. There will certainly be a lag time.

4)   There are legit concerns about the appropriateness of grade-specific domains

I’m uncomfortable suggesting that “Every student should know how to do X by the end of first grade.” Kids do come in at very different levels. What’s confusing about CCSS (Math) is that after Grade 8, they do away with grade-specific standards and give general domains such as “High School: Interpreting Functions” and “High School: Number and Quantity”. It’s as if after 8th grade, suddenly students and schools have the agency to figure it out on their own.

I appreciate having those benchmarks of what students “should” know by the end of each grade. However, the consequences of students not being able to demonstrate proficiency on those standards – particularly in the early grades – can be disruptive. And while Pro-CCSS folks would argue that we need to separate the standards from the assessments of those standards, the assessments and consequences are a natural outcrop of nationalized standards. One naturally follows the other. And I’ve no idea how to alleviate those consequences. Districts, States, and the DOE will not simply afford more resources to schools with students that fail to meet those standards. They’ll shut them down. Common Core State Standards is part of a system that potentially greases the skids for school closures and community disruption. These disruptions are essentially mandated in NCLB as federal law, before the CCSS existed. My fear is that CCSS will be used as the tool that NCLB uses to disrupt communities.

It’s also not fair to pin blame on the standards themselves. The goal was to develop a set of national, easy-to-follow, research-based, appropriate standards that would ensure students would build toward conceptual understanding of mathematics and problem solving, and I believe they achieved that goal.

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I’m not terribly optimistic about the long-term sustainability of CCSS as a national set of standards. Steve Leinwand once said that if Common Core becomes political, it’s dead in the water. It’s certainly political now (even if it doesn’t really move the needle electorally). I am optimistic that the folks in charge of evaluating and writing standards, such as those in State Departments of Education, have tended to see the importance of conceptual understanding, among other things.

I’m hopeful that 10 years from now either A) my concerns and the concerns of others will have been addressed or B) the residual of the failed-implementation of CCSS remains embedded in state-level standards. Either way, it’s about time we have a conversation about Common Core that is based in actual teacher input and student outcomes.

(I’m happy with comments on this post with the intention of continuing conversation. But c’mon, hysterical comments have no chance of getting published.)

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Thanks to Christopher, Tracy, and Mike for their feedback on this post.

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11 Responses to Critiquing the Common Core on its Merits and Demerits

  1. Julie Wright says:

    I thought this was a really great summary of where we stand now with CC. Thanks for doing it. I especially like how you compare to what preceded CC: were state standards and tests just hunky-dory before? Not in my state or yours. I agree that CC is a big improvement, and the alignment issues are very real as well.

    My main personal regret about the switch to CC is that my district is still using math curriculum materials that are years old (I think about 10 years; definitely more than 6), and they are not well aligned to CC. The publishers’ required updates are completely crappy. I spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel or searching opencurriculum.org for better material. But I think maybe that is not a common experience; seems like many teachers do have more up-to-date materials.

    I would add to a list of concerns the fact that we are putting so much weight on Draft 1 of the PARCC and SBAC Common Core tests, for analyzing school and teacher performance, especially. They are bound to have weaknesses the first year in the best case, and judging by the sample items SBAC has released to the public, we’re not getting the best case. QA on test items seems limited, to put it politely. Also, the adjustments needed to test children fairly on computers with non-multiple-choice test questions are likely to be significant. It’s going to be bad enough in middle school; I predict floods of tears in elementary school, and not just from students either.

    • Geoff says:

      I totally concur regarding the weight given to the first (or even second, or fifth!) year of implementation + assessments. The PARCC and SBAC assessments are kind of brutal. I’m speaking primarily High School here, but I’m dubious about placing so much faith in “cut scores” so early in the process.

      And boy howdy, the misalignment between the standards and the materials is critical. Thinking long term, I’m hoping that it shakes itself out, but there may be some serious lag-time related issues until then.

  2. dkane47 says:

    I want to try to make a connection between two of your points, curious what you think:

    1. We have a lot of testing right now, due to NCLB, CCSS, and more, and that testing puts a lot of pressure on teachers.

    2. One major goal of the Common Core is for kids to understand the math, not just to be able to compute.

    I think these two are in conflict. Kid comes in lacking background knowledge. School works hard to get him caught up, but it’s a tough gig, and comes up short. Testing season is approaching. Seems to me that schools have a choice. You can try to teach kid to understand topic X (let’s say, dividing fractions) — lots of pictures, story problems, manipulatives, etc. You come up short. Kid can get there, just needs more time to grasp what division means, and what fractions mean. But with the pressure of high-stakes testing, the school’s approach is often to force abstractions on the kid that they don’t understand. So kid spends time on worksheets practicing converting mixed numbers to improper fractions by multiplying then adding, still no idea what that means. Kid spends time on worksheets practicing division by flipping and multiplying, no idea what that means either. Kid spends time on worksheets memorizing key words for division, no worries about what division actually represents. By brute force kid can kindof divide fractions, although makes plenty of mistakes, all with the intention of doing well on the state test.

    I think this is educational malpractice, and I think it is a natural consequence of the testing regime we have now. I’m not sure the best way to discourage it, beyond getting rid of high-stakes testing — I feel like the testing companies are trying to write the perfect “conceptual question” to assess this standard in a way that teaching procedurally is a no-go, but assessment is hard, and some standards don’t lend themselves to that.

    Not sure how common this is, but I see it, and I really worry about those kids and how they internalize what it means to learn math.

    • Geoff says:

      Totally agree. Even with the best intentions of Smarter Balanced or PARCC, it going to be really difficult to assess CCSS standards, particularly the practice standards. While I want to reserve judgment until I see additional iterations of the tests, I’m not super optimistic.

      But even generally, you make an excellent point about the contradictory nature of giving students summative assessments that have the power to hold back or place in remedial math courses vs. getting a kid to learn and understand math. Again, probably not fair to pinpoint over-assessment on the standards. High stakes assessment existed before CCSS, they’ll exist after it’s gone. Ideally the fact that there are fewer CCSS-M than many set of prior state standards makes me hopeful the assessments will be shorter (or, rather, deeper). But it’s up to the schools and districts (as it’s always been) to figure out what to do with the scores.

    • You explained it perfectly.

  3. Wow! I agree with every statement you made. I dabbled with the CCSS when it debuted in 2009. It was the way I understand math and I finally felt vindicated. I adored teaching conceptually and found that throwing in drill alongside kept my standardized test scores high.

    Unfortunately, I was transferred due to my low test scores the first year I tried it. I ended up in a school and yet another (after a voluntary transfer) wihose lock- step identical planning, identical page, identical everything forced me to leave teaching. Conceptual instruction scares most people to death, it seems, because they never understood the concepts to begin with and to admit it now would be defeat. I watched education go backwards in the schools in TN. Back to drill and onto an egalitarian nightmare. These days I’m praying for an implosion so I get the chance to teach again. In the meantime, more of us are opting to use our teaching degree in our own little homeschool.

    • Geoff says:

      That’s a terrible story, Atlas. I’m sorry you had to go through that. Teachers are definitely caught in a state of limbo as governors flip-flop on CCSS. I see it all the time in my daughter’s homework assignments which may have CCSS and conceptual understanding on one side and algorithms as examples on the other. Good luck finding additional opportunities to teach in the meantime.

      • It was all quite shocking. I kept looking at others during the school year feeling as if I was in a real dream (nightmare). It was unbelievably depressing. Sometimes I thought I was imagining it all.

        Your kind words help a lot. Just knowing there are people out there who understand helps immensely. There is hope.

  4. Thanks for the well-balanced critique of CCSSM. Yes, there are issues, especially around assessment. Also, there are too many HS standards that are packed with detail. However, there are some major improvements. For example, the 3 – 5 Fractions Progression should be mandatory reading for middle and high school teachers and students. If fractions are taught (and learned) in the way that that the CCSSM rolls them out, we should see fewer students struggling with fractions in the future. The Practice Standards give teachers a focus for instruction and give students specific actions that will help them to learn math concepts deeply.

  5. Pingback: At last…a balanced critique of CCSSM | WatsonMath.com

  6. kmorrowleong says:

    It’s good to see balance in the CCSS debate. Not only do I travel around the country coaxing people to join the conceptual understanding train, I work at a local school doing the same on a more intimate level.
    My biggest concern about the CCSS is related to this: “those benchmarks of what students “should” know by the end of each grade. ” I believe, and there is some evidence to believe (http://nctm.confex.com/nctm/2012RP/webprogram/Session10159.html), that for some of the standards, this may not be not reasonable. As a matter of fact, it is possible that conceptual understanding for some of the standards is developmentally inappropriate for the grade in which they have been placed . Either that or the preparation in early grades is far too inadequate for students to access the standard on grade level. In the paper cited above, the authors give as an example the manipulation of multiple levels of units in order to divide fractions. Inaccessibility to the standards for a large portion of the population is no joke.

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