The Common Core is a Remedy Worse than the Disease

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It is time to dump the Common Core and its counterproductive high-stakes testing.

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The Common Core standards are a clear case of federal overreach, facilitated by corporate philanthropies acting to circumvent democratic process. The standards are themselves deeply flawed as a result, and they are embedded in an accountability system that is causing grave harm to students.

The U.S. Department of Education is forbidden, by the very laws that brought it into existence, from prescribing the content of curriculum and assessments. To circumvent this prohibition, the Gates Foundation stepped in with about $200 million in funding to pay for the process. These funds paid for Achieve and the National Governors Association to write the standards.

I first learned of the Common Core as they were being written in the summer of 2009. The secrecy of the process was then a selling point. The National Governors Association press release stated that: “The Work Group’s deliberations will be confidential throughout the process.”

The San Francisco Chronicle editorialized support for keeping this process behind closed doors, stating: “That’s a wise decision. A truly open process would result in the experts being lobbied by countless interest groups, and – given the still-controversial nature of national standards – it could torpedo the plan altogether.”

Although it has been claimed, after the fact, that teachers had an important role in writing the standards, there is little evidence of the robust public debate and discussion one would expect for such a momentous shift. This is one of the key reasons that the Common Core has met with such a backlash. If we look at the process for setting standards recommended by the American National Standards Institute, we find that the process by which the Common Core was written and adopted was wholly inadequate, as described by historian Diane Ravitch.

This is enough to declare the Common Core standards unworthy of support. Had the Common Core been the result of the public process and debate, including educators and education experts, serious problems might have been identified and avoided.

We should have learned one big thing from No Child Left Behind: when high stakes are attached to tests it will result in teaching to the test. Common Core standards are tightly linked to a system of high stakes tests that are undermining good teaching. In fact, new tests aligned with Common Core are yielding scores that are significantly lower than previous tests. In New York, the number of students termed “proficient” dropped to around 31%. English learners did even worse – only 7% were deemed proficient.. Achievement gaps have grown by significant margins on these tests. The idea that this will somehow work to help underperforming students is the most problematic at all.

Because of the Common Core’s “rigor,” many students will find a high school diploma out of reach. What will our society do with the large numbers of students who are unable to meet the Common Core standards? Many of these young people might find trades and jobs that suit them, but they may never be interviewed due to their lack of a diploma. This repeats and expands on the error made with high school exit exams, which have been found to significantly increase incarceration levels among students who do not pass the exams, while offering no real educational benefits.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said that “we should be able to look every second grader in the eye and say, ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not.” As an educator, I would never have the arrogance to predict a child’s future in this manner, and I think it is very destructive to give this power to a set of tests.

More recently, Secretary Duncan has spoken about how tests have become a distraction from real learning, and in that context has given states an additional year to implement the high stakes Common Core tests. However, even this slight delay makes little difference. The tests are arriving, and they are having a huge impact.

Early childhood educators have spoken to the inappropriateness of the Common Core standards, and more than 500 of them signed a statement several years ago that now seems prophetic in light of what is happening in classrooms. The key concerns they raised were:

  1. “Such standards will lead to long hours of instruction in literacy and math.”
  2. “They will lead to inappropriate standardized testing.”
  3. “Didactic instruction and testing will crowd out other important areas of learning.”
  4. “There is little evidence that such standards for young children lead to later success.”

This report from literacy experts raises major concerns about the wisdom of making texts more difficult for children who are learning to read, as demanded by Common Core. The authors warned,

Increasing the pressure on the primary grades – without careful work that indicates why the necessary levels are not attained by many more students – may have consequences that could widen a gap that is already too large for the students who, at present, are left out of many careers and higher education. How sadly ironic it would be if an effort intended to support these very students limited their readiness for college and careers.

Common Core tests are ranking and sorting students and teachers, as standardized tests have always done. This provides the illusion of preparation for college, but creates obstacles rather than opportunity.

A growing number of states are now pulling out of the Common Core. In some states, teachers are even resigning, citing the pressure to teach to Common Core tests as their reason.

What will we do when we finally get past the idea that the Common Core will improve our schools? Perhaps we will come to grips with what teachers have been saying for years. With one child in four now living in poverty, we need to address poverty itself as well as its effects on children. Our schools, especially those serving poor students, need support and stability, not constant pressure to raise test scores. These students need an enriched curriculum, with opportunities for engagement and self expression, not test preparation.

More difficult tests, tests on computers, tests on steroids – that is what Common Core has brought to our schools, not improved education. The data are in. It is time to dump the Common Core standards and the tests they rode in on.

This essay is part of a seven-part series, The Debate Over the Common Core State Standards.

Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the Oakland schools for 24 years. He hosts the blog, Living in Dialogue, and is the author of the recent book, The Educator and the Oligarch, a Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation.