The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Common Core

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When debating Common Core, activists lose sight of students far too often.

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States around the country are debating the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). In the state I teach in, Illinois, school districts are moving full steam ahead to implement these new standards. Their success varies. Within that variance lie “the good, the bad, and the ugly” realities of the Common Core – and regrettably students get caught in the crossfire.

First, the “bad.” The bad centers around the way many school districts implement the standards. Sometimes, districts purchase materials wholesale simply because there is a Common Core sticker affixed to the cover, without critically considering the developmental appropriateness of the material. Many children are drowning in Common Core worksheets and workbooks that school districts force teachers to use. These resources, created in the name of “rigor” and Common Core alignment, may ignore what teachers, parents, and education experts know works for kids. In many cases, the resources and programs focus on the singular purpose of increasing test scores. While some may be effective to that end, the byproduct appears to be students and teachers losing the joy of learning.

The curricula that some schools use to meet the standards are also cause for concern.  Some schools use the new standards as a way to force compliance and “lock-step” teaching. Many school districts bastardize the standards and manipulate them in a way to fit their local context. While this context-oriented remodeling of the standards can be positive, it also creates situations where the number of standards being taught in a school year is simply overwhelming. Again, this is a concern with implementation and not with the standards themselves. Standards by themselves do not make a curriculum, but rather they guide the development of curricula.

Now the “ugly.” The ugliest part of the standards lies in the fanaticism that individuals and groups have towards either supporting or condemning the Common Core. Through their militancy, many activists unintentionally lose sight of what is truly important: the students. Both sides of this so-called “battle” are guilty of this. Both sides’ rhetoric contains far too much arrogance and absolutism to be productive. That rhetoric actually creates barriers to meaningful, positive change. It is often filled, on both sides, with subjectivity, bias, and political undertones rooted in ulterior motives and not actual fact. The focus of the arguments is too often grounded in elements unrelated to the standards themselves.

Chief among these arguments are concerns over the new Common Core testing systems. These testing systems, like Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, are not a product of the standards, but rather of a data-driven and data-crazed educational system in general. Like many teachers, I have great reservations about these tests. They will eat up instructional time for preparation and administration.

However, these tests are not the Common Core. They are not the Standards, but an ugly byproduct. The truly pro-student advocate will recognize this distinction and ask how we can better assess students, rather than saying we need to get rid of the Standards altogether.

Ultimately, what is the “good”? The standards themselves are good. While many will disagree, the standards align with a logical learning progression for kids. True, sometimes the standards are more academically challenging than past teaching plans. But pushing kids is not a bad thing. As an English teacher, I value the progression of skills from one grade to another, and how these skills build on each other. The standards may be poorly written. However, they are far superior to any set of standards currently or previously in use.

At the end of the day, Common Core State Standards are just standards. They should not dictate how a teacher teaches or what resources a school district purchases. They are not prescriptions for high-stakes testing or curriculum maps. The Common Core Standards are simply a structured set of learning outcomes for kids. Activists, educators, and policy makers spend far too much energy, time, and money focusing on and fighting the bad and the ugly while losing sight of the good. In doing so, the forgotten ones – our students – are caught in the middle of the fight.

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

Josh Stumpenhorst

Josh Stumpenhorst is an award winning classroom teacher from Naperville, IL, where he teaches junior high English Language Arts and Social Science. He is the author of The New Teacher Revolution and can be found online as @stumpteacher.