What is the Common Core? And Why Are People Freaking Out About It?

Next up on my list of Education Controversies in 2015: Common Core! It’s a household name! But what does it mean?

“Common Core” to some means worksheet-driven, teach-to-the-test curriculum.

“Common Core” for others is code for failed educational policy.

“Common Core” can translate into “teachers are unappreciated and underpaid,” or “high stakes standardized testing,” or “failed funding formulas that perpetuate economic inequities.”

Say that one five times fast!

When I see headlines that blame “Common Core” for everything wrong in education, my hands get clammy and my heart starts pounding. I have to take a few deep breaths and think about my happy place.

Hearing the rhetoric around Common Core feels like I’m on an elevator that is going up at a normal pace, and suddenly someone starts yelling it’s going too slow, and another person wants to get off, and someone else is convinced they are going to get lost and it’s all the elevator’s fault.

And for some reason these screaming voices seem most angry that they do not know how the elevator works.

So here’s how the Common Core elevator really works. Let me break it down for you…

Now, I realize that education is much more complicated to operate than an elevator, but this is a metaphor so bear with me. Also let me qualify by saying that I have plenty of normal-voice, reasonable conversations with insightful educators about their take on the Common Core. Maybe you’re one of them. If so, please keep reading. I have a potential opportunity for you at the end.

But just in case you’re not an education policy nerd, let me explain: the Common Core State Standards “elevator” is a list of skills that students should know at each grade level in English Language Arts and Mathematics.

That’s it. A list of skills. Example: 2.NBT.2 “Count within 1000; skip-count by 5s, 10s, and 100s.”

Nothing more, nothing less.

Confession: I like the Common Core State Standards!

You are skeptical? “What’s to like?” you ask.

The list of skills is logical. The end point makes sense for the demands of the emerging economy. The emphasis on argument (in both language arts and math), three-dimensional geometry, and understanding complex texts is based in solid evidence on what is both effective in education and needed in the workforce.

I could say more, but I highly recommend that anyone interested read the Standards yourself and form your own opinion.

When talking about the standards, it’s equally important to note what the Common Core is NOT.

It is not a funding policy. It is not a test. It is not a reading list or a series of workbooks. It’s not a lesson plan or a teacher evaluation rubric. It’s not a union contract and it is definitely NOT a federal mandate.

You see, the Common Core elevator just determines the height of skill for each grade level, so they build on each other. And it also means that the 45 states who have accepted the same standards will be able to communicate better and share resources, because they have shared goals and language.

How teachers build those skills are called lessons and curricula.

How schools measure those skills are called standardized tests.

How schools measure teacher effectiveness at building the skills is called teacher evaluation.

How states funds schools based on student performance on standardized tests is called a tragedy…I mean the funding formula.

So Common Core is the backbone of this structure because it determines how high students have to perform to move up the elevator to get to the next level. A massive multiplex of lessons, curricula, standardized tests, teacher evaluation, and funding policy has already been built on this Common Core backbone in 45 states. The standards go higher than ever before. They defy gravity. Now that we’ve seen it in action, some people are getting vertigo.

It’s different than what adults learned in school, and many teachers and parents have no models for how to teach these skills to their students or kids. That is enough for some people to send them packing without taking the time to figure out if the new way is actually better or worse.

The worst part about the screaming people on the elevator is that it’s too much, too late.

Where were these voices in all the boring academic and administrative committee meetings starting back in 1995? Where were these voices during the stages of public comment on the standards in 2009-2010? Where were these voices when individual states were reviewing and evaluating the standards to decide on adoption between 2010-2013?

That process was led by state governors. It involved people at all levels from parents to presidents. Writing the standards was a very slow, quiet, transparent and highly democratic process that the general public ignored until 45 states had adopted it, built policy around it, and started putting these communal decisions into action.

Where have these talking heads been for the past five years while this stuff was being built? Or twenty?

It’s my personal conviction that if you wait to act on an issue until people are screaming in the streets, then in a democracy that means you probably missed the quiet meetings where the decisions were made. Sure, it feels very “civil rights era” to stage walk-ins or walk-outs or protests or press releases, but the real savvy and effectiveness of the movement was that they had targeted political objectives. Rallies may increase awareness, but what really matters is what you say during your turn at the microphone. Do you have a detailed, well-informed agenda when you get to the table with decision makers, or become a decision maker yourself?

I have yet to see talking points about “Common Core Reform” that actually address the content of the Common Core State Standards.

If you want reform (like the grass roots reformers who advocated for the Common Core Standards in the first place) you win by showing up over and over and over with the same message in front of as many audiences as you can find.

So whether or not you like the Common Core, you join the conversation by getting very familiar with the existing Standards. Remember this website: CoreStandards.org. Read everything on it.

Then think you can write a better test for it? Do it!

Think you can develop better lessons and curricula? Please!

In fact, if you really think you can create some awesome lessons for adult education aligned to the Common Core, my employer Essential Education is currently hiring Instructional Designers. Apply on LinkedIn and see if it’s a good fit.

And if you really don’t like the Common Core State Standards themselves, then draft your own version.

Yes, there are plenty of things going wrong in education right now. But quite frankly, I think the Common Core State Standards are a shining star. I give it an A+! The process and the result were a massive achievement that exceeded my expectations.

But what about the massive multiplex built around the Common Core elevator? What about the tests, and funding, and worksheets…the parts the public actually sees?

What would you do differently? Let me know in the comments. I look forward to your thoughts.

2 thoughts on “What is the Common Core? And Why Are People Freaking Out About It?

Add yours

  1. In a perfect world with unlimited resources including both money and staff, every student would receive an Individualized Education Plan. As we know every child learns differently and at different rates. If a teacher were capable, not discrediting any teacher, she would have the time and resources to teach every student in the way that is best for that student, but there isn’t the time. Teachers teach to the masses, differentiate the best we can with our resources. Teachers fight the battle within themselves to be the best teacher for for their students. Starting off as a Special Education Teacher, working with a small group, focusing on their individual needs is very rewarding. During this time I could recognize how wonderful our education program could be if every child had an IEP. Now with the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, the Reading Improvement Plan is very I liar to an IEP, but now students are not limited to whether or not they qualify or Special Education because although teachers always pull small groups and reteach when needed, but more students are getting a documented support system put in place that is more official. Many districts are now having parents sign papers that are a contract between everyone saying we all will help this child, our team will work together and everyone will address the student’s needs. I believe this is common sense. We are individualizing for your child. If the teacher is telling the parent(s) that their child has struggles and describes the tools to help, the parent(s) need to help at home. I know we are all busy. The demands of life are intense, but we all need to help our children. The tired teacher is doing her job teaching your child while you are working hard at your job. The teacher comes home, cares for her family: dinner, regular household duties, including assisting her child with homework, and then tackles a pile of papers that need graded along with lesson planning for the week. We are all busy. Teamwork is necessary, my job is to teach, the parents job is to support at home. Parents are the resource! Trust your teachers, we truly want your child to succeed. Try our strategies, if you have other strategies use those too, but let’s work together. Bless those parents that are partnering in their child’s education, it is hard work, but so worth it. 🙂

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