The State of the Core by Peter Greene from the Curmudgucation Blog

Peter Greene | Originally Published on Curmudgucation | 2017 | Syndication made possible through Patreon

By Peter Greene

Maybe you thought we were done talking about Common Core, or maybe you just hoped we were. But here comes Maria Danilova of the Associated Press checking to see how our old buddy is doing (and talking to the Usual Suspects while she does so). But Danilova gives us a pundit’s eye view of the Core’s current status, and while that has value, the real story of how the Core is doing can only be seen at ground level, where teachers work. You remember teachers. Those education professionals that nobody ever talks to when it’s time to write a think piece about what’s going on in education.

So let’s take a look.

First, it’s important to remember what the lofty goals of the Core were. Every state was going to adopt them, and nobody was going to mess with them except– maybe– to add no more than 15% to the standards. Every school in the country would be on the same page; a student would be able to move from Iowa to Florida mid-year and never miss a step. Every student in America would take one of two standards-anchored tests, meaning that every student, school, and teacher in the country could be compared directly, thereby identifying all the outposts of genius and pockets of fail, and pieces of genius would be used to fill the gaps in failureland. Within a few years, the entire US education system would be homogenized, standardized, and uplifted.

That was the goal, though Core fans will now pretend they never heard any such thing.

That goal hasn’t been achieved, and it’s not going to be achieved,

Every assessment of the Core has to include that simple fact– the Core architects failed to achieve their major goals. Any discussion of the State of the Core is really a discussion of whether or not they won some consolation prizes.

So how is the battered and unloved Core doing these days? Danilova says it’s actually alive and kicking, and offers a new entry in the genre of “Quick and Simplified Histories of the Common Core”

Launched in 2010 by a bipartisan group of governors and state education chiefs, Common Core sought to bring scholastic standards to the same high level nationwide. The standards quickly became controversial when the Obama administration offered states federal dollars to nudge them to adopt it. States’ rights activists cried foul, saying the effort undermined local control. Meanwhile, some teachers criticized the standards as confusing and out of synch with students’ needs, while others feared that non-fiction would crowd out the works of Shakespeare.

That’s more accurate than some, though it overlooks the Bill Gates bankrolling of the Core and the fact that the standards were written by a handful of education amateurs. I do like “nudge,” though, as a replacement for the old “voluntary adoption by states” baloney.

But is the Core alive and kicking? Well……

National Standards

Danilova points out that pretty much everyone who installed the standards still has them. This is true. Many states staged some elaborate theater so that they could lie to their conservative voters about getting rid of the Core, but despite some name changes, what states still have is an edited version of the Common Core standards.

This works because many of the people who complained about the Core had objections not entirely based on reality. In other words, if you were afraid that Common Core was going to turn your child into a lesbian communist vegan, well, look– that transformation hasn’t happened, so they must have gotten rid of Common Core. Hardly anyone else has been fooled. 

This raises the important question, “So what?” One of the many unproven foundations of the Core is the idea that state or national standards have any effect on anything.

Effects

Danilova uses the understatement “Measuring the direct impact of Common Core is difficult.” One might even say, impossible. She cites the Brookings study that suggested an initial burst of educational achievement which then tapered off, but there’s a problem with virtually all studies of CCSS impact– they depend on results of the Big Standardized Common Core Tests. That means all you’re ever really proving is “We adopted a set of standards designed to teach to this test, and once we started teaching to that test, students got better results on that test.”

This is the testing worm Ouroborus eating its own tail. Do better test results prove anything at all, other than the test prep is working? Does the test prep improve anything other than preparation for the test? There are still no serious answers to either of those questions, which leads me to believe that the answer to both is “No” or even “Hell, no.”

Half-Baked

Mike Petrilli, who by law must be quoted in every article about education policy, says that the core  is “a much better recipe for student achievement, but the cake is still being baked, so we don’t yet know if it’s going to taste as good as we hope.” While I appreciate the opportunity to call the Common Core “half-baked,” in fact, the Core is fully baked, crisped, put a fork in it, it’s done.

But Danilova says the Core is used widely. This is right-but-not-right. Here’s why the Core is already in its mature form, and that form is a sort of shambling zombie.

Start by gutting half

The very first thing that happened to the Common Core was the Common Core tests. The standards said, “Here are all the things that matter.” The tests said, “Half of those things don’t matter. Just toss them out.”

Schools, teachers and students were not to be judged by how well they followed the standards, but by how well they do on the BS Tests, and the BS Tests do not even pretend to assess things like cooperation, speaking and listening. The BS Tests do pretend to assess things like writing, research and critical thinking, but the pretense is transparent and obvious and nobody can seriously believe that the test assesses these things. So we’re left prepping students to answer multiple choice questions on the “anchors” aka “the only standards that actually count.”

Alignment is paperwork

School districts have gone through the exercise of aligning their curriculum to the standards, and what that means is completing a bunch of paperwork. You take your scope and sequence for the things you were going to teach anyway, and you search through the list of standards to find the ones that you can pin to your pre-existing plans. Voila! Alignment!!

Alignment is creative

Here’s the thing about the standards– nobody is minding the store. As soon as they finished writing the standards up, David Coleman, Jason Zimba and the rest were out the door, off to lucrative consulting gigs and running ed-flavored corporations. Incidentally, this is, for me, one of the major indictments of the Core– the guys who wrote it weren’t even interested in sticking around to make sure it was carried through properly.

So now, anybody can call anything Common Core. Book publishers slap “Common Core” on any old text. Any classroom teacher can say, “Yes, this unit is totally Common Core aligned,” and there’s nobody in a position of authority to say, “Hey, wait a minute.” I’ve lost track of the number of Core cheerleaders who have declared that the Core is awesome because now they can do a unit about singing waffles on Mars and their singing waffle unit doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the Core. Core apologists routinely praise the Core for elements it does not possess, sometimes because they are just deluded and sometimes because they have correctly reasoned that if the Core doesn’t imply/require X, then the Core is stupid. And yet, dig through the Core, and X rarely marks any spot on the list of standards.

That includes “rigor,” an ill-defined term that is not a feature of the Common Core State [sic] Standards. In fact, the best way to prepare my students for the reading test is not rigorous at all, but to simply practice reading random short excerpts of various readings followed by some BS Test style bubble test questions. No deep, critical or creative thinking needed. No tie for reflection or development of more complex ideas allowed. The Core’s rigor is a mirage, and artifact of wishful thinking and pixie dust. We could ramp up “rigor” in schools more easily if the amateur-hour standards and the narrow bubble tests were not in our way.

I have asked all along for any Core-loving teacher to tell me about one unit, one teaching idea, that they couldn’t do before the Core, or that they would have to stop doing if the Core were outlawed. Nobody has ever had an answer for that. The Core can be anything you want it to be, as long as you don’t pay too much attention to what it actually says. The article itself presents a prime example, as a teacher argues that reading more non-fiction instead of fairy tales is better because it’s more real. That is both A) baloney and B) not supported by the standards. 

The Core had been assimilated

The basic proposition that the Core offered to every classroom teacher was this– substitute these standards for your own professional judgment. That’s why the Core had to be pushed out with the Big Lie that they had come from education professionals (even as Coleman was bragging that they were the result of amateurs and that’s why they were awesome).

And teachers are good soldiers. So when our bosses said “Do this,” we said, “Okay, we’ll give it a shot.” We like to do what we’re Supposed To, and we generally trust that these things come down from people who at least sort of know what they’re doing.

But teachers also work in our own little research lab. We try out an approach, regardless of the source, and we get immediate feedback. So when elementary teachers got new Common Core textbooks that said, “Don’t teach math facts (e.g. times table).” Teachers scratched their heads, tried it, determined it didn’t work, and started doing what good teachers always do– adapting materials to fit the situation in the classroom. Those instructional shifts we were all going to be doing? Not so much.

Zombies can bite

Comon Core is an undead zombie at this point, but like a zombie, it can do real damage.  Common Core fans with other pushers of test-centered schooling can take the blame for the destruction of Kindergarten and the unjustifiable insistence on making five year olds sit at a desk for long periods of time to learn academic subjects. This damage to the littles is one of the lasting effects of the Core movement, and every person who helped push for it should be ashamed.

It is that test-centered schooling that is the most egregious, unsupportable, destructive legacy of Common Core. There is no rigor and no standards– just desperate attempts to game the numbers.

In schools where administrators don’t have the guts to value actual education over the pursuit of test scores, the poison has spread wide. Test-centered schooling doesn’t just narrow the education being delivered (If it’s not on the test, just give it a rest) but has also narrowed the actual delivery of education. Across the country, school administrators are using “diagnostic tests” to target students who are close enough to the line to be dragged over it. Top kids can be left alone. Bottom kids can be abandoned. Close-to-the-line kids get an extra battery of test prep in hopes that the school’s numbers can be improved– and they give up other parts of their education to make room.

Core advocates will argue that this is a problem with the test, but saying you want the Common Core standards without the Common Core testing is like asking to have the front end of the puppy but not the end that poops.The Core and the BS Tests were always welded together, and it’s really not a surprise– without an “accountability” element, the architects of this mess would have had to trust schools to actually implement the standards, and the whole point of the standards was that they didn’t trust us in the first place. Put another way, without the linked testing (and related penalties), the Common Core would have had to sink or swim on its own merits which would have been much like trying to help a tyrannosaurus swim the Pacific Ocean by taping a tired pool noodle to its toe. Mind you, the linked testing isn’t very well linked or very good testing, but here we are.

Winners?

In the end, almost nobody is winning. The folks who dreamed of an entire nation united in a single school district– they didn’t win. The schools and teachers who dreamed of retaining their autonomy and the freedom to exercise their professional judgment– they didn’t win. The technocrats who hoped for neatly organized stacks on stacks on stacks of data– they didn’t win. The winners would be all the people who hoped to profit from the shift, the folks who wanted test-centered schooling to make charters and vouchers look more appealing, and the folks who wanted to de-professionalize teaching so that anybody with a pulse could be handed a program and a classroom. Those folks are winning. 

So, yes, Common Core is still shambling about, not alive enough to accomplish its original goals, but not dead enough to keep from doing damage wherever its broken legs carry it. It’s a bad walking rorschach test that can be read as anything you like, just before it bites your face. Is “Common Core used widely”? I guess that depends on what you mean by “Common Core” or “used.” Is there still continuing debate? Sure. The noise had better keep going on. The standards are dangerous bunk, and you know what happens to the person in a zombie movie who says, “I guess the coast is clear now. Let’s go out.” 

Related: Garn Press Education Books

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