Please click on "comments" at the bottom of one of my blog posts, add your own view, and make my day! NOTE: It works better with a computer than a phone.

03 December 2013


A Facebook friend asked me to explain the Common Core and what people object to. So I did.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is a set of educational standards devised by a small committee hired by governors. It is controversial because at the heart of the CCSS is a series of "high stakes" tests which all students will have to pass in order to advance in school and eventually graduate. 

So. There are several aspects of this plan that make people unhappy:
  • Do we want every school teaching the same things, in the same way, and at the same age? Is that how children work? Like predictable automatons?
  • Do we want every teacher and student to be held to the same standards? No room for creativity or individual variation?
  • Do we want the success of education to be determined by tests? Aren't there qualities in a person that cannot be measured by multiple choice tests?
  • What has been ignored in order to create standards that can be tested? 
I have blogged a lot about the CCSS. My objections are not to what it asks me to teach since as an English teacher I am already teaching the skills listed. My objections have to do with the way the CCSS were written by non-teachers and forced down our throats without input from professional organizations. Too much is left out and teachers were not given input.

The claim is that teachers were given the opportunity to comment and participate in creating the CCSS. That's not true. I was invited to a workshop to comment on the CCSS before they were adopted by my state legislature, but I found that the survey questions did not allow me to offer any criticism or suggestions at all! It was a frustrating day. 

Finally, what we are doing in educational reform in the United States runs completely counter to what has worked for us in the past and what works for other countries in the present. Right now the poster child for great educational reform is Finland (of all places!). Finland had a terrible public education system a few decades ago, and one of the worst problems they believed they faced was inequity—some children received a good education while others did not. (Sound familiar?) 

The Finnish goal in the 1970s was to begin building an equitable system where all students—whether rich or poor, rural or urban, and regardless of ethnic origin or language—would receive a fair education. They worked on how to do it and one of the first things they did was close private schools. Everyone had to have a stake in every school. They gave a lot of autonomy to teachers and raised standards for teacher education. They made the school day shorter and provided more collaboration and preparation time for teachers. It's as competitive for a college student to be admitted to teaching as it is to medicine in Finland. There is only one set of tests for children and that is at age 15, and multiple ways of finding success in completing educational goals. 

Finnish children start school at the age of 7, but by age 15 they are way ahead of American children in every subject. The really wonderful thing is that at first the Finns thought their super-high student rankings were a mistake. They only wanted to be fair, after all. But it's true—they built one of the finest education systems in the world, just by being fair to all children.

I've written a great many posts about the CCSS, including about Pearson, the enormous company with many billions of dollars at stake in the CCSS. And another one about what the CCSS fails to address.

Googling "CCSS" or "Common Core" will lead to plenty of controversy. Much of it has to do with the tests, which are now driving everything we do in the classroom. Even I must teach to the test

I thanked her for asking.

Then she asked me a perfectly reasonable question: Don't we want some testing to ensure quality education? 

I understand concern about educational quality—I share it and have the same concern for plumbers, doctors, dentists, electricians, and other contractors. Who is supervising their quality? I know I have a good reputation and so do many professionals. But problems exist in every profession. The mother of a former student is a supervising ER doc and she had a terrible time getting rid of a bad doctor. It's not just teachers we should be worrying about.

Most teachers are doing a good job, and the students who graduate and go off to college and work are proof of that (and their parents' and extended families' and communities' support). 

Quality control is always issue, but we've had a test in place for over a hundred years that tests students on what they have learned—the SAT. Ironically, this test is still not as reliable as actual grades from teachers. Further, I've been proctoring these high stakes tests since the 90s and my observation is that the tests aren't actually helping. The new PISA results confirm by anecdotal observations. Despite NCLB and CCSS, the United States has not gained ground in the last decade while many countries are doing better than before.

Let me say it again: We are about to spend billions of dollars on a new test, but we already have a reliable test that has proven reliability, though still not as much reliability as actual school grades. Teachers really are the best judge of overall student progress. International, nonprofit testing shows this! 

Most people who have actually attended public schools and support public education and are knowledgeable about public education are alarmed by the goals of CCSS, which are very narrow, limited by what can easily be tested and by what a few people consider valuable in the workplace.

On the other hand, some testing is certainly helpful. What is called "formative assessment" provides information about what students know and are learning in order to allow teachers to alter instruction. The teacher had a goal to begin with, but then teaches from the test. 

That's not the goal of CCSS, but it is what teachers do all the time. For example, I might offer regular quizzes to establish whether my students recognize and can use literary devices. By looking at the results of the quizzes I can revise instruction and reteach what they are still having trouble with while continuing to move on, challenging students and building new skills. 

The billions of dollars worth of testing from the CCSS are "summative assessment." They do not contribute much to teaching—hence teach to the test. In Oregon we have such testing every other year beginning in first grade, plus off-year testing beginning at the beginning. Weeks of class time are devoted to preparing for and taking such tests. And they test only Math, Reading, Writing (Writing is only tested in 11th grade and the writing sample is only two pages), and lately, Science. Too much is left out of these tests and what isn't covered by the tests is largely ignored in the classroom. History and just about everything else is set aside in order to focus on very narrow goals of Math and Reading. These are essential skills, but there is more to a good education. I have blogged about this elsewhere.

Do we want some testing? Sure. Do we want to continue testing children as young as 5? Do we? Do we want the company that did the research to find out what should be tested, and designed the textbooks to teach it, and that also grants teacher licensure, and owns the alternative to a high school diploma… also be the one to test what they have learned, to own this entire system and dictate to trained educators what they should be doing? There is a lot of money at stake, and Pearson wants the whole pie. 

There is value here, but there is great danger in the way The United States is approaching educational reform. U.S. schools in more affluent communities do as fine a job teaching their students as any school system in the world and better than most. This has almost nothing to do with the parents and a great deal to do with opportunity, attitude, and school funding. 

Poverty is the real villain behind the so-called failure of American schools, and pretending the problem is teachers or curriculum or indifferent parents might be a deliberate distraction from the need for genuine change. And that will not be in the schools, but a change in our economy. Only about 3% of Finnish children live in poverty. In our nation the number is over 20%—and I do not buy that the Finns are better, harder working, more devoted people than we are. 

I hear the cliché all the time: Children are our future. Worn out though that expression may be, it's still true. I could hide behind a high cement wall, or raise strong children to be the citizens protecting me in my retirement. Today's children will be my future neighbors and shop owners, police officers and dentist. I want them happy and healthy, optimistic and caring. I want them educated because that's how a strong society is built. 

Fill their cup. Fill it to the brim.


  1. I LOVE this post. Its very much how I feel. Thank you!

  2. Thank you, Jan, for this. There continues to be a huge disconnect between the perception of what is truly causing the lag in student achievement of US students on the global playing field (a disconnect that seems to be renewed every three years on the occasion of the release of the PISA test results) and the reality of poverty in this country.

    On the one hand, using Bill Gates and his “foundation” as an example, many would have us believe that all we need to do to improve low student performance nationally is to identify who the great teachers are, figure out what it is that makes them so great, and then somehow show all the other teachers how they too can be just as great. (see “How Teacher Development Could Revolutionize Our Schools”). Of course, integral to any notion of what makes a great teacher is a standardized set of common curriculum goals as targets of instruction that all great teachers would agree (if they truly would be great) to implement. And since Gates is a man of measurable metrics, it’s only logical that these mutually agreed upon CCG’s should then be used as an effective tool for teacher evaluation.

    But the reality is, as you have, gratefully, often stated in your blog, the damaging effects of poverty have a direct impact on learning. Countless, on-going studies show that American students from well-funded schools who come from middle-class families outscore students in nearly all other countries on international tests. It might be that those PISA scores are low because the US has the highest percentage of children in poverty of all industrialized countries (over 20%; in contrast, high-scoring Finland has less than 4%). And the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen.

    In the 26 years I have taught high school English, I have never met a single teacher who was not interested in improving teaching quality. But the crisis in public education is not about teaching quality; it’s about how we can provide children with better nutrition, excellent health care, and a loving, caring educational environment. Stocking our schools with the greatest teachers in the world will have little impact on students who come to school hungry and sick and without a stable home.

    1. Thank you, Chris. I could not have said it better, though you know I try! ;-)


Thank you!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...