Put Away the Straw Man: Understanding the Arguments Against Common Core

From the Common Core State Standards Initiative website:

“Mission Statement

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

The Common Core hit headlines again on the week of September 16th, 2013 with a series of quotes from Jeb Bush. I’ll pick two for now, both pulled from the Miami Herald Blog.

“The fight about Common Core is political. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we have huge swaths of the next generation of Americans that can’t calculate math. They can’t read. Their expectations in their own lives are way too low. And we’re not going to be able to sustain this extraordinarily exceptional country unless we challenge every basic assumption on how we do things.”

“If you’re comfortable with mediocrity, fine. I’m not. And I think most Floridians aren’t either. Yeah, there’s a political consequence to all this. There is a lot of heat right now. But the simple fact is, no one can defend the lower standards that we have across this country.”

I have no strong opposition to the content of the Common Core, but there are important concerns posed by opponents, ones that call for a more serious and extended public vetting. This public conversation is an important one, one that is about more than the Common Core. It is about the purpose of a K-12 education, best approaches to school reform, about what it best for learners, and how decisions should be made about the nature of a student’s education.  For that reason, I decided to put together this summary of several arguments against the Common Core. At this point, I am not speaking for or against these positions.

It is hard to argue in opposition to Jeb Bush’s critique of mediocrity.  Of course, I have yet to find an educator who boldly proclaimed that we need more mediocrity. Similarly, we are unlikely to find strong advocates for schools that promote innumeracy and illiteracy. As a result, there is a question about Bush’s comments.  I don’t think that he actually reads critiques of the Common Core that do so on the basis that we need more innumeracy, illiteracy and mediocrity.  Why do some oppose it, then? Here are five reasons that I’ve come across, ones that strike me as worthy of an open and honest conversation.

1. This will lead toward nationalized education.

Some argue that education is best defined on the state and local level.  On the Utahns Against Common Core web site, they quote Brandeis to represent part of their position, “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system, that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Regardless of whether one agrees with this position, it is a legitimate point of conversation, one that has genuine arguments behind it that go well beyond what standards are or are not included in the Common Core.

2. The Common Core risks minimizing a liberal arts vision for education.

Some argue that the heavy emphasis upon equipping students with the ability to read informational texts (as included in the language arts Common Core standards) will minimize student’s time with more imaginative literature as well as the rich body of literature that does not fit into the category of “informational text.” However, this is not the only way in which people argue that the Common Core will hurt the liberal arts.  The mission statement of the Common Core focuses upon the fact that it was created to better prepare young people for college and career. A liberal arts vision of education seeks to prepare young people for more than those 40 hours a week of one’s life. Life is more than work, they argue. As such education is about equipping for lifelong learning, leisure time, and much more. Of course, there is nothing in the Common Core to argue against such aspects of life, but standards drive instructional time. The more time on these standards, the less time that students and teachers will have to spend on other topics. So, some argue against the Common Core because of concerns that it will minimize other parts of an education that they consider equally important.

While not necessarily arguing for the traditional liberal arts, others join in this critique, pointing out that the Common Core represents a vision of education as existing primarily as job preparation and ensuring a competitive edge in the global economy. People are more than workers, these critiques argue.

3. The Common Core will be ineffective in our current educational system.

This is an interesting argument, because it is not necessarily against the concept of the Common Core. Rather, it argues that we are putting the cart before the horse. One example of this argument comes from Jim Shon’s Three Ways to Derail the Common Core Standards. Shon argues that the type of inquiry-based learning needed to get at the Common Core Math Standards requires a massive change in the way that we go about the school day, a change that most teachers, schools and communities are ill-equipped to make in a short period of time.  This would likely require the largest mass re-training effort and massive school makeover in the history of American public education. This is not really an argument against the Common Core, but it does suggest/claim that it may well be largely ineffective.

4. Over-emphasis upon the Common Core will result in more testing and less creativity.

This argument focuses upon what some anticipate to be a testing approach to measuring student performance with regard to these newer standards. Along with the concern that this will drive teaching to the test, it will minimize opportunities for more creative learning activities in the classroom.

5. This is a widespread and expensive initiative across 46 states and without any significant field testing.

This is one of the arguments against the Common Core by Diane Ravitch. It is an interesting point, that we do not really know how this massive change will actually impact learners, school culture, the ability of teachers to be to effective, etc. The point in this critique is not that The Common Core will hurt students, just that we are investing a great deal of money and confidence in something that is largely untested.

Even reading these short summaries, it is clear that this is not properly reduced to advocacy for or against mediocrity, innumeracy, and illiteracy.  These are genuine concerns about important considerations in contemporary education, ones with real and significant implications for learners. As we look at these different perspectives, it convinces me that this is not a simple issue, and that we do a disservice if we do not approach the topic well-informed about the legitimate questions and concerns by any number of stakeholders.

Posted in blog, common core, education, education reform

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.