10 Things Common Core is Not

As the Common Core debate continues, I find myself chatting with people who consistently associate certain things with Common Core that are distinct (albeit sometimes related) issues. This comes from the pro and con side of the debate. Here are the 10 that I hear most often, some coming from the advocates, and others from the proponents.  Note that I’m not a firm advocate for Common Core, nor am I an outspoken naysayer. CC has affordances and limitations…like all technologies. With that said, here is my list of 10 things that Common Core is not.

1. It is not a solution to all educational ailments. – I read some critiques of the Common Core, noting that it will not solve the many significant problems in education. People point to everything from poverty to broken families to poor teachers. While there may be a a few making the claim that Common Core is the solution to these problems, that is not the norm. Instead, From the Common Core web site, here is what they state as the reason by it is important:

High standards that are consistent across states provide teachers, parents, and students with a set of clear expectations to ensure that all students have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life upon graduation from high school, regardless of where they live. – http://www.corestandards.org/about-the-standards/frequently-asked-questions/

10thingsCCSSisnotNote that this is not a claim that the CC will ensure that all students have the skills/knowledge, only that it provides stakeholders with clear and consistent expectations toward that end. CC does not claim to solve every educational problem. To critique CC on the grounds that it doesn’t solve all the other problems seems a bit like critiquing running for fitness because it doesn’t help people balance their checkbook.

2. It is not a curriculum. A curriculum typically includes content, resources, methods, assessments and more. The CC is just a list of standards. It doesn’t dictate all the details of content. It doesn’t dictate how one teaches or even how one assesses.

3. It is not a foundation. While some proponents of the CC do seem to be treating the CC like the foundation of a great school, I see no evidence that this was the intent. The problem is that some schools are hardly even teaching social studies or science, instead doubling time in language arts and math because of the CC. This is a misuse of the CC, partly (or often) informed by #4. However, schools still need to be founded upon a clear philosophy of education, a mission, vision, set of values and goals; and this will vary from school to school, regardless of whether they use the standards. Standards are meant to inform, not dictate.

4. It is not a test or assessment. The CC does not dictate how one assesses or measures student learning. While many are implementing tests to measure student performance related to the Common Core, that is not part of the Common Core project. Turning schools into test-driven institutions as a result of the CC is happening in some places, but the CC does not call for that. This is an important issue, but I contend that it is a separate topic from the Common Core.

5. It is not dumbing down math by promoting points for partially correct answers. I know that some will disagree with me on this. First, this practice of giving partial points to students for math problems that do not have a final correct answer is not a practice that is only coming from the Common Core’s influence. It is also coming from research on best practices in math instruction. In the past, many math teachers graded student work with one primary question in mind. Did they get the correct answer? They didn’t attend to the process students used to get to a final answer. Now we know that this is a critical part of teaching and learning math, because we are aiming for students who don’t just mindlessly follow procedures, but who understand the process. This allows teachers to have a much more intimate understanding of student thinking, and provides guidance that helps students genuinely grasp key concepts. It helps students not only learn to follow math rules, but to think mathematically. Yes, a right answer still matters; but if we are going to equip students who can consistently come up with right answers and truly understand what is going on, this new method is a huge improvement. The only extent to which the CC relates to this is that it does have standards that promote this sort of mathematical thinking. However, it still doesn’t dictate how it is taught or learned.

6. It is not only about creating a common set of standards across all states. Yes, this is a stated goal, but in critique of the Common Core, there is more to this. Go to conferences for education curriculum providers and companies, and you will find rampant support for the CC. Why? Because if they can get CC adopted across all states, it makes it easier for them to create a common product that they can sell to a larger base of schools. There is clearly a financial lever behind some of the proponents of the CC. This alone does not make the CC bad, but it is a reality that I contend is worth noting and putting out in the open.

7. It is not in anti-literature. Yes, the CC has a heavy emphasis upon non-fiction text, but keep in mind that it is not mandated that the “language arts” standards in the CC must only be addressed by language arts teachers. There is nothing keeping a school from having a healthy dose of great fiction in language arts classes, while using the language arts CC standards to promote teaching students to read non-fiction texts in classes like social studies and science. Of course, some schools and districts seem to lack the creativity and insight to get this, which is why we do hear some sad stories of schools cutting out great literature…as well as cutting out emphases on teaching social studies and science. That is definitely not promoted by the Common Core. That is just a really poor curriculum design thinking.

8. It was not a stealth effort that just magically appeared one day. I’ve even heard this from K-12 educators and University professors. Unfortunately, just because these people are not staying current on the innovations and projects in their field does not mean that there was no attempt to communicate. Many stakeholders were involved in the the writing of the standards, pulling from people in multiple states. There was also a time for public comment, where anyone on the planet could review the drafts and make recommended revisions. I provided almost three pages worth of suggested revisions myself. This was not hidden, and it did not happen overnight. This project started in June of 2008 and continued through 2010. This was not a top-secret project. Of course, I will say that I tried talking to people about the potential benefits and limitations already back in 2009, and I could find very few people even interested in entertaining a conversation.

9. It is not mandated across all schools. This varies by state, but even in states where the CC was adopted as part of their state standards, there is often room for schools (private and something even public) to opt out or opt to use a different set of standards.

10. It is not a scheme to collect data on all of our students in some national repository…eerily resembling Nazism. Please, for the sake of a healthy and mutually beneficial discourse about an important topic, can we set aside the Nazi/Hitler cards? I see no way in which this will benefit the public discourse around the topic. Many point out that having the tests used to document student progress tied to the Common Core allows the government to track and monitor detailed information about our children. However, I must again note that the Common Core itself does not call for certain forms of testing, nor does it demand a national database of student data. One can be pro-CC and firmly against this database idea. They may be connected because of certain decisions tied to the use of CC in some places, but it is indeed a separate issue, and warrants its own public debate. This student data conversation is critically important, but if we keep stuffing all these issues into a common core bucket, I am concerned that it will inhibit any sense of progress in the conversation.

Again, I am not firmly set against or in strong support of the Common Core. As I’ve written elsewhere on my blog, I have any number of concerns; but I have also seen reasonable use of the Common Core while not letting the tail (these standards) wag the dog (the school). However, if we are going to have a candid and honest conversation about the Common Core, I contend that we need to work hard at gaining increased clarity about what the Common Core is and is not.