From where I sit, CC is a welcome U-Turn away from the desert of No Child Left Behind. Launched with bipartisan support in 2002, No Child Left Behind was instituted as game-changing national education reform, but has since been almost universally acknowledged as failing to reach its achievement benchmarks.

In 2010, Kentucky was the first state to adopt the new national education reforms now known as Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and since then 46 states including Idaho have signed on (map of national adoption data, including the four holdout states and the already-withdrawn states).

So while states have mostly ditched NCLB’s toxic roadmap — shallow curriculum linked to impossible-to-achieve-yet-sanction-levelling success metrics — to embrace Common Core, many questions remain, primarily: what is this new causeway, and where is it leading?

THE COMMON CORE COMPLEX

One welcome result of our 180-degree course correction is liberation from NCLB’s curriculum degradation. Years of shaping lessons to meet NCLB-inspired end-of-course exams (EOCs) are, thankfully, in the rearview. EOCs required students to sit for cross-district standardized multiple-choice exams. It mainly challenged students’ ability to memorize discipline-specific vocabulary, facts and definitions. TBR TeachThe new Common Core exams, called Performance Tasks (PTs), challenge students to study and apply critical reading, writing and thinking skills.

Here’s a sample of what that looks like in English 11:

Grade 11 END-OF-COURSE (NCLB) GRADE 11 PERFORMANCE TASK (CCSS):
In literature, the Harlem Renaissance produced mostly

  1. poetry and fiction.
  2. non-fiction and journals.
  3. short stories and pamphlets.
  4. autobiographies and epistles.
Topic: Civil Disobedience – Extended Definition (note: extended definition is a detailed, expansive, and citation-supported explanation of a concept)
In the Postmodern era, nonfiction was considered more of an art form because:

  1. writers have become better at maintaining objectivity despite globalization.
  2. contemporary nonfiction often incorporates literary elements such as suspense, symbolism, and characterization.
  3. writers care more about accuracy than about providing an entertaining story.
  4. critics and the general public have become disillusioned with other forms of entertainment.
Objective: Students will write an informational extended definition of civil disobedience.In order to prepare, students will view one collage of people famous for their non-violent challenges to authority; view a video clip of Gandhi’s famous salt march from the film “Gandhi”; read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”; read excerpts from the Lee and Lawrence play “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” and from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”; read the news article “Hacktivism;” and read Langston Hughes’s poem “The Ballad of the Landlord.”Students will work together and individually to discuss, analyze, and take notes on all sources.When writing the informational extended definition, each student will develop their definition with evidence from at least three sources, and cite chosen sources by title or author.

Even a cursory glance at this comparison underscores the qualitative differences. The new Common Core assessments acknowledge the skills students need to navigate the info-soaked world we all inhabit, a world in which facts and definitions of all kinds can be had by touching a screen or hovering a cursor. Access to all kinds of information has exponentially expanded, but how to know and express relevant relationships between facts? How to perceive, structure and express an informed point of view?A CCSS FAQ So far, those skills remain the purview of educated human beings. For me then, the “core” of Common Core, its best and most noble pith, is the affirmation of having run into a ditch, pedagogically speaking, under NCLB.

COMMON CORE CONUNDRUM

So why a conundrum? Aren’t all education stakeholders jazzed about Common Core?  Aren’t all students, teachers and parents excited about the harder, more satisfying work of thinking about and communicating complex concepts? About veering away from the soft shoulder of little knowledge and weak skills into the wider lane of deep connection to content?

TBR Teach

For other takes on Common Core, see Michelle Puccinelli and Diane Williams. This essay is part of our new feature: TBR Teach, a discussion about school policy among three Boise teachers. Follow their posts here.

The answer to that, like the answer to most real-world and institutionally-dependent questions, is yes, no, and maybe. For just about everyone, learning that the end-of-course tests, a known quantity, have been replaced with an unknown — an unknown that isn’t easy or a shoe-in to pass — is unnerving. For students one or two years from graduation, the new standards can be unnerving cum dismaying.

Back-to-School Night anecdotes from my colleagues across the district relayed much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments on the part of parents confronted with the possibility their student might slip a notch or two down the GPA ladder — “Well, we can kiss Princeton goodbye!” — a none-too pleasant situation for the teacher sweating it out at the head of the room. For young kids, faced with challenges that may be beyond their years (a consistent criticism of CC) the stress of the assessments is provoking some parents to opt out of them, which in turn can bring sanctions against schools.

Oregon is the most recent to report trouble brewing over the new, state-mandated assessments, called “Smarter Balanced,” due to complaints that the test is too expensive to administer and too long in duration for students to reasonably take. A report in Oregon’s Register-Guard newspaper titled “Core Meltdown” leads with the astute observation that for kids who struggled with the old multiple-choice exams, the new, harder tests are overwhelming.

COMMON CORE CONTRARIANS

Teachers too are a bit mixed in their response to Common Core. Many, like myself, are breathing a sigh of relief over NCLB’s passing, but the shift from basically idling along with planning and teaching to academic overdrive mode is a mixed blessing. I have been very fortunate to participate in excellent training through Idaho’s State Department of Education called Idaho Core Coaching. This program is intended to develop cohorts of teachers across the state to help provide Common Core professional development in their schools and districts. The training has helped me understand the standards and begin to assimilate the shift, but thousands of teachers across Idaho and around the country are trying to learn the new standards while simultaneously lesson planning and teaching with them in mind.

A friend of mine at work reports that her husband, a career teacher teaching junior high math to over 170 students a day, is suffering elevated blood pressure due to Common Core expectations for teaching and learning. On the other hand, here is a response to an email questionnaire I sent to my school’s math department regarding their views on Common Core:

Q: How has teaching math changed under Common core?

A: I am a facilitator instead of a teacher. I facilitate learning.

Q: What has been good about the changes so far?

A: Students are having to think. They have to be actively involved in their own learning to be successful. It is no longer ok to be a passive learner.

Q: What has been difficult?

A: Students are having to think. They have to be actively involved in their own learning to be successful. It is no longer ok to be a passive learner.

Q: On balance, are you pro or con? Why?

A: I am pro! I think this is an exciting time to be an educator. I think that if we are willing to stick with it and let the process happen, this could be the start of the overhaul education needs. We are helping students learn how to think. Knowing how to think helps create a love of learning and that leads to lifelong learning.

These feelings are, I think, a fairly typical response on the part of the workers in the system — the teachers. While happy to turn away from narrow planning, learning and thinking toward engaging with materials and processes that can motivate and prepare students, we are not so sure of the politics. Sticking with Common Core, over the bumps in the road, around the curves, and to a destination years down the road, will take political will, community support and a reinvigorated commitment to fund public schools.

Idaho is currently 50th in the nation for per-pupil spending and Governor C. L. “Butch” Otter, his shiny new campaign ads branding him as a champion of public education notwithstanding, is busy defending himself against charges that he maneuvered state contracts for technology upgrades in the schools to stuff his war chest and enrich his cronies. Teachers and taxpayers have reason to be skeptical.

In addition, the State Board of Education is continuing to call for a plan called “Tiered Licensure” that will tie teacher compensation and contractual status to the new Common Core version of standardized tests called “Smarter Balanced.” Public hearings on the tiered licensure plan have been packed, with testimony and comments running  overwhelmingly against it. For teachers, trying to learn and apply the new standards while simultaneously facing possible sanctions for failing to show immediate and significant learning gains, leaves many pondering joining the queue of teachers leaving the profession and discouraging newcomers to the profession.

So what is the view out the window towards the road ahead? I think Common Core standards are solid and worth striving towards, especially if teachers are supported in teaching them and if they are reworked to be more developmentally appropriate for younger students.

As for the Smarter Balanced assessments, the new standardized accountability yardstick, they too will need to be realistically instituted, modified and adapted to allow students and teachers to catch up to them. Giving teachers and students reasonable goals within reasonable time frames will increase learning and shift some of the crisis rhetoric that continues to shape our education debate.

As long as public schools exist, and as long as a decent and equitable education for all children remains a national goal and ideal, teaching children will remain the destination and the journey. If Common Core, adequately funded, rationally implemented, and transparently evaluated helps us do that, I hope we will stay the course.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.