Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Common Confusion

Forty-five states including Iowa have adopted the Common Core standards. Strike that, I mean forty-four states have adopted the Common Core. Earlier last week, Indiana became the first state to back out of the Common Core. There seems to be quite a bit of confusion about what the Common Core is and what the Common Core is not. The first myth that needs to be addressed is this idea that the Common Core is a curriculum movement designed to eliminate local control of school boards and to limit the selection of curriculum material for schools. The Common Core is not a curriculum and does no such thing.

The Common Core is an internationally benchmarked set of standards that articulate what students should be able to do at each grade level. Is a 4th grader in Seattle for example, exposed to the same standards as a 4th grader in Des Moines? Is a Senior in high school from Hudson as prepared for college as a Senior in a high school in Peoria? I know these are questions that we want answers to, because we are constantly comparing our students to students in other states and in other countries using tools like the NAEP and PISA! I have written about those very comparisons right here in this article! The trouble is, unless we identify what it means to be a 4th grader or Senior in high school, we can't really answer those underlying questions can we?

Furthermore, teachers expect that students will enter their classrooms with a certain amount of background knowledge. Standards ensure that background knowledge and material has been covered, and an assessment was administered to the pupils that demonstrates their level of mastery. If no one has an idea of what that background knowledge is or it is different from school to school or state to state, how can the teacher be expected to craft instruction to meet the needs of students in an efficient manner?

Assume the 4th grade student in Iowa learns how to multiple fractions whereas the 4th grade student in Seattle isn't exposed to that skill until the 5th grade. Then assume we test both groups of students using the NAEP and the 4th graders from Iowa outscore their counterparts in Seattle. The reason? The students in Seattle haven't been exposed to that content yet! That most certainly does not suggest one group of students are more intelligent than the other. You can apply that same logic and scenario to any grade level in any state in the country or even internationally.

So the point should be very clear that the Common Core is not a curriculum, but is a set of standards with an assessment component which accurately measures the learning of students based on those standards. Curriculum decisions remain under the purview and decision making ability of the local school board. We can drive this point home with two very clear examples. Last spring the Hudson Board adopted a new math curriculum, and the faculty is currently in the process of studying an ELA curriculum that will be recommended for adoption by the Board of Education yet this spring.

For the sake of argument, we could say that school districts can go ahead and set their own standards and benchmarks--which would be the antithesis of the Common Core. But that would make it impossible to compare how our 4th graders were doing compared to students in Waterloo or Cedar Falls, let alone Seattle! It is also important to note that is how we kind of got into this mess to begin with. Before the Iowa Core (of which the Common Core is a part of), each school district did just that. While similar in nature, they were not standardized, which caused a patchwork of inequity in our education system that made it impossible to provide a guaranteed and viable curriculum to the students of Iowa. To further compound this very unclear picture of student learning in Iowa, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills were selected as the assessment instrument to measure student progress. This assessment was not aligned to the standards--but how could it be if every district is doing something different in terms of standards?

The other myth about the Common Core is this idea that it is a Federal intrusion into a local issue. This is not true! The Common Core was not conceptualized by the U.S. Department of Education. It came from the National Governor's Association along with the Council of Chief State School Officers:
"The state-led effort to develop the Common Core State Standards was launched in 2009 by state leaders, including governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states, two territories and the District of Columbia, through their membership in the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State school Officers (CCSSO). State school chiefs and governors recognized the value of consistent, real world learning goals and launched this effort to ensure all students, regardless of where they live, are graduating high school prepared for college, career, and life." (

So in closing, let's just say that if we think it is important to measure how our students stack up against students in other states or countries--let's at lease make sure we are measuring them all on the same thing!

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