Common Core no panacea

American education is at war with itself, again, and there does not appear to be any clear indication of how or when the endless battles over educational philosophy, funding and testing performance will end.

After a decade of the failed experiment called No Child Left Behind, a majority of the country’s education leaders are now betting on a new approach called the Common Core, which seeks to reshape the way students are tested, and curriculum is presented, from kindergarten through high school. If you haven’t yet heard of Common Core, it’s likely you have no school-aged kids.

Common Core standards and curriculum were developed by a consortium of state education chiefs and governors in 48 states with the involvement of classroom teachers, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and several other groups. The aims were to set new learning goals for students that would prepare them for college and/or careers, and to integrate learning material into more coherent, interdisciplinary content, initially in English language arts/literacy and math.

In the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, Common Core curriculum and instruction strategies were refined with the intense involvement of area teachers and administrators, and enthusiasm for the program is running high, although not without some teacher trepidation about being adequately prepared to teach it by next year.

On a national level, however, Common Core has run into a buzz saw of protest, ironically originating from both the right and left ends of the educational and political spectrums.

On the right, critics include the ubiquitous Koch brothers, libertarians and Stanford’s educationally conservative economist Eric Hanushek, who famously developed an equation linking a country’s GDP with the academic test scores of its children. Hanushek concluded that modest test score increases equate with significant increases in national economic growth. But he dismisses the relative impact of per-capita education spending and class size reduction on school performance, promoting instead more charter schools and vouchers.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the progressive education publication and think tank, Rethinking Schools, which published a lengthy critique of Common Core by veteran teacher Stan Karp, that concludes standardized tests are inadequate as a measurement of educational success. Following early Common Core testing in New York State, wrote Karp, “Only about 30 percent of students were deemed ‘proficient’ based on arbitrary cut scores designed to create new categories of failure. The achievement gaps Common Core is supposed to narrow grew larger. Less than 4 percent of students who are English language learners passed. The number of students identified by the tests for ‘academic intervention’ skyrocketed to 70 percent, far beyond the capacity of districts to meet. ... If the Common Core’s college- and career-ready performance levels become the standard for high school graduation, it will push more kids out of high school than it will prepare for college. The most vulnerable students will be the most at risk.”

We don’t believe these concerns are cause for opposing Common Core, but they should be warning signs that the teaching and testing flavor of the moment is not a panacea. Getting our kids college and career ready will require deeper and broader commitments that are not yet common.