JoLLE Forum-Rotten to the (Common) Core

James Arnold
Superintendent, Pelham City Public Schools
Pelham City, GA


I must state from the outset that I am innately suspicious of the underlying motives or claimed educational benefits of any initiative—Common Core included—supported by the Governor of Georgia who, having instituted austerity cuts in 2003, led Georgia to be one of the only states to use teacher furloughs to balance the state budget, and who consistently under-funded public education in order to promote quality fishing.

Common Core is a standardized national curriculum. Why is this problematic? From an historical context, a centralized school curriculum serves the goals of totalitarian states. It’s also illegal. The General Education Provisions Act, the Department of Education Organization Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act all forbid or protect against the USDOE sticking its nose into the curriculum choices of state and local districts. In spite of these measures, the USDOE has been funding, since 2010, the efforts of two separate testing companies to create a national curriculum for English and mathematics. In reference to the creation of the USDOE in 1979, President Carter said in his State of the Union Address that “states, localities and private institutions will continue to bear the primary responsibility for education.” Carter’s Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Joseph Califano, said, “Any set of test questions that the federal government prescribed should surely be suspect as a first step toward a national curriculum [and] a national control of curriculum is a form of national control of ideas.”

In spite of the inherent legal issues, Common Core was created through a secretive process, with no thoughts for opportunities for public input, no attempt at the solicitation of public dialogue, no evidence of discussion or critique from experienced educators, no foundational research or pilot programs, and created on the assumption that any standardized national curriculum was better than no standardized national curriculum at all. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, evidently immune to mundane legalities and to legal advice, immediately made acceptance of the Common Core a requirement for approval of state applications for exemptions to the No Child Left Behind Act.

“From where did the Common Core originate?” you might ask. You might, but evidently most states either did not ask, or did not care. The National Governors’ Association Center for Best Practice, the Council of Chief State School Officers, Achieve, Inc., ACT, the College Board, the State Higher Education Executive Officers, and the National Association of State Boards of Education all claim credit for developing these standards on behalf of the states. States quickly jumped on the Common Core train before they were aware of exactly what the standards would be or, perhaps more importantly, what they would cost to implement. State DOEs in states that have rushed to adoption are apparently unbothered by the fact they have relegated themselves to the role of administrative agents for a nationalized curriculum, with little or no thought to the cost of implementation.

There are additional issues:

  1. There are few interdisciplinary connections among subjects. Research for many years has shown the positive effects of interdisciplinary connections on student learning and achievement. Innovation is at best ignored and at worst proscribed for teachers and for students. Standards, by their very nature, insist that if anything at all must be excluded because of the constraints of time in class, whether it be the length of the school term or year, or the amount of “material to be covered,” it must not, at any cost, be the standards themselves. Creativity will no doubt be the first casualty.
  1. Citizenship, personal development and the promotion of democratic values are ignored. Again I quote Califano: “[A] national curriculum is a form of the national control of ideas.” I do not believe for one second that the omission of democratic values was inadvertent or unintentional. I do believe these standards will be, by design and intention, difficult to amend in any way, shape or form.

Georgia was quick to hop on the Common Core bandwagon. The rationale given by the Georgia Department of Education behind this mandated implementation of Common Core was three-fold. The Common Core, they contend, provides:

  1. an answer to the problem of student mobility;
  2. an opportunity to create an economy of scale, and;
  3. an opportunity to compare “apples to apples” when ranking schools, systems, or students between and among states.

Student achievement seems to be missing from that particular continuum. The Common Core, along with the denigration of public school teachers, the constant assertions that public schools are failing miserably, and an insistence on the “market based” (translated to mean “privately owned for-profit educational agencies”) approach to education are promulgated by Republicans[1]. “For Republicans and for the benefit of Republicans” fits nicely into the anti-public education agenda of the last decade. None of the reasons presented for the adoption of the Common Core had anything to do with improving achievement but had everything to do with flushing public education down the tubes until the public gives up, throws its collective hands into the air, and consents to pay for the private education of the privileged few. The abandonment of public education to its own financial devices will serve to maintain the traditional lifeline of the uneducated for those who depend upon them for labor, for as long as possible. Public education can only do more with less for so long. Just for the record, I find it personally difficult to believe that the minority parents who make up the majority of the 93% or so of students in public education have not seen that attack directed toward the education of their own children. Go figure.

Adopting a curriculum to solve societal mobility issues is like measuring flour with a yardstick; it defies credibility, and even the rather relaxed laws of common sense. There are easier solutions. “Economies of scale” mean little when our legislature continues to underfund public education. When you can’t afford textbooks, the opportunity to not buy new ones at a cheaper price is hardly an advantage. It is rather troubling to note the number of educational “reforms” that ignore educational research, as if invoking the magic word “reform” is enough to allow any imposition, however implausible.

With adoption of the Common Core standards, you can rest assured that Common Core standardized testing is not far behind. How can we expect a single, nationwide standardized “pick-a-bubble” machine-scored test to measure what is taught in practically every school system in the U.S. effectively? The documented testing issues we already see with state assessments will increase exponentially. The June, 2012 Georgia State Board of Education minutes listed over $25,000,000 in state contracts for testing and test development for 2013. Whether these investments are educationally justifiable or wise never seems to be the question. The point of ranking states, schools, systems, and students eludes me, unless it is an attempt to shame low performers into magically doing better. I feel that neither anger nor shame can serve as a prime motivational tool. Cooperation and collaboration, however, have worked wonderfully, but are consistently in absentia from those whose declared purpose is educational reform.

Standardized tests were designed, once upon a time, to serve as prescriptive tools to help teachers help students. Presently they serve as autopsy reports that include first-time test-taker results with the primary purpose, not to assist teachers in improving student achievement, but to rank schools and systems. Teachers cannot effectively use data provided at the end of the school year to assist students who leave their classes two weeks later. If we were serious about using these tests to measure achievement—and there’s a mighty big “if” about whether they do—we would give them at the beginning of the year to provide substantive data for teachers.

In a time when parents—and, as an extension, the public—are demanding more and more personalization for their children’s educations, Federal and state educational agencies continue to insist upon more and more standardization—falling once again into the fallacy of “what’s good for one child is good for all children.”

The Common Core standards will ultimately serve not to improve student achievement but to increase the profits of standardized testing companies. The effects of poverty, family and socio-economic factors on education will continue to be largely ignored in our infatuation with the misguided belief that student achievement will improve through intensified measurement. The “teach to the test,” “test prep,” and “testing pep rallies” environments will grow stronger through the implementation of annual growth measurements (annual growth = 100%—the 2011 proficiency rate of first-time test-takers divided by 6) for schools, and flawed teacher evaluation models that tie teacher ratings and salary to student scores will serve as almost insurmountable incentives for teachers to teach to the test, by the test, and for the test.

The U.S. has, since the 1950s, been rated in the bottom 25% of every educational rating system imaginable. The fact that our country has set the economic standard for the rest of the world, that our creativity, achievements, and scientific progress far overshadow the nearest competitors would seem to lead us toward the beginnings of a discussion about the efficacy and reliability of the ranking systems we seem to trust as infallible measurements. Those that point to our nation’s rank among international educational rankings also conveniently forget to mention that in our country every child is entitled, not just to attend school, but to expect to achieve, or at least to be tested. Every score from every student counts. There is no selective testing or tracking, and no other country makes the effort to educate every child. When our best students’ scores are compared to those of other countries—surprise, surprise!—our rankings compare favorably with anyone’s.

Sooner or later even legislators must see that it’s not about race, it’s about poverty; it’s not about a test score, it’s about student achievement; it’s not about a standardized curriculum, it’s about good teaching; it’s not about the business model, it’s about personalization; it’s not about competition, it’s about cooperation. Until that time, we will continue to get the kind of legislature and public education system that we vote for.

Relevant content and applications of knowledge through critical thinking, problem solving, modeling, and higher order thinking skills should be the focus and goal of our educational processes. Education is not supposed to be about determining or defining a specific amount or trove of material that must be learned in order to advance to the next level, but about cultivating and growing students’ inquisitiveness and curiosity, which eventually grow into life skills. None of these skills or processes can be measured with any degree of reliability, accuracy, or validity by a multiple choice machine-scored test.

My suggestion is that we trust teachers enough to give them the freedom to do what they do best: teach children on personal and individualized levels. Micromanagement is an egregious sin and an almost irresistible temptation for State and Federal officials.

I predict a period of extensive frustration on the part of teachers before they get to the point that they must eventually reach in order to decide that, if anything is to be done to effectively implement the Common Core Curriculum, they must do it themselves at the local school level. Teachers, in this case as in so many others, are not the problem; they are our unrecognized salvation. Just as with the Georgia Performance Standards, the efforts of teachers will eventually—in spite of everything politicians can do to make them look like scapegoats for what are truly societal issues—be the salvation of Common Core implementation. Teachers will prevail in spite of state and Federal mandates and implementation schemes, and not because of them; until, of course, the next big reform comes around the corner, and the rules and expectations change once again.


[1] Editor’s note: Democrats too.



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