29 March 2014

An Empty Core

Field testing for the multi-state assessments for the Common Core State Standards began last week. Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which oversaw the drafting of the CCSS with the National Governor’s Association, heralded the events in  the Huffington Post:

The promise of Common Core standards, now being implemented in more than 40 states, is that they set a higher bar for what students should know and understand at each grade level. What hasn’t changed is that even under these new standards, individual teachers and schools will continue to decide how best to teach their students to meet them. But because the Common Core standards are more rigorous expectations, carefully researched and pegged to meet or exceed what students in other high-performing countries are learning, they will discourage learning-by-memorizing drills and “teaching to the test.”

The aim is noble, but good intentions do not make good policy. Minnich says that the standards are more rigorous and “require students to develop and demonstrate stronger mastery of core subject matter.” The CCSS do not set out a curriculum for meeting them, though many publishers are offering such curricula ostensibly based on the standards. For those of us who have read them, it is by no means clear that a “higher bar” is set or that they enable “stronger mastery of core subject matter.” Instead, they often ask students to explain how they multiplied after multiplying 5 x 4, to which my daughter answers “by multiplying, duh!” Or asking for “evidence” from a story to explain why one character felt they way he or she did, and by evidence they mean quoting back a line from the text.

But let’s stipulate that the standards do require stronger mastery and higher learning. How then will schools and teachers revise their curricula to meet these new standards? Developing state-wide assessments should be the last step in rolling out the CCSS but instead it is the first step. Since the standards seek a progression from kindergarten—yes, now a half-day kindergarten must meet the same standards as a full-day kindergarten—how are teachers supposed to bring a 6th, 7th, or 8th grader up these higher standards when they were taught under lesser standards in their K-5 years? Either the standards are not substantively different and so this will take only a little extra time and effort,  or the standards are in fact significantly more rigorous and improving student instruction will take much more time and effort. If the latter, then the assessments come too soon. We know that many children do not meet the bar for old standards.

For once, an athletic analogy is appropriate for educational achievement. If an athlete cannot leap over a low hurdle, you do not improve his or her performance by raising the height of the hurdle.

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