Mowing Down the Mistakes of Confused Common Core Opponents

August 20, 2013

On Friday, the San Francisco Chronicle’s online portal ran an anti-Common Core op-ed authored by George Ball, the “past president of the American Horticultural Society.” While reasonable minds may disagree about the merits of the Common Core, this particular editorial was so riddled with factual errors I couldn’t stop myself from going through this piece line-by-line to rebut the most egregious misstatements. It’s one thing for the far-right fringe to indulge in Common Corespiracy theories, but surely the Chronicle can do better than this?

Now adopted in 45 states, including California, and the District of Columbia, this federal effort sets uniform standards on how math and English are taught in American schools. 

The Common Core state standards do not dictate how math and English are to be taught, but rather, what students are expected to learn. Nor is the Common Core a “federal effort”; the standards were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

A top-down program imposed on states in order to qualify for Race to the Top funds, the curriculum is the fruit of a process tainted with politics, vested interests and a lack of transparency. 

The Common Core standards are not curriculum. They define what students are expected to know, but give educators the discretion to decide what curriculum to use.

The Common Core Curriculum is being implemented without empirical evidence of its value, and imposed hurriedly without consulting the very people most affected: students, teachers and parents.

In California, the Common Core standards were approved in 2010 by the state legislature and the State Board of Education, in public. The Common Core has the support of numerous organizations that represent teachers and parents, including the California Teachers’ Association, the California State PTA, and Teach Plus (to name only a few). 

The test-centric No Child Left Behind federal program resulted in 4 out of 5 of the nation’s schools receiving a failing grade. The Common Core standards up the ante, creating tests that are considerably tougher, longer and more expensive. 

There’s no such thing as a “failing grade” under No Child Left Behind, which is a federal law (not really a program). In 2011, the last year before the Obama Administration started issuing waivers to states to exempt them from NCLB, 48% of schools failed to make adequate yearly progress. There is no credible source for the 80% figure the author offers here.

It’s well known that standardized testing reinforces disparities of wealth and resources. 

This is NOT well known. Standardized tests often reflect disparities of wealth and resources, but the author offers no evidence that they reinforce them.

If leveling the educational playing field is our goal – a laudable one – we should first level spending on schools before we introduce a new curriculum. California will now do just that, funding schools based on student population, and gauged to a district’s number of low-income and English-as-a-second-language students.

The author is correct that California’s Local Control Funding Formula provides additional funding to support low income and ELL students. But note that under LCFF, spending is not leveled; it is actually weighted (i.e., adjusted) to provide additional resources based on student demographics.

David Coleman, chief architect of the Common Core curriculum, now heads the College Board. That’s worrisome, and so is Coleman’s background as a consultant at McKinsey & Co., the firm that so ably advised Kmart, Enron, Swissair and Global Crossing.

The Common Core standards are not curriculum. Also, this is an ad hominem attack, and a flimsy one at that. McKinsey has consulted with virtually every corporation in the Fortune 500.

Just as we’re turning our schools into test-driven education factories modeled on schools in Asia, that region’s educators are looking to American schools for inspiration. The Asian system has been wildly successful at producing great test takers, well prepared to morph into dutiful bureaucrats.

There’s no such thing as the “Asian system” for education. Countries that do well on international exams such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore have different education systems. The insinuation that the “Asian system” is wildly successful in producing bureaucrats is borderline offensive.

What’s lost in Common Core is the human factor. Teachers, whose performance evaluations and salary are pegged to their students’ test results, are deprived of the freedom and creativity that is the oxygen of learning.

This is an argument against tying teacher salaries to test results, it has nothing to do with the merits (or lack thereof) of the Common Core academic standards.

After genetics, the most advanced psychological research tells us a child’s development is determined by micro-relationships – the ever-present, barely perceptible gestures, expressions and glances – that are the soul of communication, nurture and empathy.

The “most advanced psychological research” doesn’t tell us this, at least with respect to education.

Largely designed by testing experts, not teachers, the monolithic curriculum is like detailed gardening instructions from someone who has never set foot in a garden. “Grow faster!” is the experts’ motto. Well, children are not cornstalks.

Once again, the Common Core standards are not curriculum.

Rather than embark on this Upsidedownia national educational experiment, let’s begin at the local, really local, level: the individual child. Hire smart, empathic teachers with depth and vision, and watch our children grow into a harvest of creative, thoughtful, articulate intellects and citizens. This is, one might say, the cure for the Common Core.

There is no policy prescription offered here. It is the equivalent to solving the current crisis in journalism by “arguing” along the following lines:

Rather than running these Incoherentia opinion pieces on education issues by someone with a background in horticulture, let’s begin at the local, really local level: the individual newspaper. Hire smart, thoughtful editors who demand their columnists articulate coherent arguments, buttressed with facts and evidence, and watch as our readers grow into a harvest of creative, thoughtful, articulate intellects and citizens. This is, one might say, the cure for common crap.