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Mowing Down the Mistakes of Confused Common Core Opponents

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. 

8 Responses to “Mowing Down the Mistakes of Confused Common Core Opponents”

  1. I agree that the Ball’s arguments jumble a variety of issues and I appreciate you calling out errors and conspiracy theories and clarifying the issues, but many of your responses avoid a key point he’s trying to make.

    In and of themselves, Common Core standards are somewhat benign. What Ball and many others are beginning to take issue with are the unintended consequences of NCLB. Ask any teacher who has been teaching long enough to remember what school (especially elementary school) looked like before NCLB, and they’ll tell you how much the classroom has changed for the worse. Curriculum has narrowed in response to NCLB and many schools are have dramatically reduced the amount of instructional time dedicated to Liberal and Fine Arts. (If interested, I wrote a blog recently about my own experience:

    I believe in NCLB, but we need to fix how API is calculated. It should include attendance and discipline, and it should weigh-in the number of instructional hours dedicated to the Liberal Arts and STEAM.

    I also appreciate that the debate around Common Core is heated and emotions are running high, but your response is unnecessarily caustic. If we’re going to convince critics to see the light, attacking them personally is not the way to go.

  2. As a point of interest and in response to the “Asian” bit, here’s a story that appeared in USA Today this morning reinforcing the idea that we’re trying to learn from our friends in Singapore who have done so well in Math, but it’s not the kind of curriculum Ball would expect… Certainly doesn’t resemble the dystopic “education factory” he describes:

  3. Ben Riley

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Paul. In my view, you’ve articulated an argument against NCLB, which really is separate from the Common Core (as you acknowledge). While I suspect Ball is no fan of NCLB either, his argument is (mostly) trained on the Common Core itself. Finally, I plead guilty to the charge of being caustic — that is the nature of “fisking” op-eds — I fail to see where I attack Ball personally. He offered an an argument to support his opinion; I’m attacking the argument, not the person. I just wish his op-ed had been as thoughtfully offered as your comment!

    • Paul Smith

      Mia culpa… You in fact did not attack Ball. I misinterpreted your last paragraph. I do agree that SFGate took a page out of the Fox News playbook here. Anything to stir the pot I guess. Looks like it worked too with more than 1300 shares on FB.

  4. I suspect that we’re only seeing minor evidence of an impending and loud backlash to CCSS. It’s easy to write reactive pieces as Ball has done. They get the adrenaline going and get lots of hits. And they are, as you point out quite well, misleading and misinformed. Such is the food fight that passes for discussion in education today. The truth is that the Common Core is, in fact, a great improvement over what we were dealing with before. Another part of the truth, however, is that the general public is showing extreme irritability with the “testing culture” and they probably have a right to do so as this tail has really wagged our dog too long and too hard. I am a fan of the Common Core, but I wish we wouldn’t look at it (or any standards) as being our North Star.

  5. Ben Riley

    Thanks for commenting, Steve. I think your analysis is spot on, “testing fatigue” is a real phenomena as a series of polls released this week confirm. My only quibble is that I think the Common Core standards should indeed be the “north star” around which a number of systemic changes can take place, from assessment to curriculum to instructional practice.

  6. I would encourage all of you to do more research on the Common Core standards and not just disregard the opponents because you may think they get their information from right-wing fanatics. Research both sides of the issue, talk directly to teachers and then make a decision.

    Common Core does not address the needs of all the students, including the gifted and special needs students. Common Core is flawed and expecting positive outcomes of its implementation as states flounder around trying to create curriculum around it does a disservice to the students.

    Here is an article about a former pro-common core NY principal.

  7. Mark Twainfive

    I thought this all started with TIMMS and comparing how we are doing with
    Finland, Singapore, or Germany? Do any of you know how many tests are given to students in countries like Finland or Germany? I talked with some students and teachers from those countries and found out. Finish students do not take a single standardized test. I wonder how they evaluate their teachers? Germany limits the number of tests each semester to three for high school students. These tests include classroom tests and any type of “standardized” test, so if a teacher gives three unit tests a semester, the maximum has been reached and no “standardized” test could be given. The students and teachers said most of their work is judged by their class participation, both oral and written. They also indicated they get graphing calculators issued with their math textbooks and are expected to use them when needed including during a Test. When are we going to start to do what these successful countries do for our students?
    Do you honestly think our educational problem is the curriculum and standards are not rigorous enough for our current students?Please go to your local school and talk with the teachers or read some of the students comments on facebook. If you live in an area of higher socioeconomic means, then your school is performing above average due to many factors such as parent support for learning and checking to see that their children are completing their homework or immediatley getting the help they need. Parents of students who attend “good” schools do not want endless tests that are meaningless to their childrens future and a huge waist of resources that should be used to improve the school learning environment by purchasing needed technology and up to date instructional materials. Maybe the new standards could be helpful, but teachers have a shorter, more limited amount of time to cover more curriculum than before due to earlier testing periods and more testing. Futhermore, how are students held accountable for doing their best on these tests? Is the test result used to help calculate the students grade or do they need a proficient score to earn a diploma or get accepted for college or … If the test has no student accountability component why would they even care about doing well. I would focus on preparing for my immediate class grade to improve my GPA and SAT exams or preparing for a big game or musical performance. I could use this test as a way of getting back at a teacher who is asking me to do more than I want to do because I have other interests. Are only math, science, and English teachers being judged by these tests or is there a test to judge a PE teacher or Art/Music teacher or Elective teachers? I wonder how long it will be before we find no one willing to interview for a math teaching position at a low performing school. I do not see how spending ALL this money on testing is changing anything except creating a National Curriculum and telling low performing schools that they continue to be low performing schools and they need to replace their teachers with better ones. It seems like I have been hearing this same argument for the past 50 years. Yes, I am a senior citizen who cares about real changes that will improve educational opportunities for the students who need an environment that is conducive to learning. Why are we spending money we do not have on schools that are already achieving and trying to have a one size fits all system because this is not why Americans create so many new things and come up with so many new ideas. If we are trying compete with Finland and Singapore, then we need to make serious structural systemic changes to our schools and do what they do or do not do in their schools. NO more football programs or other sports in our high schools and most electives would also have to be eliminated. I am a Finlander, but we live in a much different country in America and we have very different values. When the well-educated parents of public school children start to understand that a large part of schooling has changed from learning and developing critical thinking to preparing students to do well on a test that most people never have time to analyze and use as a resource to improve the educational experience for children, then they will either place their children in a school where real learning is the priority or they will get involved in changing our new system of schooling. I cannot call this system a system for learning because time and testing are not and should never be factors in a learning environment that promotes creativity and critical thinking (testing without student accountability is meaningless). These two goals are what made America great and created jobs, and they do not happen in a specific amount of time because each of us is unique and we do things at different rates. And futhermore, testing has never been shown to improve either of these factors unless the tests are used to diagnose student deficiencies in their prerequisite knowledge needed to expand their understanding using this knowledge. Even then, most school systems do not give teachers adequate time to analyze the testing data so it an exercise in wasting valuable learning time. Critical thinking and creativity are factors that need to be encouraged and nurtured from Pre-K on. To flourish, they need a stress free environment so students can open up their thoughts and dream up new ideas. It seems ironic that many of the people who were allowed to be raised in this type of environment, open, creative, and stress free, are the same people who are now paying for and pushing for a more controlled and structured environment, but not for their own children? What about Bill Gates and Mark Zutterburg?
    Thank you for reading and pray for your grandchildren’s future.

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