February 23 2014
"If you like your textbooks, you can keep your textbooks," Tom Monson said with a wink to a packed room of parents and educators at a recent Centennial Institute forum.
Monson, a member of the audience, had just heard from Professor Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas, an opponent of the Common Core academic standards for K-12 public schools. Common Core, which has been adopted by 45 states, including Colorado, standardizes the skills students must master in literacy and math.
Stotsky, a dissenting member of a national committee that endorsed Common Core, believes that the standards and their corresponding national tests are not rigorous. Because those standards and tests largely determine what is taught in classrooms, opponents believe Common Core will ultimately hamper good classroom instruction and leave students less academically prepared than they are now. In addition, they are concerned that the federal government's efforts to encourage states to adopt the standards predict a more central role in enforcing them later on. Factor in the loss of instructional autonomy, substantial costs of time and money to comply with the new standards and tests, they argue, and schools have much to lose and little to gain from Common Core.
Proponents, on the other hand, contend that Common Core is stronger than most state-level academic standards and better prepares students for work and college demands. For every teacher and school leader I spoke with who disapproved of Common Core, an equal number think it is an improvement over Colorado's previous math and language-arts standards in terms of rigor and clarity. Advocates argue that all public school students should expect to learn a common set of baseline skills whether they live in Denver, New York City, or a farming town in rural Idaho. Families are increasingly mobile and, when they move, their students should start a new school without the added stress of being behind or ahead of their class. Stagnant academic performance, grade inflation, mediocre expectations, college remediation courses, and unqualified job applicants, they say, are proof that national standards are needed to shake up a broken system and hold schools, teachers and students to a uniform higher standard.
When thoughtful people offer compelling and competing alternatives, the best course is often to continue dialogue. Requiring Colorado public schools to teach to Common Core standards and administer aligned national assessments too soon will shut down debate when important questions remain unanswered. What are the costs of testing mandates in terms of money and time away from instruction? Given the instructional pedagogy disputes of the past 50 years, is it wise to say that here and now we know what to teach, when and how to teach it, and how to best measure the outcomes? What will be the impact to high-performing schools that do things differently than the standards prescribe? Is there even a link between the quality of state standards and academic improvement? (Research by Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute suggests there is not.)
In 1993, Colorado's legislature passed a bill requiring the state to create standards in core subjects and to begin assessing students. Prompted by 2008 legislation to address post-secondary and workforce readiness, the state Department of Education produced revised standards in 2009. The Department then determined that the new state standards in math and reading were similar to but not as complete as Common Core.
In 2010, the State Board of Education adopted Common Core in math and language arts while maintaining Colorado standards in other academic disciplines. Colorado also joined two assessment consortia, SMARTER Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), which are creating national assessments in math and language arts.
The federal government has taken an active role in promoting Common Core by awarding millions of dollars to states that have, among other things, adopted the national standards. Although the government is barred by law from exercising "direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum," its financial incentives (the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund was a pretty big carrot) and continuous bully pulpit have been quite persuasive.
The line between national and federal is an easy one to cross. The education goals formulated by the nation's governors in 1989 (Goals 2000) became federal law in 1994 along with the first federal testing mandates for states receiving federal education funds. Testing mandates have since grown. In order to receive federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act funds, states must test students in math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and science at least once at each elementary, middle and high school level. In addition to those tests, Colorado law requires social studies tests to be administered in three grades, reading tests in kindergarten through second grade, and the ACT test in the 11th grade.
Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas strenuously opposes national standards, saying they "deny one of the central arguments for choice — that there is a legitimate diversity of views on how and what our children should be taught. If Common Core folks have any support left for choice, it is to allow parents to choose the school that can best implement the centrally determined education content. You can choose which McDonald's franchise you frequent so that they can compete to make the best Big Mac for you, but you are out of luck if you prefer pizza."
If Common Core were voluntary guidance rather than state-mandated standards and PARCC assessments were one of many measures a school could use to track performance, there would be little controversy. Educators would regard them as useful tools. As they stand now, however, these one-size-fits-all requirements reduce professional and parental choices in education and impose heavy costs.
If you like that textbook, don't count on keeping it.
Published February 23, 2014 in The Denver Post.