(Jan 12) How The Common Core Became Education’s Biggest Bogeyman

 Posted: 01/10/2014 7:34 am EST  |  Updated: 01/12/2014 1:10 pm EST

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Arne Duncan made a glib remark about the Common Core that quickly blew up.

Speaking before a gathering of state schools chiefs, the secretary of education dismissed growing opposition to the new national set of learning standards, saying “white suburban moms” were rising up against the Core simply because its more rigorous tests meant they were being told “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.”

The riff wasn’t all that different from Duncan’s usual words of support for the Common Core. He often says states have “dummied down standards” and insists officials need to tell students the truth about just how smart they are. But as soon as he named “white suburban moms” as part of the problem, his refrain became the gaffe heard ’round the mom-blogger world.

The pointed phrasing fed into parents’ bubbling anxiety about the Core, more fully known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an education push that aims to make sure students across the United States are learning the skills they need to succeed in a global economy. In recent months, as schools began teaching and testing students on the new standards — and telling families about their plans — what started as an effort by officials to remake American education has become a favored punching bag of pundits and parents alike.

Duncan repeatedly apologized for his “clumsy” handling of the Core’s opponents that day in November, but he maintained he wasn’t sorry for the sentiment — that holding children to higher expectations and being honest about what they do and don’t know is important. The Core is supposed to do just that.

The Common Core differs from the current educational standards system in that there is no current system. Each state sets its own learning standards, and those get translated through thousands of districts and schools and teachers. The Core is supposed to unify this patchwork of efforts not only across states, but across the country. And contrary to popular belief, it’s not a curriculum: School systems and teachers can choose their own instructional materials, as long as students know what the Core says they should know by year’s end.

Students will learn less content, but more in-depth, coherent and demanding content. In other words, students should know fewer things, but they should know them better. The Core encourages teachers to move away from memorization and to ask students to show their work. In math, it means emphasizing such things as learning fractions and fluency in arithmetic. In reading, it means more nonfiction texts — recommendations range from historical speeches from Martin Luther King, Jr., and Winston Churchill to more instructional reads such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Recommended Levels of Insulation” and FedViews, by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

It asks even younger students to respond to books and articles by making inferences based on evidence, rather than their personal feelings. Overall, it should yield fewer lectures and more conversations. Teachers across the country are already incorporating the standards into their lesson plans, changing things like the order and structure of their classes to correspond with this vision.

If implemented effectively — that is, if the standards actually reach the classroom and teachers are given the materials, training and support they need — the Core will dramatically change what it means to be a student in American public schools. Its supporters hope it will create more effective teachers and, in the long run, help the U.S. improve its international educational standing after a decade of stagnation. They say this new education paradigm could also be game-changing for the U.S. economy, as American schools begin to teach lessons in sequences similar to those of higher-performing countries around the world, such as Finland and Singapore.

Yet it appears that after three years of relative quiet, the initiative is poised to become a political football, both imperiling its implementation and potentially undermining any good its supporters think it could do. What’s at stake is the classroom experience and outcomes for over 40 million kids, as states and local school districts find themselves caught in the middle of this debate and continue to face troubles transitioning to a complex new system. In New York, the transition has been so rocky that the state’s teachers union president said this week that he would pursue a no-confidence vote on education commissioner John King over his handling of Common Core implementation.

“White suburban moms”-gate showed just how much more scrutiny the initiative is getting these days. Detractors across the political spectrum have associated the Common Core with, at various points, “zombies,” “Hitler” and “vampires.” Some Republican officials who helped create the standards are having trouble holding down support as their constituents argue the Core represents yet another way for federal officials to micromanage their lives. Right-wing organizers are channeling this anger into a campaign to take down the Core. Earlier this month, FreedomWorks posted an action plan to fight against the standards, a campaign that will culminate with a march on Washington, D.C., this summer. The American Principles Project plans to spend at least $500,000 on the cause, Politico reported.

Meanwhile, proponents of the Core also face grounded concerns from academics, parents and some left-wing politicians about the true rigor of the standards and the limits they could place on higher-performing students.

New attention to the Common Core is admittedly overdue, and the vitriol perhaps inevitable. In a sense, the initiative was conceived in a political vacuum: The standards were quietly drafted and implemented over the last five years by a relatively small group of experts and officials around the country and with limited public input. This meant the process went fairly smoothly — initially, creators were able to secure the backing of 48 governors, from red and blue states alike.

But in the three years since states began adopting the standards, the political landscape around education has changed to reflect the overall polarization of partisan politics. The Core’s most high-profile supporter, President Barack Obama, was reelected. But during the 2012 campaign, his opponent branded the Core as a federal overreach, pushing Obama to walk a fine line between bragging about it and falling prey to those sensitivities. “We’ve convinced nearly every state in the country to raise their standards for teaching and learning,” Obama said in one debate, but he was careful never to mention the Common Core by name. At the state level, new governors and legislatures took office and found they had inherited their predecessors’ ideas about how to educate their children — ideas they didn’t necessarily agree with.

The Common Core has yet to be tested in a big way. To understand where the initiative goes from here, we have to go back to where it started, and recover some of the history that’s often lost on newcomers to the debate. To do that, The Huffington Post spoke to key players responsible for the Core’s creation and adoption to find out exactly how we got here.

Think fewer zombies, and much more bureaucracy.

Full story: How The Common Core Became Education’s Biggest Bogeyman Joy Resmovits, Huffington Post, 1/10/14

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