Common Core: Teaching to the New Test – PART I

By Mary Grabar | June 13, 2013

It took the sleeping giant a while to figure out what was going on with the Common Core (so-called) State Standards. Put together largely by a well-connected Washington, D.C., non-profit called Achieve, these education “standards” were attached to the Race-to-the-Top contest in 2009 for $4.35 billion in stimulus funds. Forty-eight states entered the contest. Today, promoters claim 45 states plus the District of Columbia are still signed up, but a bipartisan grassroots effort is changing this.

While Alaska, Nebraska, Virginia and Texas refused to adopt Common Core standards, the Michigan governor signed legislation passed by both houses that defunds Common Core. In Indiana and Pennsylvania, lawmakers have voted to pause on implementation. Seven other states are presenting serious challenges, and the Republican National Committee recently adopted a resolution rejecting the standards.

Common Core defenders seem to be a bit surprised that the public should even notice. They have been pushing back with op-eds in the Wall Street Journal and other places.

The New Math

In the May 6 Wall Street Journal, UCLA mathematics professors Edward Frenkel and Hung-His Wu began their attack on the RNC’s resolution—“Republicans Should Love ‘Common Core’”—with claims that could have come from a sales brochure. Common Core standards, they insisted, are “rigorous academic standards in mathematics and English language arts” that are the “culmination of a meticulous, 20-year process initiated by the states and involving teachers, educators, business leaders and policy makers from across the country and both sides of the aisle.”

The Common Core standards are needed, they warned, to halt a “deep crisis” in math education, which is coming from a “fraction-phobia,” which in turn arises from “incomprehensible and irrelevant textbooks” that explain fractions by using pizza slices or “ill-defined notions like ratio.” Their own presumably superior explanations involve ratios “defined geometrically as points on a number line,” with multiplication then being “the area of the rectangle formed by the two line segments.”

My Ph.D. is in English but I understood the “concept of ratios” in sixth grade, as well as the formula for multiplying numerators and denominators. I do not follow their explanation.

Common Core also confuses students and their parents by stressing word problems and explanations over understanding concepts and formulas. Students who do not come up with the correct answers can acquire partial credit for explanations—offering a ready means of closing the “achievement gap,” the overriding goal of the Obama Department of Education. Parents across the country are alarmed, though, when their children who do the math correctly only get partial credit when they do not provide explanations using the educators’ jargon and charts. For example, one school boy had points taken off even though he correctly identified one bridge as being longer than another. The reason? He did not “explain” why through the elaborate codes and byzantine drawings that Common Core demands.

Earlier this year, educator James Shuls, in his article for Education News, “Why We Need School Choice,” explained why he had to withdraw his children from their public school: administrators refused to consider his pleas to return to the simpler pre-Common Core math. (He reproduces some of their homework assignments in his article.)

Barry Garelick, who is credentialed to teach middle school and high school math, in his article, “The Pedagogical Agenda of Common Core Math Standards,” in the same publication, reported that at seminars on implementation “process” still trumps “content.” He concludes that adoption of the math standards “will be a mandate for reform math—a method of teaching math that eschews memorization, favors group work and student-centered learning, puts the teacher in the role of ‘guide’ rather than ‘teacher’ and insists on students being able to explain the reasons why procedures and methods work for procedures and methods that they may not be able to perform.”

Professors Frenkel and Wu ignore such issues, as well as cost and constitutionality. They instead use a small problem (explanation of fractions) as an excuse to revamp an entire system. Even if their explanations proved to be better than the old ones (giving them the benefit of the doubt) they could simply suggest changes to textbooks or publish new ones. No doubt, in a free marketplace, their superior ideas would prevail.

Common Core for Common Knowledge

Another thin argument for Common Core came a week after Frenkel and Wu’s column. On May 13 the Wall Street Journal published a column by Sol Stern, of the Manhattan Institute, and Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York public schools and currently vice president of News Corp. (parent company of the Wall Street Journal) and CEO of Amplify, the News Corp.’s education division that offers a plethora of Common-Core aligned digital curriculum materials for sale. They wrote that Common Core presents an alternative to “progressive education philosophy,” which “opposes any set curriculum for the schools.”

“Progressives,” they explained, “tend to favor pedagogical approaches in the classroom such as ‘child-centered’ instruction and ‘teaching for social justice,’ rather than rigorous academic content.”

Stern has been a long-time opponent of progressive education and a promoter of E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum program. Hirsch is an old-style liberal whose idea of Cultural Literacy, also the title of his 1987 bestseller, is aptly described by Wikipedia as “the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging cultural background knowledge.” Hirsch found that a common knowledge in the sciences and humanities was necessary for cultural cohesion and academic achievement. For this, of course, he was reviled by progressives.

Stern believes Common Core (as “standards”) can be used to adopt the Core Knowledge program that has proven beneficial in the ten schools in which it was implemented in New York City (under the direction of Klein). In the Summer 2012 issue of City Journal, Stern wrote that the “standards” are “creating a historic opportunity to introduce Hirsch’s curriculum to many more schools and classrooms.”

Furthermore, according to Stern, “the standards themselves make clear that they do not constitute a curriculum; they merely state what children should know at the end of each grade level and the skills they must acquire to stay on course toward college or career readiness. Each school system still needs to find a curriculum—that is, the particular academic content taught by teachers from lesson to lesson and from grade to grade—that will help its students achieve the standards.” Common Core, presumably leaves the “content-rich curriculum” up to the districts, while at the same time it refers (quoting from the standards themselves) to “some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare.” Stern seems to be reassured by both the vague references to the classics and promises of freedom allowed to the districts.

But that is not the way the authors of the report evaluating Common Core national tests see it (“On the Road to Assessing Deeper Learning: The Status of Smarter Balanced and PARCC Assessment Consortia,” produced by the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards & Student Testing (CRESST)). The UCLA professors concluded that the new assessments will send “powerful signals to schools about the meaning of the CCSS [Common Core State Standards] and what students know and are able to do. If history is a guide, educators will align curriculum and teaching to what is tested, and what is not assessed largely will be ignored.”

This and what other Common Core testing enthusiasts have said should have injected a jolt of reality into Stern’s and Klein’s wishful thinking. Oddly, as we shall see in the next installment, Part II, they are the very same progressive educators that Stern has opposed in the past. What these progressives mean by tests/assessments is very different from what most of us think.

Mary Grabar, Ph.D., has taught college English for over twenty years. She is the founder of the Dissident Prof Education Project, Inc., an education reform initiative that offers information and resources for students, parents, and citizens. The motto, “Resisting the Re-Education of America,” arose in part from her perspective as a very young immigrant from the former Communist Yugoslavia (Slovenia specifically). She writes extensively and is the editor of EXILED. Ms. Grabar is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.