Failing grades for Common Core

December 3, 2013

Jeff Bale, coeditor of Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation, looks beyond the media uproar at the basic problems with new education standards.

TWO RECENT media dust-ups over Common Core State Standards have underscored just how arrogant and out of touch its cheerleaders are--and just how confusing it can be to navigate the political opposition to these new education standards.

Common Core State Standards set new guidelines for what students should know in English language arts and math. With next-to-no input from actual educators, the standards have been adopted by 45 states and four U.S territories (including the District of Columbia) as of this writing.

For several reasons discussed below, Common Core standards have provoked significant resistance across the political spectrum. Advocates have thus had to double down on their arguments on behalf of these new standards. And they've received a good deal of scorn--rightfully--along the way.

In mid-November, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a group of superintendents: "It's fascinating to me that some of the pushback [against Common Core] is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who--all of a sudden--their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn't quite as good as they thought they were, and that's pretty scary."

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

As education historian Diane Ravitch noted, Duncan's comments were triggered by "the nearly unanimous outrage" expressed by suburban New York parents--both moms and dads, Ravitch stressed--at the recent release of student test scores on new assessments aligned to Common Core. As Ravitch wrote:

The parents weren't angry because they found out their child wasn't brilliant, but because most were told by the state that their children were failures. Only 31 percent of the state's students in grades third through eighth passed or exceeded the new tests. Among students who are English-language learners, only 3 percent passed the English standards; among students with disabilities, only 5 percent passed them; among Black and Hispanic students, fewer than 20 percent passed. The numbers for math were better, but not by much.

What's "pretty scary" isn't the outrage suburban parents have expressed, but rather, that it was entirely predictable. Education authorities set the cut-off scores on the new Common Core-aligned assessments artificially high. In fact, the state commissioner for education publicly predicted that only 30 percent of students would pass – which is exactly what happened.

Later in November, New York Times opinion writer Frank Bruni used Duncan's comments to frame a column equally as condescending to parents. With similar credentials to Duncan's qualifying him to discuss education--read: none--Bruni dismissed parent resistance over Common Core as another instance of a "coddling" culture.

As evidence, Bruni complained about high schools with double-digit numbers of valedictorians (which could not possibly be explained by those students' actual academic success), sporting events that give out trophies to everyone for having participated, and sports teams that ensure every child gets an equal amount of playing time.

For Bruni, parent resistance to Common Core is just another effort to shield kids from hard work and failure.

In a sharp retort titled "Dumb Things White People Say About Schools," education blogger Jersey Jazzman was reduced to explaining to Bruni – slowly – that sports are about competition, whereas standards are about learning. The difference between the two is that competition is the norm in one and has no place in the other. More important still, he noted that the U.S. has the highest child poverty rate in the industrialized world, with some 12 million children living with food insecurity.

None of what Bruni wrote is evidence of a "coddled" generation. It's evidence of the myopia exhibited by one-time food critics who decide to dabble in education policy.

BUT WHAT about the resistance to Common Core? It's easy to call out the likes of Duncan and Bruni for their condescension and incompetence. But making sense of the resistance to Common Core State Standards is a bit more difficult.

One reason is that we aren't always talking about the same thing.

On the one hand, there are the standards themselves. As has been widely documented--for example, here and here--Common Core State Standards are not, in fact, state standards at all. They are national standards written mostly by academics, consultants and assessment experts. The writing of these standards was organized by a private organization (Achieve, Inc.) contracted by non-governmental organizations (the National Governors Association and Council of State School Officers), and funded in large part by the Gates Foundation.

When teachers were brought into the writing process at all, it was largely to revise. Parents weren't included at all.

Because the federal government is prohibited from establishing a national curriculum, states had to be bribed to adopt Common Core. If they wanted a share of money from the Obama administration's Race to the Top funding program--or later, if they wanted a temporary waiver from No Child Left Behind testing requirements--they had to adopt Common Core.

This explains why so many states and U.S. territories have jumped on board--many before the ink had dried on the final draft of the standards.

On the other hand, there are the assessments tied to Common Core. Two separate consortia (Smarter Balanced and PARCC) are still developing assessments aligned with the Common Core standards. These assessments will be taken on computers that many schools don't have. And it's widely expected that these exams will be considerably more difficult than the high-stakes tests currently in use. Indeed, in states that have designed their own tests, as in New York, predictions of drastic declines in "pass" rates have been borne out.

IT WOULD be inaccurate to claim that resistance to Common Core lines up neatly with this distinction between the standards themselves and the assessments. However, there are important differences in where the center of gravity lies in the resistance to each of them.

For example, Mercedes Schneider's EduBlog recently catalogued what she called "Common Core Unrest" in over a dozen states. In almost every instance, the unrest she documents was led by Republican state officials--especially those aligned with the Tea Party--in an effort to block, undo or otherwise hamper state adoption of the Common Core standards.

Some of this is simply the by-product of knee-jerk animosity to anything and everything the Obama administration does. Some of it is rooted in right-wing populism--in particular, the recent writings of far-right pundit Michelle Malkin, who called out Duncan as a bigot for his "race-baiting, class warfare" rhetoric about white suburban moms, and denounced the "Big Government/Big Business cronies" behind Common Core.

But most of the right's resistance invokes the age-old demand for "local control" over public schools.

At times, civil rights movements have raised demands for "local control" to win greater equity, improve the educational experiences for students of color, and ensure that parents of color had greater say over how neighborhood schools were run. Most often, though, calls for "local control" have been used as reactionary cover to maintain the racial segregation and class-based sorting endemic in public education.

This doesn't mean, however, that there have been no progressive critiques of the Common Core standards themselves and the curriculum related to it. There have been plenty--for example, at Rethinking Schools and this website. But movement on the ground has been dominated thus far by right-wing resistance under the rubric of "local control."

By contrast, there is a veritable progressive movement building against high-stakes standardized testing.

In part, this makes sense since high-stakes standardized testing has impacted public education for over a decade since implementation of No Child Left Behind. Consequently, some of the best-known examples of resistance to the frenzy of testing in our schools today, such as the boycott of the MAP exam in Seattle in spring 2013, aren't directly tied to Common Core, but address the dangers of high-stakes testing overall.

Based on the experience of over a decade of these testing regimes, it's easier to see through the wild and completely unsubstantiated claims made by designers and advocates of the Common Core standards.

For example, a group of principals in New York drafted a letter to parents spelling out their concerns over the impact of new Common-Core-aligned exams.

In it, they noted that the amount of time spent on testing in New York schools had increased greatly, and that the tests were far too long. They described students as reacting "viscerally" to the tests: "We know that many children cried during or after testing, and others vomited or lost control of their bowels or bladders. Others simply gave up. One teacher reported that a student kept banging his head on the desk, and wrote, 'This is too hard,' and 'I can't do this,' throughout his test booklet."

As of this writing, over 500 principals and 3,000 supporters have signed on to the letter.

Also, the expansion of standardized testing associated with Common Core to early childhood years has triggered another wave of resistance.

As reported in in early November, PTA representatives from a dual-language school in Manhattan successfully organized a near-universal parent opt-out that led to the school cancelling K-2 testing. In Chicago, early childhood education teachers organized a "play-in" at school board offices last March with parents and children to protest Common Core-aligned testing.

WHILE THE center of gravity of opt-out and other anti-standardized testing activism has progressive roots, this resistance is not without its own contradictions. It's important to acknowledge that there is a kernel of truth to the sentiment that Duncan expressed, no matter how snide his tone was.

High-stakes standardized testing has impacted mostly urban public schools and schools with diverse student bodies. This is largely due to requirements under No Child Left Behind to "disaggregate" data: If a school has enough students in a specific racial and ethnic category, or enough students who received English language or special education services, they are required to report test results for each specific group.

Both hyper-segregated schools--keep in mind that white students are the most racially isolated group in the U.S.--and schools with too few emergent bilinguals or students with disabilities have largely escaped the consequences of the high-stakes testing craze.

Yet the logic of using high-stakes standardized tests to define what learning is and what counts as "proficient" has only expanded with the advent of Common Core. This means that another layer of schools hitherto untouched by the devastating fallout of high-stakes testing suddenly find themselves in hot water.

This applies as much to the roughly 70 percent of New York parents who were recently told their children are failures, as to the suburban and semi-rural school districts in mid-Michigan where I work as a teacher educator, which have recently landed on state "watch lists," putting them in danger of being taken over or shut down.

The reaction of shock from teachers, parents and students in these contexts to the abrupt announcement that they are failing is not automatically right wing--and it is not evidence that they have been coddled.

Rather, it is an opportunity to build solidarity. This is an opening to argue that "white suburban moms" and dads have a lot to learn from parents, teachers and students in urban schools who have been coping with--and trying to resist--the onslaught of corporate education deforms for a decade.

To be sure, far-right activists will attempt to claim that resistance as their own, as Michelle Malkin has by positioning herself as the great anti-Common Core crusader, or as conservative activists have by shoehorning recent reaction in New York to the Common Core disaster into their right-wing narratives.

But progressive parents, teachers and students should take advantage of this opening to strengthen and expand the movement against corporate-driven reforms--and for the schools that our kids deserve.

Further Reading

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