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Fighting Common Core

(Photo: Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

Few if any political issues have brought together liberals and the tea party to the extent that the Common Core State Standards have. How can something be equally objectionable to political opposites?

Tea partiers ideologically oppose just about any federal program -- especially anything with the Obama name on it. But does political ideology explain liberals' opposition to Common Core?

Ideologically speaking, it is baffling that any liberal would adopt the education reform agenda with its call to deregulate schools as a public good, and destabilize labor unions which have historically been huge supporters of the Democratic party. (Although one only has to consider neo-liberalism to understand the call to privatize.)

But, in education, for liberal politicians, money trumps ideology. Politicians simply cannot resist the money -- or at least the possibility of preventing the billionaires from filling the campaign coffers of their opponents. When billionaires like Eli Broad pretend to be Democrats, it's a very effective way of infiltrating the Democratic inner sanctum, long a champion of public education. (I say "pretend" after a Common Cause complaint to the Fair Political Practices Commission revealed that Eli Broad and other billionaires had secretly funded opposition to Governor Brown's tax proposition while publicly supporting it.)

Ideology only explains a small part of the opposition to Common Core.

Other than a distaste for lining the pockets of giant corporations, it's more likely that the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Common Core isn't ideological at all.

Many critics feel like the major purpose of Common Core is to make teaching measurable. Even if one is convinced that that goal is a reasonable one to cure what ails our schools -- and many of us are not -- some things are not easy to quantify. Think of the best teacher you ever had. It's doubtful that you conjure images of Scan-Tron tests.

I think of Mrs. Nottingham, my third grade teacher who walked around with a pointer we were sure could become a weapon if things got out of hand. One day, a substitute teacher had filled in. At the end of the day, she looked up from her notes and said "Who is Karen?" I raised my little hand. She said "OK. Mrs. Nottingham said if I have any questions I can ask you." That instilled in me a sense of competence and an expectation that carried me through my education in ways an A on a multiple choice test could not.

I think of Mrs. Holman, my ninth grade biology teacher, and the last question on the final exam: "What did you learn about yourself in this class?"

I think of Rudolph Steiner who started Waldorf Schools at the turn of the last century, and who said that you can't measure the effectiveness of an education until a child is 28 or 29 years old.

I think of the teachers in last month's snow storms in Georgia, Alabama, and other states, who spent the night with their students in the gym and texted pictures to worried parents. #evaluatethat!

The effort to make teaching measurable inevitably reduces learning to less than what we all know it needs to be. If the outcomes have to be certain boxes checked, you just cannot produce a thinking child. In light of that failure, it's hard to stomach the billions of dollars in profits for a handful of companies that produce those boxes (Pearson, Gates, InBloom).

There are good people who think that all states should teach to the same standards. They seem to think the details will take care of themselves.

I recently talked with Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, who thinks CCSS is necessary to help abolish backward practices like teaching creationism. I told her that was too small a problem to solve at such a high cost. Voters in districts like that have the opportunity to put a stop to it at the ballot box — and the rest of the country should not suffer for their failure to do so.

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In Los Angeles, school officials say Common Core promises to produce deeper thinking. I have a hard time believing that will be the case because of oddities like "close reading," which instructs students not to consider their own life experiences in studying a reading passage. Parents can forget about "teaching moments" or weekend visits to museums.

In districts where the roll-out started over a year ago, many teachers oppose Common Core because they're seeing two major shortcomings:

  • First, it doesn't incorporate child development science. For this reason, they have been especially critical of the standards for kindergarten through third grade.
  • Second, most districts that are adopting it are purchasing scripted teaching materials. That drives teachers into the loony bin. They have been trained for years to teach students in a wide span of learning abilities and styles. That is not possible with a script. This would never have happened if, like past successful curricula or standards, Common Core had been formulated by professional educators. Another bone of contention.

New York is a year ahead of California in Common Core implementation and assessments, and the backlash has been huge.


I suspect that in the next year we on the West Coast will hear a lot about CCSS being a good idea but the implementation has been messed up. Let’s hope policy makers will look to New York — and to professional teachers — to fix it.

Karen Wolfe

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