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Why the political arguments about Common Core miss the point

Whether teachers are able to translate the Common Core into the classroom is key to the standards' success.
Whether teachers are able to translate the Common Core into the classroom is key to the standards' success.
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Linnea Wolters was skeptical of the Common Core at first. A fifth-grade teacher in Washoe County, Nevada, she taught a school filled with disadvantaged students. Most qualified for free or reduced price school lunch. More than half were still learning English.

Still, Wolters joined a small group of teachers working together to work on Common Core lessons in language arts. They paid particular attention a new technique called close reading, which asks students to approach a reading assignment without any background information on its importance, slow down, and figure out the meaning of the text as they go through it.

The first sample lesson she taught was a revelation, Wolters says. As she saw it, students who'd been taught for years to pick the right answer on multiple-choice tests were suddenly being asked to think of themselves: "We're asking them to shift the voice of authority from … the teacher to the internal locus of their own cognition."

The Common Core has spent more than a year now as a hot political cause, a subject of debate in state legislatures and a cleaver dividing Republican presidential contenders. But the standards' ultimate success or failure rests with teachers like Wolters.

State support in making the standards the benchmarks for what students should know and be able to do is necessary, but not sufficient. Teachers and district administrators design the curriculum to get kids to those goals, and the Common Core requires real changes to how they teach. This makes millions of teachers crucial links in Common Core's success or failure.

If the standards work as intended, it won't be because states adopted them or politicians stood up for them. It will be they've actually made instruction better than it was in the past. And that's a much more open — and much more interesting — question than their political fate.

"It's going to live and die by implementation," said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Fordham Institute, which supports the standards.

Implementation is crucial for political reasons as well. Badly designed assignments don't just upset a classroom — they can go viral. Last year, confusing math homework meant to teach kids "number sense" drew national attention from comedians Stephen Colbert and Louis C.K. But the worst assignment in any school district was probably the a horrifying eighth-grade essay question in a California school district about whether the Holocaust really happenedEven with standards in place, day-to-day decisions on curriculum and assignments matter far more.

Why teachers are key to the Common Core's success

common core math The Washington Post/Getty Images

What students do all day — like these math exercises — is a decision made at a much lower level than what standards they'll have to meet. (The Washington Post/Getty Images)

The Common Core isn't a curriculum. Standards simply say what students should know and be able to do. The Common Core does so in detail, even recommending what books, essays and nonfiction articles students might read, but they don't dictate the quotidian details of classroom life: worksheets, homework, monthly tests.

"As a teacher, I never once took down the New York state standards to decide what to teach," Pondiscio says. "You teach curriculum, you teach books, you teach subject matter, and then you teach it to the standards."

Teaching to the standards will require shifts in the classroom. The language arts standards require students to interact with what they read differently. Instead of talking about how they feel about a given passage, for example, they'll be expected to explain how authors use evidence or writing techniques to make their point. The math standards cover fewer concepts, but in more depth, and to help students learn, teachers need a solid understanding of why math works the way it does.

But because the standards don't prescribe curriculum — local control over curriculum is perhaps the most distinctive principle of American education — teachers have a destination but no road map. Most of what kids do all day is still up to teachers.

That can turn out well, as appears to be happening in Washoe County. The district decided to eschew consultants and corporations eager to tell them how to best implement the standards — they couldn't afford that, anyway. Instead, they took a do-it-yourself approach, looking up videos from the standards' architects on YouTube and discussing the implications for the classroom. The district has been widely praised as a model for how the standards can really change education.

"This starts with instruction, and we need to reflect on how we're delivering information to children and what materials we're sharing with kids," said Aaron Grossman, a curriculum specialist with the school district who helped create the Core Task Project, a group for teachers in the district to share and discuss Common Core lessons.

The American Federation of Teachers is trying to take this collaborative approach nationwide. The union helped create a website called Share My Lesson that now has nearly 300,000 lesson plans from teachers all over the country.

This year is key for the Common Core

common core protest

Political protests like these have grabbed attention, but they don't determine the standards' ultimate success. (Cyrus McCrimmon/Denver Post/Getty Images)

What happens in the classroom is especially important this year for two reasons.

First, while the political debate is far from settled, it now appears likely that the Common Core standards will hang on in the vast majority of states. Second, the Common Core will be the basis for end-of-year standardized tests in many more states, making the stakes for students and teachers much higher.

Last year, when the Common Core was blamed for confusing math problems or offensive essay questions, the reaction from supporters to blame "implementation" — in other words, the problem wasn't with the standards themselves, but how they were being put in place.

This isn't wrong; confusing worksheets, terrible textbooks, and high-stakes standardized tests existed long before the Common Core. But it's increasingly beside the point, and it shouldn't cut it this year. For the vast majority of students and parents, who haven't spent four years talking about the Common Core as an abstract set of ideal goals, the standards are the implementation. There's no distinction — and there probably shouldn't be.

Now that the standards are driving the homework that goes home in students' backpacks, the only thing that matters is how Common Core translates to the classroom.

Teachers are also responsible for influencing public opinion on the standards. A poll by Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa found that 45 percent of public school parents had learned about the Common Core through teachers or school communications. Of the 32 percent who favor the Common Core, 87 percent said local teachers' support was very important or somewhat important.

But many teachers are becoming more skeptical about the Common Core, particularly as the standards are being linked to high-stakes tests that are important for teachers' futures. A poll from Education Next, an education reform group, found that 40 percent of teachers now oppose the standards, up from 12 percent last year.

This could be because the stakes for teachers are high. Students' scores on standardized tests linked to Common Core will help determine how teachers are evaluated, and even if they are fired, in the majority of states in coming years. The Gates Foundation has said implementing the standards is so important that the tests should be low-stakes for students and teachers for two more years, and the Education Department has permitted a one-year moratorium on using the results in teachers' performance reviews.

That reflects concerns about whether the standards will be effective if the people most important to their success are wary of them.

"If you can't change a teacher's mind, you can't change their practice," Wolters says. "Who's more likely to change a teacher's mind than another teacher who says, 'I thought the way you did. I know exactly where you're coming from'? There really would have been no other way without encountering a massive amount of resistance."