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Common Core Pros & Cons

The strengths and weaknesses of the Common Core State Standards Initiative

The fiery colors and eye-of-the-storm logo employed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS) make for an apt depiction of the churning concerns the national academic mandates continue to elicit. A year after we first reported on the controversy spurred by its widespread adoption — CCSS is now implemented in some form in 45 states, including Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — supporters and opponents are firmly rooted in their stances.

“It’s not a radical system,” says Maurice J. Elias, PhD, a psychology professor at Rutgers University and Edutopia.com blogger. “It does really make sense in some ways.” CCSS unifies a set of K-12  language arts and math teaching standards with the hopes of producing high school graduates better prepared to succeed in a globally competitive world.

While outcome-based education has been in use since the Clinton administration, CCSS is different because it is much more detailed, with a very specific sequence, Elias explains. He posits that the way the standards were introduced in 2010 instilled lingering worries: States initially felt very strong pressure from the federal government to sign on, he says, adding “Political and money factors led to a steamroller effect.” 

“It was shocking that such a complete overhaul was taking place,” says Brandon Bushong, a parent detractor from Wilmington, DE. Cheryl Boise, a founding member of Pennsylvanians Against Common Core, is just as uneasy: “There are more questions than there are good answers.”

Common Core pros

Consistency. Common Core standards have been adopted nearly nationwide, which eliminates educational discrepancies from district to district and state to state. Therefore, kids who move anywhere should be in step with the other students at their new school — an advantage Elias calls the initiative’s main asset.

District-by-district customization. “The Common Core standards are the guidelines,” says Susan Bunting, EdD, superintendent of the Indian River School District in Selbyville, DE. Specific curricula are up to the individual districts and schools, so instruction and texts are locally determined. “We have committees that include parents who choose textbooks. None of that has changed,” she explains. 

Rigor. Common Core proponents use the word “rigorous” to describe the standards, developed to “pursue conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application with equal intensity.” According to Bunting, the new curriculum provides a much greater transfer into real-world situations: “Rote learning is out of date.” The standards are designed to teach deep reading and analysis, “not the regurgitation of info to get a student through the test,” she says.

Common Core concerns

Does it do what it promises? CCSS is new enough that its success is as yet unproved. “There’s no great evidence that this [curriculum] is better,” says Bushong. Elias believes it will take a good 12 years, as long as a student’s road from 1st grade to high school graduation, to fairly evaluate the system.

Developmental issues. While Elias doesn’t think the standards are impossible, they rely on complex, evidence-based texts and practices and concentrate a greater focus on fewer topics, which he says may ask some students, especially those in early grades, “to accelerate at a rate that is not developmentally reasonable.” 

Parental input. Because of the “top-down approach” of the Common Core coming from the federal government, some parents fear that they’ve lost the ability to participate in their child’s education. “This is a highly defined bureaucratic structure,” says Boise. “Learning [should not be] a bureaucratic process.”

Testing. The issue for many parents is less the Common Core itself than the annual testing regimen connected to it, says Elias: “We’ve created a high-stakes environment for these tests that makes no sense. There’s no reason why we should be testing kids every year. This benefits only the testing services,” as well as the districts that evaluate teachers based on student test results. A small cadre of parents do exercise their right to opt their kids out of taking standardized tests each year, but Elias theorizes that “if all parents opted out from testing, the whole system would crumble.”

Data mining. Under CCSS, when children sit for tests, their demographic data is collected and connected to their scores. It has been rumored that everything from religious affiliation to school bus stop location is collected. Bunting assures that the data is used internally for the children’s good, but many parents fear that perhaps Big Brother is keeping tabs on their kids.

“There are always going to be growing pains as you transition to something new,” says Bunting, who openly welcomes parent questions and comments about CCSS. That’s an approach Bushong supports: “If you’re concerned, speak out,” he advises.

Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

 

Common Core: Curriculum Controversy

By Susan Stopper, originally published September 2013

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS; Corestandards.com) is a nationwide initiative that promotes a unified set of K-12 educational standards for the teaching of English language arts and math. Created by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, CCSS is meant to decrease educational disparities between the states and lay out “clear” expectations about what students in a given grade should know in these two crucial subjects. Since 2010, 45 states — including Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — have adopted the standards, but not without controversy. As CCSS-aligned curricula have been implemented, a small but growing number of area parents (and educational experts) uneasy with the tenor of the new lesson plans are voicing their alarm.

Content concerns

“I was a big fan of these standards at first, because why should math be different between Mississippi and New Jersey? People move from state to state,” says Andrew Porter, PhD, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. “I also thought one test for student achievement would be cheaper and better. But these standards did not move as far forward as I’d hoped.”

After conducting an analysis of CCSS in 2011, Porter found that it doesn’t surpass all previous state standards, nor does it emphasize the same things (such as “perform procedures” in math) as mandated standards in countries that outscore the United States on international assessments.

Some parents dislike the new language arts emphasis on nonfiction “informational texts” in lieu of fiction. “Informational pieces don’t teach critical thinking and analysis the way classical literature does,” says Wilmington, DE father Brandon Bushong.

A Southern New Jersey mother who requests anonymity feels the standards are good in theory but worries that they play up “teaching to a test.” “It puts undue stress on educators by tying teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests,” she says. “Should teachers be punished because a student is a bad test-taker? How might a teacher treat that child?”

Richard Selznick, PhD, director of the Cooper Learning Center in Voorhees, NJ similarly wonders how CCSS will help struggling students: “My question is, What happens to Joey when he can’t do these things in third grade? What is their answer to the kids who ‘can’t?’

Control and cost

Though CCSS is not mandatory, many parents and educators feel that states were strong-armed into adopting the standards by the federal government.

To receive federal Race to the Top grants, states must adopt and implement college- and career-ready standards. Utilizing CCSS is the simplest way to do so, though some states have crafted alternatives. Pennsylvania, for one, has the Pennsylvania Common Core State Standards, which mirror CCSS content but are organized and designed differently.

Philadelphia mom Jennifer Stefano worries that alignment with national standards makes it harder for parents to impact curriculum. When the state and school districts are in control, parents can provide input and voice concerns at local school board meetings. But effecting change at the federal level is much more difficult.

Says Lisa Esler, a school board director in the Penn-Delco school district in Delaware County, PA, “The Common Core takes control out of the classroom, and with all states working toward the same things it eliminates best practices and a laboratory environment where states can learn from what’s working in other states.” Esler is also concerned about the high cost of putting the new standards into practice, including teacher training, testing, record-keeping and technology.

Taking action

Such concerns have led parents to unite on Facebook pages, organize meetings in different school districts and contact state legislators. Pennsylvania has experienced enough backlash to result in Governor Corbett’s having delayed the July 1, 2013 implementation date of the Pennsylvania Common Core State Standards in order to review the rules and make necessary modifications.

Following his gut feeling, Bushong has chosen to send his son to private school to “shield him a little better” from CCSS. Time will tell whether other parents take the same course and whether the blowback against the standards will grow or abate.    

Susan Stopper is a frequent contributor to MetroKids.

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