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What's the big deal about Common Core?
April 28, 2014 2:58 PM   Subscribe

(Why) Should I care about Common Core? Can you give me some resources to further understand it, and answer my basic questions?

I've read the Common Core website, and I guess I don't get it.

I'm in Oregon, and I have a kid in 2nd grade. The curriculum he's been working with this year is based on the standards. And . . . it's totally normal shit for 2nd graders to be learning. Yeah, some of the math is taught in a manner that's a little different than how I learned it, but no big deal. It's nothing like the weird-ass stuff that gets posted to Reddit and rage-blogs.

As far as I can tell, my son's teacher is not using a "Common Core" book or worksheets or whatever (is that even a thing?). A lot of the math assignments are stuff she's handwritten and photocopied, so it would seem that she's free to teach as she pleases, as opposed to much of what I've read.

So questions:

Common Core does not dictate curriculum, correct? Or does it? In some cases? One common refrain I hear is that a "one size fits all" approach is bad or that children should be allowed learn in their own way. I'm not seeing how Common Core has anything to do with those two things, unless there is a nationally mandated curriculum.

What do people mean when they say "Common Core tests"? The tests our kids will be taking has a specific name and it's not that. I've read about Smarter Balanced and PARCC - do those companies use questions written by some Common Core committee, and if not, who writes the test questions, and how do they decide what questions to use? If these are standards, why isn't there only one test/testing company?

Several things I've read refer to the reading/writing portion of the test as though kids are writing something out, and this writing will be graded by a human reader. Our teachers have said this is not the case. It's all multiple choice and on the computer. Who (what state(s)?) is having written tests graded by humans? It seems like CC is supposed to standardize some stuff across the nation, but clearly some stuff I'm reading is not happening in our state - confusing.

Our kids take one test per year. This is absolutely what I did as an elementary school kid - every year. CAT tests, SBS or something like that, from about 1981 until 1994. Isn't that totally normal? It doesn't seem like this is some new wave of unprecedented testing. Am I wrong there?

Are there any good in-depth unbiased resources about Common Core, with DETAILS? I truly want to be well informed and fully understand everything I can. Again, I've read corestandards.org but that's obviously biased, too. I don't feel strongly either way, mostly just confused by the level of passion.

I've tried to write this in a neutral tone but I think I failed. I'm really not pro-Common Core - I obviously don't know enough about it. It's just that in my experience so far, the anti-Common Core voices have been strident, annoying, and whiny, and many of these people are personal friends and family that I normally agree with and respect very much - help me understand!
posted by peep to Education (18 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
OP, I completely agree with your last paragraph. For something to balance out all of the anti-CC rhetoric, see Jessica Lahey's Atlantic piece on Confusing Math Homework? Don't Blame the Common Core from April 3, 2014.
posted by hush at 3:03 PM on April 28 [5 favorites]


Diane Ravitch gave a speech about the Common Core to MLA. I found it to be really helpful in terms of laying out what's at stake financially and professionally for policy makers and educators re: implementing Common Core.

My understanding is that the tests won't be coming out til the 2014-2015 school year, based on the MLA newsletter I got earlier today.
posted by spunweb at 3:20 PM on April 28 [2 favorites]


Another possibly helpful entry on Ravitch's blog, from a math teacher about the lack of field testing done on CC math standards.

And a friend from college, who's been a math teacher in NY public schools for a bunch of years now, recently had a letter about Common Core standards highlighted in the NYT.
posted by rtha at 3:38 PM on April 28 [1 favorite]


I'm a high school teacher, and I'm fairly neutral about Common Core. On one hand, I think it makes sense to have some set of national standards for what students are learning, and many of the standards are fairly common-sense. On the other hand, many elementary teachers that I know report that the standards are developmentally-inappropriate for their grade levels, and I don't trust standards written by test companies.

To answer some of your questions:

Common Core does not dictate curriculum, correct? Or does it? In some cases?
It's a national set of general standards, so curriculum should relate to it. But as a set of standards, it can't really *be* the curriculum, the curriculum can just be based on it. For example, one of the 2nd grade standards is "Describe how characters in a story respond to major events and challenges." There are thousands of ways you could develop curriculum that would hit that standard. So I would say that Common Core guides, but does't dictate, curriculum.

What do people mean when they say "Common Core tests"?

They mean tests that were developed based on Common Core. Some states have already developed and implemented these tests, other states have not yet. I don't know where Oregon is in that process, but local ed blogs would probably be able to help you out with that. Here is a bit more about how different states are at different stages.

Who writes the test questions, and how do they decide what questions to use?
For-profit testing companies

If these are standards, why isn't there only one test?

Capitalism, and local control.

Resources?
-Ravitch outlines Common Core
-Rethinking schools on Common Core
-NEA on benefits of Common Core

My take:
Having a Common Core of National Standards is a good idea. The problem isn't in the goal - it's in the execution. There are many reasons why people are angry about CC - some well-founded and others irrational. I think the biggest problems are:
-Creating valid tests (an incredibly difficult prospect even in the least-politicized circumstances)
-Putting high-stakes assessments into place before teachers have had time to incorporate these standards and
-Seeing what the fallout is after this is all said and done
posted by leitmotif at 4:34 PM on April 28 [7 favorites]


Be prepared to have your child sitting in front of a computer for approximately six hours of testing in third grade. If he/she doesn't know how to keyboard for the open ended portion of the ELA/Reading and Math test, it will be extremely difficult. The multiple choice portion is adaptive, meaning the test will zero in on the child's ability level and the majority of the questions will then be in that range.

As a 5th grade teacher in Washington I'm a bit concerned that much of the elementary standards are not exactly developmentally appropriate. The upcoming SBAC test is fairly untested and in WA we expect our kids to receive scores 20-30% lower than the scores they are receiving now. This high stakes testing is extremely stressful for students and staff since now teacher Evals (in most states) will be including these results. I can teach my heart out, but I only have them 6 hours of the day...I have no control over what happens at home, whether they go to bed on time, do their homework, or even if they've had a good healthy meal except for the lunches at school. There are so many factors that the Feds want to accompany CC that it's a bit mind boggling. Say good bye to local control over your schools because now CC and the Feds are calling all the shots. I'm very liberal leaning, but in this case I think Big Brother has no business getting this deeply involved in education.

Just my personal opinion...as a veteran of 25 years in the classroom I've changed my math and reading standards five times now and don't expect CC will be the last big change I see in the next five years of my career.
posted by OkTwigs at 5:03 PM on April 28 [2 favorites]


Be prepared to have your child sitting in front of a computer for approximately six hours of testing in third grade.

Doubtless true, but this isn’t new or really related to the common core as it has been the case since NCLB started to bite.

If there is a real problem with CC I suspect it lies in the extra opportunities it gives for corporations to skim money out of the system by over charging for curricula and testing (and consulting etc.). Not that that they aren’t doing that already, but the more change there is the more opportunity for profit.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 5:29 PM on April 28


Texas has writing tests in 4th, 7th, and high school, in which students write essays in response to a given prompt, and they are scored by human readers/scorers. Texas does not follow Common Core, mainly because much time and effort has gone into developing much more stringent and detailed state standards.
posted by tamitang at 5:58 PM on April 28


I can answer some of this but basically it's one of those things that happens in education every few years...a great new idea which isn't new at all, tons of money is poured into implementing in it, and little will change but there will be a lot of paperwork.

Common Core refers to standards that have been adopted in 44 states.

Before these standards were created, there already were teaching standards for English and Math that were created by educators. The National Council for Teachers of Mathematics had created standards and they were great, and the National Council of Teachers of English also had curriculum standards.

These standards were not adopted by every state, although most teachers will tell you that they were fine standards.

"The state-led effort to develop the Common Core State Standards was launched in 2009 by state leaders, including governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states, two territories and the District of Columbia, through their membership in the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). State school chiefs and governors recognized the value of consistent, real-world learning goals and launched this effort to ensure all students, regardless of where they live, are graduating high school prepared for college, career, and life."

There is a Math Standard and an English Standard, that's all.

The Common Core Curriculum does not have their own written, suggested curriculum, but it looks like some states have created curriculum in line with the standards.

As far as I can tell as an educator, I now have to write lessons that are in line with the Common Core and it's a pain in the ass paperwork-wise but it's not a big deal. The English Standards are pretty decent; the math standards aren't as good as the ones written by the NCTM.

Basically it's not a big deal to good teachers, it's probably helpful to teachers who need help with curriculum, and it can help create national standardized tests.
posted by kinetic at 6:28 PM on April 28 [1 favorite]


My district is somewhat ahead in implementing Common Core (for various reasons) and the major problems we have are not really related to the standards, but related to the high-stakes testing that goes along with it. (Of course, we already had high-stakes testing; the problem remains the same.) There are some educators who feel some of the standards are not developmentally appropriate (others disagree).

One of the biggest PRACTICAL issues we've seen is that because the Common Core was brought in so fast, teachers have had to rewrite their lesson plans really fast. Normally your first 2-3 years of teaching are pretty miserable as you develop your materials, then you settle into a groove and have a lot of material and resource available. Any time you switch grades or subjects, you've got to develop new stuff and that year is extra stressful. With Common Core, basically every teacher in the state had to suddenly be a first-year teacher with no lesson plans again, all at once, while getting training on the new curriculum, and it was kind-of a nightmare. It's a lot of extra work and stress. My district is fortunate in that we are large enough to have an in-house curriculum department and have people whose entire job has been "develop curriculum for Common Core," but in smaller districts, teachers have had a lot less support. (And this is where big corporations want to come in and sell you prepacked Core-aligned materials.)

Some of the generalized dissatisfaction with Common Core arises from the fact that it emphasizes "college and career readiness," where people have traditionally articulated the ideals of public schools in the US as being about a well-rounded liberal arts education aimed at an educated and responsible citizenry. There's a lot more emphasis on reading non-fiction (most of us don't read fiction in our jobs) and "real-world" math, less on social studies in particular. People I've talked to probably wouldn't articulate it that clearly, but there's a lot of discomfort that centers around the idea that we're changing the "purpose" of schools. People talk the most about it with language arts -- instead of the great cultural touchstones of the English language, our students will be reading business memos! I think a lot of the generalized, illogical rage, as well as the dislike of the idea of the standards without being able to point out anything concrete, comes from the sense that, while education has never been perfect, our stated goals in the past have been about shared citizenship and culture; now they're about preparing to work in a cubicle all day and come ready to write memos to the standards of corporate America. That IS a big change in how we think about universal public education in a conceptual way, and I do get uneasy that Common Core talks SO much about creating workers and improving the economy and so little about creating citizens and improving the world.

(But, again, whether your local schools get very "corporate" in their focus -- or are already! -- is very much a matter of local implementation.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:39 PM on April 28 [13 favorites]


I wouldn't be so quick to give Common Core a break and blame curriculum writers. I have a 6th grader and his textbook (Not "Everyday Math") has all sorts of silliness in it. I named a few of my recent peeves offhand:

- Weird emphasis on number lines and graphs (histograms, dot plots) rather than numbers as abstract concepts
- Calling an arithmetic mean a "summary of data" or trying to explain averages by talking about "evening out the piles of blocks" or "balance points"
- A huge number of ratio and rate problems and an emphasis on solving these by looking at tables or solving "puzzles" rather than doing a simple calculation

... and then I looked at the Core Standards web site and found every single one of them described there.

I do have to say I approve of their trying to introduce algebra concepts like variables and expressions and simplifying -- I think its great to get this concept in their head before 7th grade pre-algebra -- so it's it's not all bad.
posted by mmoncur at 8:40 PM on April 28 [2 favorites]


This is all great info, thanks all. I'll be reading though all the links today!
posted by peep at 8:24 AM on April 29


I've read about Smarter Balanced and PARCC - do those companies use questions written by some Common Core committee, and if not, who writes the test questions, and how do they decide what questions to use? If these are standards, why isn't there only one test/testing company?

Smarter Balanced and PARCC aren't companies. They are two multi-state consortia that are funded by Race to the Top. There are two consortia because Race to the Top was set up to fund "two Comprehensive Assessment Systems," presumably because the feds wanted to promote a couple of different options/solutions.

Several things I've read refer to the reading/writing portion of the test as though kids are writing something out, and this writing will be graded by a human reader. Our teachers have said this is not the case. It's all multiple choice and on the computer. Who (what state(s)?) is having written tests graded by humans? It seems like CC is supposed to standardize some stuff across the nation, but clearly some stuff I'm reading is not happening in our state - confusing.

Oregon is Smarter Balanced state, so unless something changes, Oregon will use the Smarter Balanced assessment, which will be operational for the 2014-2015 school year. Here is some info about the Smarter Balanced assessment, including preliminary blueprints. It will assess students in grades 3-8 plus 11 in ELA and Mathematics. It will included open-ended items (like essays). It will also include summative assessments (end-of-year tests to evaluate student performance) as well as formative assessments (tests given to "provide educators with actionable information about student progress throughout the year"). I don't know if Oregon will also have additional assessments (for example, many states plan on having their own assessments for Science and Social Studies), but if you poke around Oregon's website you might be able to figure that out.

Who writes the test questions, and how do they decide what questions to use?

Speaking in general about large-scale assessment (i.e., not specifically about Smarter Balanced), here is a description of the typical process, which spans about two years. The items are authored according to item and test specs by teachers and/or professional test developers (who are usually former teachers working for private companies or non-profits that contract to Departments of Education). Once a large pool of potential items is developed, they are vetted through content, bias, and sensitivity reviews by committees of educators. Then the items are field tested (i.e., a test that is used to evaluate the items rather than the students). After this, another committee of educators evaluates the field test data to winnow out items that aren't behaving correctly (e.g., checking for bias). Finally, some of the surviving items are selected to create a test that meets an overarching blueprints, equating considerations, and design considerations (e.g., universal design). This article is a little old and kind of long, but it gives a fuller picture.

- Weird emphasis on number lines and graphs (histograms, dot plots) rather than numbers as abstract concepts
- Calling an arithmetic mean a "summary of data" or trying to explain averages by talking about "evening out the piles of blocks" or "balance points"
- A huge number of ratio and rate problems and an emphasis on solving these by looking at tables or solving "puzzles" rather than doing a simple calculation


I believe that's because the Common Core math standards were highly influenced by the Singapore Method.
posted by agog at 9:34 AM on April 29 [2 favorites]


My understanding is that the tests won't be coming out til the 2014-2015 school year, based on the MLA newsletter I got earlier today.

This is what I have read also, but at the same time I've seen alleged "test questions" and comments like, "The test questions are inappropriate for grade level" or "test questions are poorly written" etc. Are people just making shit up, or confusing other existing tests for Common Core?

Or have some actual Common Core assessment questions been released to the public?

One more tack-on question. "Parents and teachers are not allowed to see the tests their children are taking." True or false? How could teachers be prevented from seeing the test?
posted by peep at 2:28 PM on April 29


How could teachers be prevented from seeing the test?

Here in Massachusetts, teachers are not allowed to look at the tests. They are kept in a vault.

From the DOE MCAS Administration Manual:

"Do not review the contents of test booklets or answer booklets before, during, or after a
test administration, except as noted in this manual.

Do not discuss or in any way reveal the contents of test booklets or answer booklets
before, during, or after test administration, except as noted in this manual. Because
MCAS test questions are secure and confidential until the Department releases them
publicly, test administrators should not discuss or review test questions with students
or adults even after testing has been completed."

The state decides when to release questions, some are never released, and who knows why. But teachers have been fired for photocopying MCAS exam books.
posted by kinetic at 2:51 PM on April 29


Ah, OK. I was thinking of 55 3rd graders left alone in a computer lab with no teachers monitoring. I just don't see how teachers could be prevented from seeing the test questions on computer screens - I was told our (eventual) tests would be done all on the computer.
posted by peep at 4:24 PM on April 29


I don't think the MCAS is the same as Common Core testing; afaik they're state level and actually test to a different standard than the CC tests will.
posted by spunweb at 9:46 PM on April 29


That's not to say that they won't follow the same procedures, I just wanted to be clear they're not an early roll out of the common core tests
posted by spunweb at 9:49 PM on April 29


Or have some actual Common Core assessment questions been released to the public

I'm confused, too, but I believe that here in Washington State students will be doing the Smarter Balanced (whatever that means) tests. Their website has sample questions. I didn't see anything nuts on it but I didn't read all the samples. The animated math questions came as a surprise.

> Be prepared to have your child sitting in front of a computer for approximately six hours of testing in third grade

Or not, right? And not all on one day. My understanding is that one of the problems is that nobody knows how long the testing will take.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:37 AM on April 30


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