Understanding the “Pain” Behind the “Gain” in the Common Core

13936959441_7baeaed7c4_m common coreAs a supporter of the intent behind the Common Core standards, teaching and testing for deeper meanings, and more complex understanding, it has been painful to watch its implementation.  In New York, a rushed implementation without sufficient resources led to confused teachers and families, plummeting test scores, and a real and substantial backlash.  And as California’s first test scores are released, I think the other shoe will drop, alongside the proficiency rates of students, schools, and districts.  If we hope to avoid the unproductive rancor found elsewhere, advocates need to do a better job of explaining what the Common Core is, and why it is important enough to justify the growing pains that come with it.

Too often, reforms are really done to stakeholders rather than with them.  And without buy in, painful prolonged reform processes, like the move to higher academic standards, will be whittled away at, evaded, watered down, and in some cases repealed.

We have seen a growing opt-out movement in New York, where roughly 20% of families withdraw their children from testing.  And, according to Education First, last year, the first year of implementation for most states, saw two states repeal the common core, three require a review, and another 21 survived legislative repeal efforts. Whether this is just a set of early stumbles or the start of a tumble down the stairs depends on how advocates engage and convince those who will feel its effects most directly: families and educators.


A couple of recent blogs have highlighted these issues. In TNTP’s, “What Do Parents Think About the Common Core,”  a group of involved parents who also worked at Aspire Eres Charter School described their experiences and understandings of the shift to the Common Core standards and its implications. Like most parents, they are feeling the effects through increasingly complex class and homework, and a sense that expectations have been raised.  And, when asked to explain what the Common Core really is, or the rationale behind it—they struggled.  These particular parents raised language as a potential barrier, but I think these issues cross race, language, and class lines.  I bet 95% of all parents—who don’t work in curriculum or instruction—could not really answer this question either.  That’s a problem.

Another broader article, “The Ultimate Demise of the Common Core—Part II: The Parents,” describes the antipathy that parents have shown here.  In both, there is bad news for Common Core supporters and real storm clouds ahead unless we get our act together.

Coming from New York, where we implemented Common Core a year earlier and really screwed it up, I can smell the storm in the air.  In New York the standards were dropped on students and teachers too quickly; the tests were high stakes in year one, and they were much more difficult than the previous state tests.  There were not good curricular resources for teachers that were proven, and everyone felt frustration, with proficiency rates plummeting, students that were “advanced” now testing as “below proficient,” and lower achieving students sitting stupefied by the complexity of the questions and often the answer choices.  This was a whole new ballgame, and nobody really had shown us the rules or given us the training to be successful.

POTENTIAL GAINS5074150006_264620dcfb_m student testing

The move toward Common Core is the right direction in my opinion. And New York’s results, while sobering, at least are more honest, giving families a true report on their students’ academic progress and whether they are on track to be college and career ready.

Over the last decade, if not longer, I have seen teaching narrow to very narrow tests, and schools dumbing down and teaching students (particularly disadvantaged students) in an anti-intellectual way.  I remember doing school visits where they were doing test prep (which happened more and more over the years in general) and math problems were on the board in each room, and they were decoding the questions, teaching students key words (if you see “less” cross it out and put a minus symbol). There was not a push to think through what was really being asked or to analyze the problem.  This old way of teaching to a very narrow test, was stultifying to students, depressing for teachers, and ultimately did not prepare students for the challenges they would face in career, higher education, or their own intellectual development.

The Common Core is bitter medicine.  Especially at first, it is difficult to choke down, and it may lead to more initial discomfort for the sake of long-term gain.  But without a strong rationale, discomfort is usually fought and avoided.  As a kid, I would get ear infections; they would pound incessantly. The solution then was horrible tasting purple oral penicillin. And all I knew about it was it tasted bad.  So my solution: if nobody was looking, I would just pour the little cup out behind the couch.  Eventually someone moved the couch, and there was a large purple Rorschach stain…and I probably had more and more painful infections that I should have.

We need to authentically engage and support staff and families in the dialogue on Common Core implementation.  There is some pain to come, and unless people understand the gains, I fear that they will resist or toss the medicine.

What do you think?

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