common-core-iconAshley is smart as a whip but often doubts her own abilities. When she first encounters a new math concept she always believes it’s going to be hard and fears attempting it. But with a little help she makes the attempt, and by the end of class I’m almost always rewarded by hearing her exclaim “oh, that’s easy! I can do this!”

Where once was fear now we find excitement, but it would never be possible to experience that if she couldn’t overcome her initial fear. I can think of no better analogy for what is currently going on with the backlash in the United States against the Common Core State Standards.

The Climate of Fear

Fear drives us to give up on opportunities, fail to take chances and miss out on the great joys in life. And right now I believe that, unlike Ashley (not her real name), we’ll never make the attempt to overcome the existing patchwork of standards that has failed our country and finally adopt the Common Core state standards.  I also fear that in doing so we will cause our children to miss out on a brighter, more prosperous future in which they can truly say that they are ready for college and careers.

The Common Core was adopted by the vast majority of states with little fanfare. But in the past year we’ve seen a backlash against these new standards. Most recently Oklahoma, Indiana and North Carolina have voted to repeal part or all of the standards.  What saddens me the most is that while there are legitimate problems that need to be addressed with the Common Core, this current backlash is driven in large part by irrational fears rather than rational critiques. Let me stop and say that I do not believe that all critiques of the Common Core are driven by irrational fears. But the debate in these states saw opponents specifically fan the fires of irrational fear in several ways concerning the standards.

Restrict teachers: Some opponents fed the fear that the standards will place undo restrictions on teacher’s ability to educate students. They say that the standards represent a one-size-fits-all approach to education that will eliminate the potential for teacher creativity and force us all into a one size fits all box that will destroy education as we know it.

Decline in achievement: Some fear the standards because Common Core aligned testing has seen a precipitous drop in student achievement, notably in New York. They say that the results indicate that there is something wrong with the standards and that we should drop them all together and that in the extreme, the standards are simply too difficult to expect children to master. They destroy teachers happiness and children’s self-esteem.

Government takeover: Some opponents fed the fear that the states were actively coerced into adopting the standards by the Federal Government and that as such, they should be rejected because the states were never given a choice in the matter. Most alarming, some opponents believe that this is a conspiracy by the federal government to create a set of national standards take over education, with various ends ranging from promoting communism to the islamification of American education.

Sounds pretty grim, right? If this was all true I wouldn’t support for the standards for a minute! But the problem is that none of this is true. It’s irrational fear with little basis in fact, and its being used by opponents to stir up opposition to increasing the rigor of our Country’s education system.

The Rational Counter

Each of these fear based arguments can be countered with cool rationality and shown to be hyperbolic at their best and downright false at their worst.

Response to teacher restriction: Repealing common core will be MORE damaging to teacher’s ability to educate students by perpetuating years of uncertainty around academic standards. It will leave us without clear guidance as to what targets to shoot for as we continue to debate between competing sets of standards.

Those that drum up the fear of the standards as a “one size fits all approach” also fail to recognize that the standards represent just that – standards. They simply inform teachers as to what should be covered in a year, but in no way dictate how to teach. Let me say it more clearly; nobody is telling anybody how to teach. All those images of unfamiliar “Common Core math?” That’s an individual curricular decision, not the Common Core. I’ve personally found the geometry standards to be liberating as they involve far less content than my state’s old standards and free me to teach the content however I see fit to do so.

Response to decline in achievement: For those states that have adopted common core aligned tests, its true that scores have fallen. But if we’re honest, that’s what we would expect if we’ve been operating with inferior standards, as officials in New York have noted. When you raise the bar you make it more difficult to jump over that same bar, and some who passed in the past will fail. Struggles on assessments shouldn’t be seen as a sign that Common Core isn’t desirable; rather, it’s a sign that we’ve successfully raised the standards to a higher level. And though they may struggle at first, its somewhat insulting to imply that both teachers and students can’t rise to that new bar. We talk a lot of rhetoric about how students will rise to the standards we hold them to, but it seems like we’re afraid to put our money where our mouth is.

Response to Government Takeover: No state was coerced by the federal government into adopting the Common Core state standards. These standards were developed through collaboration between the states with no federal oversight. True, the federal government has since adopted them as a part of its race to the top program, but no state was forced to adopt them, contrary to critics claims. All states that adopted them did so willingly and nobody lost anything for not adopting them. And I hope that most rational people can agree categorically that there’s no islamification agenda hidden in them. The standards also enable collaboration among the states regarding best practices in teaching and assessing. With that in mind, consider if you’re the federal government; why would you NOT advocate for these standards and incentivize states to adopt them?

Preventing a Constructive Conversation

The saddest part about this fear mongering is that it eliminates the possibility of doing anything to improve the standards. My experience in the classroom has led me to the belief that the Common Core Standards are a significant improvement over existing standards, and therefore I support them. But that doesn’t mean they are perfect. Behind the fear tactics, many people have expressed reasonable criticisms of the Common Core that deserve to be heard and discussed. As a supporter of the common core I even have a few things that I believe need tweaking before we fully implement them.

For example, I do agree with many on the opposite side that believe implementation has been rushed without adequately supporting teachers through test-aligned resources. We need more time to grapple with the standards and more resources tied to them before we are assessed on them. But poor implementation simply suggests that we need to slow down and get it right, not repeal the standards outright. Repealing the standards out of hand would be like my realizing, a month into school, that I’d rushed too quickly through my first geometry unit and deciding to switch to teaching algebra instead. That wouldn’t make any sense, but in a very real sense that’s what opponents advocate for when they push for Common Core repeal. I think that a better solution is to delay using assessment scores for 1-2 years, as has been advocated by the Gates Foundation in the past week.

Some concerns also exist over the implementation and use of the new Common Core aligned assessments. I personally support the use of one of the national consortia, but nothing mandates that states use one of these tests. For those that oppose such tests, the option exists to make your own state assessments. Additionally, nothing says that the first batch of tests need to be used in high stakes decisions. States can and should give teachers time to fully grapple with these new tests before including them in evaluations. But to dump the standards and their tests wholesale would take us back to square one, and what we have with common core is much better than what we had.

For those that make the argument that the standards are not rigorous enough, there’s good news – the standards are only meant to serve as a benchmark. They are a guidepost, not an end in and of themselves and accordingly they leave room for modification. States that adopt them can still supplement the standards with their own additions. Indeed, states like Indiana that have repealed the standards have ended up with their own standards that, surprise, strongly resemble the Common Core.

I want to see our nation have an honest conversation about these things. But we can’t with the hyped up climate of irrational fear that’s pervaded the Common Core discussion.

The End Result

My worry is that this fear mongering by opponents of the Common Core will lead to years of confusion and chaos within education by preventing us from having a real and critical discussion around improving the standards. With teachers continuing to face uncertainty about what they will teach and the standards to which they will be held. And unlike the hyperbolic fears presented by the common core’s opponents, this is a fear grounded in truth; I’ve seen it start to play out in Tennessee when the legislature voted this year to push back implementation of assessments and science and social studies standards.

Suddenly teachers who had been preparing for full common core implementation (myself included) faced uncertainty as to our curriculum and the expectations being placed on us. What now is our target? How will we be assessed? Will this even ever happen? This uncertainty breeds confusion, which in the long run hurts schools, teachers, and most importantly our students.

We should also face up to the reality that there are legitimate questions and concerns that need to be addressed as we work to implement the Common Core State Standards. But we cannot have a conversation about these concerns in the climate of heightened fear created by common core detractors.  Its time to stop the fear. We need to have a rational discussion about the need for higher standards for our kids. We need to acknowledge that we haven’t been holding our kids to high enough standards and not be afraid to do so. Because if we don’t, the hyped up fears of Common Core opponents will be realized in at least one way; we will truly be putting their futures at stake.

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