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Arne Duncan flubbed on Common Core, and then he made it worse

Politics and GovernmentArne DuncanGovernmentBarack ObamaU.S. Department of EducationMary FallinAmerican Federation of Teachers
The Common Core blame game shouldn't be allowed to derail what are solid standards

The scaffolding of support for the Common Core curriculum standards continues, right and left, to lose a beam here, a platform there. After adopting the standards, with vocal support from the governor, both the Oklahoma Legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin have now abandoned them. The American Federation of Teachers was once a big supporter. At its meeting over the weekend, though it didn't switch to outright opposition, it voted to set up grants for teachers to critique or reformulate the standards.

Some of this — especially among the red states that have pulled away to one extent or another — is more political than educational. Even though many Republicans were among the notable figures endorsing the standards from the beginning, now politicians are more interested in pushing the “federal overreach” button as a way of denying President Obama a victory of any kind, especially right before an election.

But the Obama administration has to take the lion’s share of the blame for the uproar over Common Core. The early arm-twisting to get states to adopt it was one problem; with the standards attached to waivers from No Child Left Behind, instead of arising from states looking to improve their students’ ability to succeed in college and jobs, there was bound to be some buyers’ remorse.

But far worse were poor implementation policies supported all along the way by Education Secretary Arne Duncan. It happened too fast, with too little review. Worse, it happened with an unconscionable emphasis on holding everyone responsible right away for how students fared on a new curriculum and new tests.

In other words, this was a management failure, and Duncan, education manager in chief, managed to turn doubters and worriers into opponents when he attacked and mocked those who raised legitimate concerns.

This is a real shame. In part, the Common Core standards were written to respond to valid complaints. Even students accepted to four-year colleges arrive without the skills to produce clear, grammatical sentences, organized paragraphs and arguments that are backed up by facts and reasonable analysis. Their ability to read and comprehend good writing, especially nonfiction writing that isn’t a textbook, is stunted. Their math skills tend to be rote, which makes it hard for them to move to more complex levels of mathematical and scientific understanding.

In other words, the ideas behind the standards are solid ones. And it’s important to remember that standards aren’t the same as curriculum. The standards say only what students should be learning by the time they reach a certain grade. It’s up to states to write the curriculum that gets students to those levels.

That’s a huge job, especially with the related switch to doing more work on computers that schools don’t even have yet. On top of that, good as the standards are in many ways, they’re also more difficult to carry out well. Getting students to analyze, write gracefully and devise novel solutions to problems is much more difficult than stuffing them with knowledge so they can fill in the bubbles on a test. It’s going to take excellent teachers who can discern the needs of individual students, know when to give them an explanation and when to tell them to figure out the next part on their own, with maybe a little hint to get them going.

On top of that, Common Core probably should have been introduced from the bottom up, over the course of years. It requires not just teachers but students to think about their English and math work in different ways. What are the chances that a student who has learned math by the old method for nine years can suddenly switch to a new format for problem-solving in 10th grade without huge frustration? It would have made more sense to start with kindergarten and first grades, add a couple more grades the next year, and so forth. This also would have provided the time to edit the standards and related curricula as schools went along, train teachers and develop instructional materials and tests that come from more sources than mega-academic companies.

The rush to implement Common Core was a mistake. But it’s also a mistake to dump solid standards, even if they might need amending, because of some out-of-the-gate flubs. Where is the leadership to call a timeout and help states and schools fashion a more thoughtful educational plan for Common Core, one that puts top priority on improving curriculum and instruction, and worries later about how we hold schools accountable for the results?

Not in the U.S. Department of Education, it would seem.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Politics and GovernmentArne DuncanGovernmentBarack ObamaU.S. Department of EducationMary FallinAmerican Federation of Teachers
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