In defense of Common Core


If there’s anything more surprising than how quickly and calmly 45 states embraced the new Common Core curriculum standards, it’s how quickly and contentiously the backlash erupted.

The standards, which California adopted in 2010, outline the skills and knowledge public school students should acquire in each grade from kindergarten through high school. Overall, they call for covering fewer topics, but covering each more deeply. They require students to think their way through math problems, rather than taking so much direct instruction from teachers. More careful reading is another part of the standards, along with the reading of more nonfiction. Students do more analysis and a lot more writing.

But almost as soon as the new standards got underway — most California schools began teaching the related curriculum this year — the coalition began to shred. Tea party conservatives claimed that the standards were being pushed too assiduously by the federal government, intruding on the states’ authority to set curriculum. There’s some justification for that argument. The Obama administration demanded higher academic standards from states that wanted federal grants or some freedom from the onerous No Child Left Behind law; though the Common Core standards were developed under the aegis of the National Governors Assn. and adopted by states voluntarily, it was known that embracing them would increase a state’s chances of federal beneficence.


EDITORIAL: Common Core learning curve

There’s also a pragmatic motivation behind conservative opposition to Common Core: Its success would represent a political victory for the administration.

Backlash has also come from parents and teachers’ unions, who rightly argue that the standards have been implemented hastily and sloppily in too many states. They have legitimate worries that schools and teachers will be held responsible for student performance on standardized tests even as they try to work out the kinks in a dramatically new set of expectations. Researchers recently reported that, so far, there are no textbooks that are truly aligned with Common Core standards.

Several state legislatures are now pushing back. Bills in Georgia and Wyoming call for reviewing the standards with a possible eye to junking them; legislation in Wisconsin and Alabama would repeal Common Core altogether. New York is delaying full implementation after a rushed and botched start. At the federal level, Republican legislators have introduced bills and a resolution that would scold the administration for pushing the standards, and bar any use of federal grants or regulatory favors as a reward for adopting them.

What gets lost amid the political and administrative squabbling is the issue that ought to matter most: whether the Common Core standards are a solid improvement on what most states, including California, had before. And with a few caveats, they are. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics praises them for following a more logical track in building math skills. The standards are also more closely aligned with how the top-scoring nations in international tests teach math. Educators are pleased that students will do more writing under the standards; colleges have long complained about the poor writing skills of incoming students.

California’s old curriculum standards were particularly well known for being a mile wide and an inch deep. Here’s one small example: In the middle of second grade, students were taught about obtuse and acute angles even though they had no geometry background to understand the concept. Although they didn’t know what a right angle was or how many degrees it had, they would do a few work sheets and then drop the subject for several years.

The Common Core standards eliminate that sort of nonsense and build, from the earliest years, understanding of topics that now befuddle many students, such as multiplying and dividing fractions. In kindergarten, they might start very simply: folding paper in half, and in half again.

Criticism of Common Core — of the standards themselves, not the politics or implementation — focuses on a few areas. One is that while in many states, including California, most students are supposed to take Algebra 1 in eighth grade, under the new standards most take that or an equivalent course as high school freshmen. That gives them no time to reach calculus in high school, though advanced students may follow an accelerated course of study that allows it. If any group ought to be worried about that, it would be mathematicians. Yet the Mathematical Assn. of America says it isn’t a problem. It’s more important, a spokesman said, for students to get a deeper understanding of what they’re being taught; and besides, the idea that a high school education must include calculus is outmoded.

Students who are still learning to speak fluent English might be at a disadvantage under the standards, which call for students to be able to explain their mathematical reasoning, not just perform mathematical operations.

The amount of nonfiction that students are supposed to read also has raised hackles, especially the 70% required in high school. Supporters of the standards point out that most of that reading and writing would take place in history and science, not in English classes. At least, in theory. What’s not taken into account is that history and science are not included in the standards, so there’s no guarantee that the 70% nonfiction requirement will actually be achieved.

Common Core offers a richer and more logical learning plan, but also one that’s harder to carry off well. It’s easier to teach students facts and grade them on answers than to spur them to think and at the same time make sure they are gaining the required skills and knowledge. The standards should have been field tested before they were adopted, but that failure isn’t a reason to toss them out at this point.

Given the lack of field testing, what’s needed now is flexibility, care in upgrading instruction and more reasonable ways of measuring Common Core’s successes and weaknesses. This is where the federal government and many states are failing, and where California is getting it right.

This is the first of two editorials on Common Core. The second — on where it went wrong and what can be done to fix it now — will run Friday.