Common Core learning curve

If a sentence contains the phrases “New York state” and “Common Core,” chances are that somewhere between the two is the word “botched.” New York and California have taken opposite approaches to implementing the new academic standards, which have been adopted by 45 states but are now the target of a backlash. California’s approach bucked the Obama administration’s rules, but as it turns out, California was right.

New York jumped feet first into the new standards, administering tests based on them — tests that, among other things, were supposed to be used in teacher evaluations. Unfortunately, the state’s teachers hadn’t been trained properly, and they lacked instructional materials that reflected the new curriculum. The resulting test scores were predictably abysmal. Parents and teachers rebelled, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan only worsened matters by dismissing the outcry as coming from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.”

That remark wasn’t just snide. It was wrong. The new tests don’t measure intelligence or even whether students are more or less advanced than they were before; rather, the tests measure a certain set of skills that are markedly different from those that have been taught for years. In some ways, that’s good. Teachers can’t “teach to the test” when the tests measure deeper understanding — which is the underlying principle of the new standards — rather than rote knowledge. At the same time, students, especially older ones, aren’t going to make an overnight shift to a dramatically different way of thinking.

EDITORIAL: In defense of Common Core

New York is now in repent-at-leisure mode, with the state Board of Regents putting off some aspects of Common Core, legislation calling for yet more delays and a panel convened by the governor to report on what went wrong.


In California, by contrast, there has been no backlash. The state began instruction using the new standards and related curriculum this school year. Gov. Jerry Brown set aside $1 billion for implementation, including teacher training, and plans to invest at least as much again next year. And schools and teachers will not be held accountable for results on the new standardized tests this year and possibly next, while they’re field-tested and schools learn more about how they work.

But instead of being praised for its smooth, considered rollout, California got into hot water with the Obama administration because, for a year or two, there will be no test results that can be used to discipline schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. We think that’s fine. Teachers who are enthusiastic about a strong new curriculum aren’t going to stop trying hard because the test scores don’t count for a couple of years. Earlier this month, the administration finally (and wisely) blinked, backing off from threats to sanction the state for its rebelliousness.

Federal education officials should worry less about rushing the new standards into schools and judging teachers and schools by early results, and more about giving schools the time to build robust new teaching methods with all the right supports in place. A prominent researcher recently released a review of public-school textbooks concluding that none are fully aligned with Common Core, even though publishers sometimes claim otherwise. And no one should expect to see dramatic shifts in learning for the first few years.

If the Obama administration and Common Core supporters want to quell the backlash against the new standards, they should consider the following changes:

• Recognize that Common Core, though it has many features in its favor, isn’t necessarily perfect. There needs to be more willingness at the federal and state levels to listen to legitimate concerns and to allow for flexibility when the standards’ ideals don’t match up with reality.

• States and schools should be given a few years to implement the standards. Teacher training and textbooks need to be in place.

• Schools and teachers should not be held accountable for standardized test scores for the first few years; rather, test scores should be used solely to guide future instruction as everyone adjusts. There will almost certainly be kinks to work out.

The history of education is filled with fads that were foisted on schools with too little planning and flexibility, and as a result faded away when they proved imperfect. The Common Core standards make sense in many ways, but they demand much more of teachers than the heavily scripted lessons that were in fashion over the last decade. In the end, the standards will be only as good as the instructional materials and the teachers who bring them to life.

This is the second of two editorials on Common Core. You can read the first here.