Lies My Teacher Told Me About Common Core

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Updated 2014 September 24.  Also check out Want Your Kids To Survive Common Core? Do These 6 Things.

Lots of people misunderstand what Common Core means

Common Core, sometimes also called the Common Core State Standards or CCSS, is a set of voluntary educational standards that are being adopted by many of the United States (as of 12/3/2013, 45 states have adopted CCSS). You can read about Common Core, including the entire set of standards, at the Common Core website.

Common Core, as I see it, has a number of hugely positive things going for it:

  • It’s based on a clear assessment of need from a group of stakeholders that included employers, colleges, and grad schools. It’s designed to re-shape education toward things employers and academic institutions need students to know.
  • It focuses on outcomes rather than instructional approaches, meaning that it lays out where our educational system needs to go while also leaving teachers freedom and flexibility in how to get there.
  • It actually increases opportunities for homeschooling and alternative schooling by setting out clear but broad standards by which educational systems are judged.
  • It helps kids who move from one school to another, particular those in different states, by helping to align curricula along broad lines.
  • It opens up major opportunities for professional collaboration across the country because of aligned curricular goals and standard terminology.

But Common Core comes in for a lot of flack, particularly in the media. I hear people complaining constantly about the Common Core, saying that it mandates this, prohibits that, prevents this other thing, often with the undercurrent of “Common Core is everything that’s wrong with America”. This is a big problem.

I’m frustrated by that. It’s reductive and angry language, and a lot of it is demonstrably untrue. I’ve spent a bunch of time reading the Common Core standards, and I’d like to share what I learned.

“You won’t believe the Common Core worksheets they’re giving to 3rd graders!”

… because there aren’t any.

Common Core doesn’t require worksheets for anything.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen people complaining on Facebook about “Common Core worksheets”, often conflating them with other perceived governmental excesses like Obamacare. People share articles that show students being given stupid worksheets that are:

  • Obviously inappropriate from a developmental standard, or
  • Ethically or morally questionable, or
  • Riddled with errors, or
  • Totally incomprehensible and breathtakingly inane

Given these horrible worksheets, it’s easy to feel like Common Core must be a horrible political war in which we’re all collateral damage. A lot of these links track back to, which makes me think there’s a subtle political agenda going on.

Common Core does not require worksheets.

Common Core is not a curriculum

It’s not. Common Core is a set of standards, not a curriculum. Standards define what needs to be accomplished. Curriculum is how we get there.

If you’ll permit an analogy: there’s a national standard for new vehicles that requires driver-side airbags in passenger vehicles. As long as a vehicle has a driver-side airbag, it will be standards-compliant.

But the standard doesn’t say anything about where the manufacturer buys the airbag, what color the airbag is, whether there’s a car radio in the car as well, whether the airbag gets assembled before or after the rear wiper assembly, or whatever. Those things fall under the definition of curriculum: the stuff that we do in order to meet the standard.

Common Core is a set of standards: it defines things like this, for English Language Arts at Grade 8: “Analyze a case in which two or more texts provide conflicting information on the same topic and identify where the texts disagree on matters of fact or interpretation.” which is standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.9 . There’s nothing in it about what texts need to be taught, how they need to be taught, how they need to be assessed, or anything.

Common Core defines where we’re going, not how we get there.

It’s like saying that I’m going to go from Chicago to Boston. The standard would be “The route must reliably take the student from Chicago to Boston within a reasonable amount of time”, and any route that accomplished that would be standards-compliant.

But there are lots of routes that could work while being standards-compliant: you could fly, you could take a train, you could drive through Canada, you could drive through the US, you could take a boat… all of these (curricula in this analogy) are valid routes, and as long as they get you from Chicago to Boston, they count. The standard doesn’t specify how you achieve it.

When you hear someone saying “Common Core requires [a specific text, reading assignment, worksheet, etc.]”, ask them where that belief comes from. The Common Core standards are really clear that it is not their intention to mandate particular content at any place in the ELA curriculum, and they provide broad guidance rather than specific sequencing in the mathematical standards. The standards say what needs to be achieved, not how to do it.

“The standards are really vague”

Well, no. They’re broad. CCSS is very precise about the things a standard is designed to cover, but it leaves a lot of space for states, districts, and teachers to make their own choices about how to achieve the goals. CCSS says where we’re going, very specifically—but lets people adjust on their own how they choose to travel.

Ironically, many of the same people who complain about vagueness in CCSS also complain that CCSS is taking away teachers’ freedom and mandating a national curriculum that fits nobody. That’s arguing two opposing views (this is both too vague and too restrictive) with the same data, and that doesn’t make sense.

“Common Core is another Federal power grab”

Nope. Common Core State Standards are optional, voluntary standards developed by stakeholder groups in various states. The states then formed a consortium to share their work and develop a shared set of standards across the country.

Common Core is endorsed by the Feds, but they didn’t develop it and they aren’t in charge of it. Common Core is not part of NCLB (No Child Left Behind). What is true is that the federal government has awarded about $300 million in Race to the Top grants for states that implement Common Core. None of the sites I read say that that money was taken away from other sources—it looks like new money. Given that, I find it hard to interpret it as a power grab.

“Common Core was developed by politicians, not teachers”

Actually, Common Core did a really cool needs assessment that involved classroom teachers, school administrators, colleges, universities, employers, and more. They looked at the results of K-12 education and asked what colleges and employers were seeing. Overwhelmingly, the feedback was that students graduating from high school were under-prepared in key areas of academic and vocational practice.

Starting from that, they worked backward to develop a set of standards that would lead toward better competence in the things the modern workforce requires. I struggle to believe that anyone would argue against this, but I’ve read a lot of complaints about it. Most of them boil down to “I don’t agree that there’s a problem.”

“Common Core is enforcing a liberal bias!”

No. Not unless you consider literacy and mathematical reasoning to be liberally biased.

People advancing the “liberal bias” view often like to point to one of these links. They forward the same images of bad worksheets and horrible questions, and talk about how Common Core is going to turn us into a national of Godless idiots.

Remember how Common Core isn’t a curriculum? There are no worksheets in CCSS. There aren’t any example problems in CCSS. Common Core defines where we go, not how we get there.

“Teachers hate Common Core!”

Well, actually teachers wrote the Common Core standards. They were written by task forces of teachers, educational researchers, and other folks with classroom experience.

A lot of teachers are really excited about them, as evidenced by the huge participation in Common Core-oriented #edchats on Twitter, the Math Twitter Blogosphere (#MTBoS), teacher blogs, etc. As standards go, CCSS enjoys a pretty good reputation among teachers who’ve actually bothered to read them.

The use of Common Core-compliant curricula is hugely beneficial for teachers who want to develop professional learning networks: it means that there are thousands of professional peers available across the country, and thanks to CCSS, these teachers have a common terminology, shared set of goals, and aligned requirements for grade levels. A lot of teachers are thrilled to have access to so many new colleagues.

Also: a lot of kids have to move around the country, whether because of military families, parents who lose jobs and have to move, divorced parents and changing custody, or whatever. For these kids, the lack of aligned curricula from state to state is a huge problem. Common Core is a first step toward making sure these kids don’t fall through the cracks.

And if you still think teachers hate Common Core and can only use corporate curricula, check out these awesome crowdsourced resources from the Georgia Department of Education. The Math Twitter Blogosphere (#MTBoS on Twitter), hundreds of math teachers all across the country, is falling in love with that site, and it shows some of the power Common Core has in store.

“But my kids are getting these stupid worksheets!”

Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere.

Remember how I’ve been saying “Common Core defines where we go, not how we get there”? Your complaint is with how the material is being taught, not with the standard it’s supposed to meet.

There are lots of ways to meet the Common Core standards, and some school districts (and some states) have chosen to do it by purchasing commercial curriculum packages that do prescribe stupid worksheets, endless testing, and no meaningful freedom for teachers. I agree that these things are bad, but it’s crucial that we put the blame where it belongs. Common Core is not the problem; those curriculum packages are.

Common Core cares about outcome measures like reasoning, understanding, ability to use knowledge, and ability to communicate it clearly. I’ve spent a lot of time reading the CCSS and I haven’t found any reference that says schools are forbidden to develop their own curricula that align with the standards. I just think that a lot of educational institutions have decided that it would be easier and faster to buy a pre-fabricated commercial curriculum and teach it, and they chose curricula that rely on worksheets.

That’s not about Common Core.

There are plenty of reasons to be upset about these curriculum choices, but Common Core is not at fault. Teachers justifiably hate some of these commercial curricula, but to refer to them as Common Core is sloppy thinking. Many of the quotations from this article come from teachers, and I’m struggling to understand why they’re saying that Common Core mandates something that clearly is not in the standards and is contrary to the stated purpose of CCSS. Something doesn’t add up.

If you hate the worksheets, ask your school administrators why they’re using that curriculum and not one of the other commercial choices. If you hear people complaining about something that “Common Core requires”, ask them to point you toward the relevant standards on, since the whole thing is available for anyone to read. In my experience, most people haven’t read them.

A lot of the complaints about Common Core boil down to “this isn’t how I learned it, so my kids shouldn’t have to learn it this way”. But when I ask adults whether they enjoyed school, most of them say no; when I ask whether they felt they learned as much as they could have, they say no—because of things that Common Core explicitly tries to fix.

Mostly, people seem to argue against Common Core without proposing anything different. I’m not trying to say Common Core is perfect—I’m saying that the standards, as written, look pretty good. If the first commercial curricula to come out are lousy, let’s write some better ones. Don’t buy the trash; that’s how market solutions are supposed to work.

And let’s remember that if new ways of teaching are going to work, we need help from parents. That means two-way conversations.

“What about high-stakes testing?”

It’s not part of Common Core.

Learning is a messy process, and I feel pretty strongly that high-stakes testing is dangerous if it means that teachers are punished because their students aren’t performing well, especially if the granularity level is too fine. It takes time to change people, and students are no different. Teachers can’t afford to do great, visionary, change-oriented work if they’re constantly afraid for their jobs.

It’s important to assess how students are doing, and to make sure teachers are supporting their learning effectively. High-stakes testing doesn’t seem to achieve either of these goals.

But it’s still not part of Common Core. It’s often been rolled out side-by-side with the CCSS, and the public has yoked the two in tandem, but they’re different. We can phase out high-stakes testing while keeping the good things CCSS brings to the table.

“Corporations spent a ton of dirty money influencing the development and adoption of Common Core!”

I’ve addressed the “dirty money” idea in its own post, which I hope you’ll read. 

It’s high time that we had meaningful discussions about education in this country, and people are muddying the water by blaming Common Core for bad local/regional curriculum and testing choices. Don’t fall for it.

Want to discuss this? Leave a comment here or talk to me on my Facebook writer’s pageAlso check out Want Your Kids To Survive Common Core? Do These 6 Things.

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19 thoughts on “Lies My Teacher Told Me About Common Core

  1. In NYS, a lot of the confusion has arisen, in my opinion, from the rushing to implement both the brand new Common Core standards and the brand new APPR (teacher evaluation) system. In the same school year.

    As a teacher who curriculum isn’t guided as strictly by CC, I see the most stress and trouble of CC being caused by its rushed implementation (teachers not being given proper support to learn how this might look in their classrooms, grasping for properly aligned content, etc).

    The new APPR was also implemented in the same year, and in its second year is still somewhat of a nightmare. This is where the extra testing has come into play (tests which are actually supposed to judge the teacher, not the student) and there is scrutiny, at least in my parents’ local newspaper, about too many teachers getting good ratings. Heaven forbid that school systems may have done something right in the hiring process.

    Add all these things together and you get an overwhelming mess. Yet according to the media, it is teachers who are doing a terrible job. Besides the media not even taking into consideration the situation, it is not true.

    Both CC and the NY APPR are excellent in idea, but as we’ve seen throughout history, theory and implementation/practice don’t always match up as well as people might hope. I think that is the frustrating part. As a result of that frustration and confusion, comes the emotional responses.

  2. Thank you for this. I am frustrated with the misinformation and confusion, too.

    Other concerns I’ve heard, but haven’t fully researched on my own, are the CCSS connections to certain corporations and sources of funding that some folks have beef with, or assume directly influenced the standards. Of all the anti-CC arguments I’ve heard, that’s the only one I might agree with. Otherwise, I think the standards are strong, and as a college writing teacher, think that if they’re taught well (not with canned curriculum and testing-based teaching) they’ll definitely better prepare students for college and life.

    If you amend this, would you consider addressing the concerns about the funding behind the push for CCSS?

  3. Too bad you have fallen for the real lies. True, teachers are supposed to be able to choose their own curriculum and methods, but the reality is that the curriculum providers who had insider information have already pushed their products to the forefront and school districts are mandating their use. What school is going to take the time to write their own curriculum when the market is already flooded with ready-to-go materials that are sub-par and full of propaganda?

    1. It sounds like you’re arguing that teachers and school districts don’t know the difference between quality curricula and bad ones, because you’re arguing that schools will willingly choose sub-par programs instead of good ones even once both become available.

      Insider information about standards isn’t a concept that has a lot of traction for me, and even if I grant your premise, what stops another company–yours, perhaps–from developing a better curriculum package and selling it next year? Won’t good programs naturally rise to the top?

    2. You are over generalizing based on no evidence. I’m sure there are schools that do just use packaged curriculum. It’s not because of the common core though, it’s because the school does not value its teachers or student centered learning. Then there are schools like mine. We’ve been using common core for over four years now and every teacher has created their own curriculum aligned to the standards. I would venture to guess that there are more schools like mine than there are schools in Pearson’s pocket.

      Also, to answer your question, a school that cares about student learning is the kind that will develop its own curriculum.

  4. I totally agree, actually, I just don’t think that’s the fault of the standards, which are still good–it’s a deeper problem that new standards may make worse, because districts/schools/teachers do not have the time or money, and are courted by these companies to buy bad, pre-packaged curriculum. But these were problems before CCSS too, at least in my experience, and teachers often have to subvert the canned curriculum, or they are asked to teach against their own value systems, which is why I couldn’t stay in K-12. To me, though, that’s a totally separate problem from CCSS.

  5. I am wondering if you ever allow your blog to be reposted? This one on the Common Core, Lies…told me is one I would like to repost – or at least quote. Well written!
    Thank you.

    1. Hi Tamara!

      I’d love that–thanks so much for asking. I’d appreciate it if we could do it this way:

      1) Pick some favorite sections to quote (not the whole thing).
      2) Post a link to this page so that your readers will come here to see the rest of the article.
      3) Send me the link to your blog (or post it in a comment) so I can include it in the page and send traffic back to you.

      Thanks again!

  6. Very good post for helping us parents better identify the source of all the chaos this year with implementation of CCSS. Doesn’t do much to allay our frustration. Teachers have NOT been adequately prepped on the materials they are being forced to teach. Some seem angry about it, some seem to be directing their frustration at their students…. Lots of blame to go around, and I’m afraid much of it lies squarely on the backs of California taxpayers (can you say “Prop 13”?) No freaking idea how to fix it. Wish the teachers were better supported, wish some of them were more respectful of my children, wish administrators were more competent at their jobs, wish I could pull my boys out of public Ed and home school them. But, yes, CCSS look to be a move in the right direction.
    Here is what Common Core math looks like to 8th graders, after 6 weeks of pre-packaged curriculum worksheets (my son showed me this, sent to him by a friend on Instagram; it totally cracked him, and me, up):
    School: 2+2=4
    Homework: 2+4+2=8
    Exam: Omar has 4 apples,
    His train is 7 minutes early,
    Calculate the mass of the sun

  7. “If you hear people complaining about something that “Common Core requires”, ask them to point you toward the relevant standards on, since the whole thing is available for anyone to read. In my experience, most people haven’t read them.” This seems like a good idea, but I’ve been doing this on blog comments and people just get really angry. They want to believe this very strongly for some reason.

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