Saturday, January 25, 2014

What Are the Real Motives Behind the Common Core State Standards? Let's Be Honest with Ourselves!

Today,  there was this post on the Public School Forum of North Carolina website defending the Common Core. That post, entitled "Common Core Standards Will Help NC Meet Its Challenges," was written by Caroline McCullen, the director of education initiatives at SAS which already has a multi-million dollar contract with North Carolina to provide value-added teacher data analysis software for teacher and principal evaluations.

Let me say up front in the interest of disclosure. I am a skeptic about the Common Core, not because I do not believe in the need to have higher standards. Also, who knows, the scheme might ultimately bring about some positive change in education. But, as a skeptic and admitted cynic about the reasons the Common Core were developed, my cynicism says that perhaps these standards were developed as a commercial opportunity for corporations like Pearson and other test companies to make more money off the public school systems. After all, as Diane Ravitch points out, those tasked for developing these standards "contained few educators, but a significant number of representatives of the testing industry." (See "Everything Your Need to Know Know about the Common Core.") Now, Ravitch has made it clear that she doesn't support the Common Core either. However, I will set aside my own skepticism and cynicism and look carefully at the arguments used to defend the Common Core the post.
  • The Common Core is "more rigorous than North Carolina's previous standards."
  • The Common Core is "benchmarked against college and career readiness measures.."
  • The Common Core is "endorsed by governors of both parties across the country."
  • The Common Core will "assure North Carolina citizens and business community that our students and future employees are challenged in the classroom and prepared to meet to compete in the global economy."
  • Because North Carolina NAEP scores declined in 2009, the state's standards "were lower" there the Common Core standards are needed.
  • The Common Core is needed because we need more rigorous tests so that we can compare students across the state and across the country.
Let's examine each of these points/

Are the Common Core standards more rigorous than North Carolina's previous standards?Probably, but neither McCullen nor our own state provide any extensive evidence to support this claim. They ask us to accept it as a fact. Certainly, if I look at the CCSS and the previous standards, I can see for myself that they are parts that are more rigorous, but when making claims, it is the responsibility of the one making the claims to support it, not me. In a document entitled "13 Things to Know about the Common Core State Standards in North Carolina" (See document here), makes the assertion that CCSS are more rigorous but doesn't provide any kind of analysis to support their claim either, nor is there a citation to any evidence. In fact, I could not find any detailed analysis that compares North Carolina's previous standards with the CCSS to determine which was more rigorous. If anyone knows such a detailed analysis I would like to see it. But what if they are more rigrous? Does it directly mean they are somehow better? What if in their rigorousness they aren't developmentally appropriate? What if what is assigned to one grade level is above the cognitive ability level of the students in that grade level? Then there's that whole argument that grade level assignments are bogus and arbitrary to begin with.We Americans seem to have a fetish for this word "rigorous" as if magically more rigorous always means better and more appropriate.

McCullen next argues that the "Common Core is bench-marked against college and career readiness measures." Those supporting the Common Core have been making this claim from the beginning. What does benchmarked really mean? According to one definition, it is a verb which means "to evaluate and check (something) by comparison with a standard." Does this really mean anything? Educators are notorious, especially testing and standards experts, for using words like to this to provide some kind of legitimacy to whatever they are arguing for. Still, if those who support these Common Core Standards argue that they are "benchmarked" then I suppose we have to take their word for it.

Next, McCullen argues that we should accept these standards because they are "endorsed by the governors of both parties across the country." This point really adds nothing to the argument as to why these standards are legitimate. In using an "argument from authority" McCullen tries to somehow make these standards valid simply because the governors accept them. Governor McCrory accepts the practice of school vouchers but that doesn't mean I agree with him. Just because the "authorities" accept the Common Core does make them any more legitimate. Using the fact the National Governor's Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers is simply arguing that because these individuals are in positions of authority, then the standards are worthy of being accepted or adopted. Arguments from authority do not really support why they should be implemented.

McCullen then argues is that the Common Core will somehow "assure the citizens of North Carolina and business community that our students and future employees are challenged in the classroom and prepared to meet the global economy." McCullen's claim here has no scientific or otherwise any evidence to support it at all. These standards will only assure the citizens of North Carolina that students are challenged, if those citizens see them as valid and challenging. There is simply no evidence to support this claim because the standards haven't been in place long enough to assure anyone of anything. They were not tested, just implemented.  The Common Core standards by themselves aren't evidence that anyone would be assured of anything until they have been implemented, tested and tried.. It's their effective implementation that will attest to how challenging they are, and we want know that for years, if they last that long.

Next, McCulen uses the decline in NAEP scores to claim that North Carolina standards were low. This claim also can't be made either. A decline in standardized test scores can be caused by anything, and was most likely caused by many, many factors. McCullen provides only a general statement without any supporting statistics to support her assertion.

The final assertion McCullen makes is that CCSS are needed because we need more rigorous tests in order to compare students nationally. This claim betrays what I am afraid the real motivation behind the Common Core is: the development and implementation of a nation-wide testing system that is a sure to be bonanza of companies like Pearson, College Board, and the ACT. The ACT has already announced an initiative to develop their own "Common Core" tests to be peddled to the states. Then there are companies like SAS waiting in the wings to sell data analysis software to all 50 states. The Common Core is all about testing and reforming education so that tests work better. Does any else see anything wrong with forcing our education system to fit testing so that it works rather than reforming our education so that it better serves students?

It is time for those peddling the Common Core to stop using vague generalities and marketing statements to sell it. Let's just be honest about it and what the motives are for implementing them. Ultimately, it might prove to be more rigorous and better prepare our students to complete globally. They might even assure our communities that classrooms are in fact more challenging. But until they have been implemented, making such claims do not make them true. Also, be honest about motives. The Common Core was implemented in order to provide standards that could be tested nationally so policy makers and education leaders can compare how students are doing nationally. For example,  being able to say in your role as State Superintendent that my state was "number one" on the National Achievement test after all is a good trophy to have. Then of course, there's the commercial bonanza to boot where all manner of companies can now make a bundle too. Who does it harm? Let's hope not the kids and our educational system.

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