Several of the pundits have conflated five different projects as if they were all the Common Core. These are to some degree related but each has it's own sponsors and they are being managed and adopted separately. They are:
- The Common Core State Standards themselves.
- State or district curriculum.
- State Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS).
- Race to the Top Assessment Consortia
The concept of state core standards gained prominence during the Bush Administration as part of the No Child Left Behind act. In a recent blog post I wrote about how they are part of the Standards and Accountability theory of education reform and how later and more promising theories also rely on quality standards.
The result of NCLB and related efforts is that each of the 50 states developed its own core standards. This has the vague advantage of more local influence but it has two significant disadvantages. First, there are differences between what students learn in different states. So colleges and universities don't have a consistent standard of preparation to expect from students. Second, developers of tests and curriculum spread their resources 50 different ways. The result is lower quality teaching materials and examinations.
Here are some ways that distinction applies: The Common Core describes the difficulty of text to be read at each grade; curriculum gives a list of actual books and stories. The common core describes the kinds of problems a student should be able to solve; curriculum specifies the order concepts will be taught and includes exercises to be performed. The rivalry between Phonics and Whole Language is not resolved by the Common Core; that decision remains in the hands of district curriculum committees.
Critics of the core have missed an opportunity here. Since curriculum involves textbooks, lesson plans and teaching materials, it consists of thousands of pages, tens of hours of video and other media. It's also copyrighted. All of this makes reviewing a curriculum a daunting task – albeit an important one. Meanwhile, the standards are relatively short and accessible. They are released under an open license and you can read them online at http://corestandards.org. They total somewhere around 200 pages long including appendices so you can review them in an afternoon.
So, what are the objections? A common one is that this is a federal program to control what our students learn. First off, this is a state-lead initiative, not a federal one. Secondly, the standards will only control teaching if the they are considered to be limits to what is taught. But they are really a floor, not a ceiling and most of the details remain left to the curriculum.
Other objections come from academics arguing for or against certain pedagogical theories that the rest of us aren't familiar with. For example, advocates for both Phonics and Whole Language have complained that the Common Core is a capitulation to the other side. But the Common Core Standards aren't as opaque as all of that. As I wrote a couple of months ago, the English standards focus on a few basic skills applied to increasingly complex texts. The math standards cover the familiar topics of arithmetic, algebra, geometry and so forth.
The biggest issue is that change is difficult and frequently unpopular. The changes demanded by the common core aren't easy ones. They require changes to curriculum; they require new lesson plans; and they require teachers to approach subjects in new ways. Many people are excited by the possibilities but it's not surprising that some would prefer to preserve the status quo.
Unfortunately, status quo isn't good enough.
The Common Core State Standards offer two important advantages over previous state core standards. First is simply that they are common. We hope that by concentrating their efforts on one standard instead of 45, developers of curriculum and examinations can do a better job than before. The second advantage is that the Common Core is a second-generation standard built on a foundation of the best state standards and informed by the experience of those who built the first generation.
Are they perfect? Not likely. But these new standards are better than previous ones and they will become a valuable tool in our personalized learning arsenal.
Update 26 July 2013:
The Fordham Institute has launched a website representing conservative support for the Common Core: http://highercorestandards.org/
- While older, this is another good editorial on the subject: http://www.hoover.org/publications/defining-ideas/article/147681