Common Core Damage Will Last for Years to Come

Published January 11, 2016

Common Core (CC) K–12 math and English standards are lingering, despite concerted efforts by concerned parents and taxpayers to remove them.

It is like a house with an underwater mortgage: The United States has invested so much in Common Core that it can’t easily get out. The investments include very large amounts spent on textbooks, computers to support the Common Core tests, and teacher training. The investment also includes some hard-to-quantify things: the squandered opportunity, the huge expenditure of political capital, the disaffection of millions of parents, and the psychological harm to students who face spending many more years living out the classroom consequences of a discredited educational experiment.

Students face those extra years of miseducation simply because there is no easy exit from Common Core. The textbooks and computers have been purchased, and the teachers have been trained. Even the states running for the exit door have a long wind-down ahead of them. 

Undoing some forms of bad policy can take years. Build a road or a bridge in the wrong place and chances are it is a permanent mistake, but if the government builds the wrong curriculum, chances are it has robbed a generation. 

Demoting Literature

Some of the specific harms are easy to see. The Common Core is making a mess of instruction in reading and writing. It demotes reading literature, with fewer and fewer literary works assigned as a student advances through the grades. This demotion comes about because Common Core treats reading primarily as a tool for retrieving information. Stories, novels, plays, and poetry are not meant primarily as ways of conveying data or of “arguing” a position.

Fitting the literary round pegs into Common Core’s square holes stunts students’ development in key areas. It gets in the way of learning to see things “as a whole,” learning to grasp context, and learning how to think by means of analogy. 

Analogy—the ability to see resemblances, large and small, and to draw useful comparisons—is among the most fundamental powers of the human mind. Education used to aim at enhancing this basic mental power. Common Core fights it. Common Core emphasizes fragments, deliberately out-of-context excerpts, and explicit declaration at the expense of richer forms of reading.

Slowing Down Math Instruction

Common Core math hurts students in other ways. First, it slows the pace of instruction. Before Common Core was in place, some states reasonably expected students to master basic addition and subtraction by 3rd grade; Common Core decided 4th grade would do. A similar situation arose with the multiplication table. Long division was generally a 5th grade skill; Common Core defers it to 6th grade.

These changes may seem small by themselves, but they are extremely important in cumulative effect. At a time when other developed nations are racing ahead in science, technology, engineering, and math education, the United States has decided not to accelerate but to move into the slow lane.

Because math builds on itself, a slow pace in early education means a more significant slowdown later on. For instance, algebra often gets pushed back to 9th grade, and then Common Core tapers off. It has no room at all, for example, for pre-calculus instruction, which used to provide the bridge for students about to head off to college. Logarithms are barely mentioned. Parametric equations are absent. Arithmetic series are omitted. Polar forms of functions never come up.

Of course, most of us adults live without these pieces of mathematical knowledge. We studied them once and moved on to study other subjects that didn’t depend on “parametric equations.” What’s the harm of not teaching them in the first place? The harm is by not providing instruction to young people at the age in which they can absorb the knowledge, we preempt the whole possibility of their going further. We are effectively slamming the door shut for millions of children on possible careers in the sciences, engineering, and many technical fields, in which a solid foundation in math is crucial.

Promises Broken

This thinning out of math instruction betrays two key promises made by the Common Core’s proponents: the standards would be “internationally benchmarked” and they would make students “college and career ready.” CC is internationally benchmarked only in the sense that, with the aid of binoculars, you can see the bench—on the back of a foreign truck—rapidly disappearing a few miles up the road. The “college ready” part turned out to mean—as one of CC’s architects eventually confessed—ready for community college. Students who have higher aspirations have to fend for themselves by seeking out tutors or extracurricular supplementary classes.

Prosperous families will find workarounds, but for everyone else, Common Core imposes a low ceiling on what their children will learn in school.

Cutting Parents Out

Math instruction goes astray in other ways as well. Common Core is already infamous with parents for imposing tediously complicated forms of computation on children in primary school. The computations “work” in the limited sense of providing right answers (most of the time), but they also drive a wedge between parent and child—deliberately, it seems—since very few parents can crack the code.

Common Core math standards also diverge from parental understanding in subtler ways. For reasons known only to Common Core’s architects, who have never had to give an explanation, they emphasized simple visual models such as number lines from 1st grade to 6th grade. Less easily visualized mathematical concepts, such as multiplication and division with negative numbers, get put off until later.

Similarly, Common Core approaches geometry from 5th grade to 8th grade as though it is nothing more than measurement, and then it abruptly turns to an effort to derive the rest of geometry from the study of “rigid motions”—a way of teaching geometry tried once or twice before, notably in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, where the experiment was deemed a failure and discarded.

Common Core is on its way out. It is unloved by parents, teachers, and the public as a whole. Policymakers and educators must implement a better educational model, a task that will involve repair and restoration. Parents have the choice of waiting out the bad years ahead by moving their children out of public schools or staying put knowing that they will have to work extra hard at home to compensate for the Common Core’s poor delivery of essential knowledge and its mis-channeling of children’s intellectual development. 

Peter Wood ([email protected]) is president of the National Association of Scholars, a network of scholars and citizens with a commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education.

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