What do educators mean when they praise Common Core, the national education standards for math and English Language Arts?
In Georgia, it turns out such educators and legislators know almost nothing about the standards. Yet, in a coordinated effort they defeated Sen. William Ligon’s (R-Brunswick) Common Core withdrawal bill. Using school buses, many educators traveled nearly 200 miles on a work day to testify against it.
Superintendents encouraged principals, and principals encouraged teachers to testify against Ligon’s bill, using taxpayer-provided email accounts. A memo by Tift County School Superintendent Patrick Atwater went out to principals on February 28. On March 4, the day before the hearing, Charles Elementary School Principal Mickey Weldon wrote in an email, “Teachers, please give personal accounts of the hours of professional development, assessment design, reading, and coaching you have had to endure to be ‘experts’ in common core [sic].”
But these experts only repeated hollow catchphrases in their testimony. At the March 5 hearing, one teacher from Lee County said, “I’ve now tasted rigor.” A retired professor praised its “critical thinking component.” One Decatur teacher said Common Core allows students to know the “how’s and why’s.”
The media, such as the local CBS affiliate, then repeated that Common Core sets “clear standards” and goals for graduation from high school.
Buzzwords Instead of Knowledge
As Martin Cothran, editor of The Classical Teacher, explains in his article “The Critical Thinking Skills Hoax,” critical thinking at one time “meant something,” like logic, “but today it has been hijacked by proponents of what is called ‘twenty-first century learning.'” Critical thinking is lumped in with such terms as “creativity,” “collaboration,” and “deep learning”—all of which are the opposite of true disciplinary learning. They are key ideas of progressive education, which the late Harvard education professor Jeanne Chall showed impedes academic achievement.
A look at the standards themselves reveals a dumbing down. Common Core English Language Arts standards focus on short passages and alternative media, such as videos; on short, informal writing assignments; and on “speaking and listening skills”—even for high school juniors and seniors.
But the simple repetition of phrases was good enough for the politicos and media to conclude the weight of professional opinion favored Common Core. A higher standard of evidence was applied to Ligon, the sponsor of the withdrawal bill.
At the two hearings, State Rep. Amy Carter (R-Valdosta), who proudly told me she was the “only active public school teacher” serving in the Georgia Assembly, challenged him.
On March 5, she asked Ligon, “Can you tell me three standards that you find objectionable?” Ligon, of course, could not recite chapter and verse of the document that is hundreds of pages long.
When Carter asked him again at the March 12 hearing, he told her critiques were included in a packet given to the committee members. These included critiques by Sandra Stotsky (a member of the validation committee who refused to sign off on the English Language Arts standards) and Ze’ev Wurman (in math).
Filling the Echo Chamber
Amy Carter’s gotcha moment, though, was gleefully reported in the media. The local alternative weekly, Creative Loafing, in its yearly “Golden Sleaze Awards,” awarded Ligon the “Better Off Uneducated” award.
On multiple occasions, Atlanta Journal-Constitution education blogger Maureen Downey referred to Ligon’s inability to answer Carter’s question.
In two emails I asked Downey to name three standards that she liked. I followed up with two phone calls. Downey did not respond.
Can’t Answer Own Question
Downey believes we should trust the word of the teaching “professionals.” I called Carter, the state representative who is also a teacher. She told me she asked Ligon that question because of the “misinformation” about Common Core evidenced by the many emails she has received. One of the misconceptions was that cursive writing is eliminated. Not true, she said, pointing me to the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards for grade 3, page 5-5, section J., “writes legibly in cursive.”
Carter explained Common Core was already closely aligned (by 85 percent) with the Georgia Performance Standards when the state adopted Common Core.
She said, “I believe the Common Core Performance Standards are more rigorous.” Carter also claimed the public is confused about “standards” and “curriculum.” She notes standards are the expectations of what students should be able to do. She confirmed for me my understanding that the “Speaking and Listening Standards” that evaluate students’ ability to engage in “civil and democratic discussions” on grade level topics are “standards.” The curriculum would be the reading and other materials for the topics to be discussed. (Technically, although Common Core replaces much of the literary reading with “informational text,” it only provides suggestions for reading materials.)
After I described this example, I again asked her if she could cite parts of the Common Core standards that were superior to the previous Georgia Performance Standards. She replied, “not specifically, no.” She said she hadn’t looked at the Georgia Performance Standards in a number of years: “I don’t teach to the standards because I don’t teach English Language Arts and math.”
The question I would like to pose to such educators is: If you cannot make the case that Common Standards are superior, why should we forfeit local control and adopt them?
Image by Ken Lund.