Editor’s note: This is a follow-up article to one that appeared earlier on Pajamas Media.
What do educators mean when they praise Common Core, the national education standards for math and English Language Arts?
In Georgia, it turns out that such educators and legislators know almost nothing. 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 his bill.
The testimony included a lot of buzz words. 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, like the local CBS affiliate, then repeated that Common Core sets “clear standards” and goals for graduation from high school.
Buzz-Words Substitute for Knowledge
It’s assumed these educators know best. In the months leading to the start of the legislative session in January, Republican State Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody) repeatedly referred to the “very smart people” in education to whom he defers as he argued (unoriginally) about the “rigor” of Common Core. Yet, at a September 26 debate, Millar seemed less concerned about academics: “We have to be realistic. Some students don’t even know how to dress for a job.”
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 catch phrases in their testimony. 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 impede 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, like videos; on short, informal writing assignments; and on “speaking and listening skills”—for even high school juniors and seniors.
But the simple repetition of phrases was good enough for the politicos and media to conclude that the weight of professional opinion was on the side of Common Core. A higher standard of evidence, however, 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). They had testified before the Senate Education and Youth Committee in 2013, when Ligon’s bill called for complete withdrawal from Common Core. On another date, former Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott gave “impromptu” testimony before the same committee.
This year’s version of the bill, among other things, would have allowed school districts to return to curriculum aligned to the previous, superior Georgia Performance Standards, under which many school districts are still operating, because they haven’t had the funds to convert to the new Common Core materials. Members of the Cobb County School Board publicly welcomed the opportunity to return to GPS. Proponents believe many districts would have felt comfortable following the lead of this second-largest district in the state.
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.
Perhaps more should not be expected from a free newspaper noted more for its concert listings and sex ads than objective news reporting. But they could have gotten their lead from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution education blogger, Maureen Downey, a former teacher.
On multiple occasions, she referred to Ligon’s inability to answer Carter’s question. In a March 11 post that referred to the first hearing, Downey chastised Ligon for spending two years denigrating Common Core and seeking to “upend Georgia classrooms.” She wrote, “Puzzled by the rationale for the bill, State Rep Amy Carter, R-Valdosta, asked State Senate sponsor William Ligon, R-Brunswick, to share three of the Common Core standards that worried him.”
Casting him as poorly prepared, Downey wrote, “Ligon would be expected to easily cite examples of poorly drawn standards.” She snidely noted that Ligon’s “only response” was “I’ll have to get back to you” and concluded,
To put Ligon’s answer in context: The General Assembly appears willing to ignore the professionals — the teachers who work with the standards every day and overwhelmingly endorsed them in two recent statewide surveys, one of which was done by the state board – to appease a lawmaker who can’t even name three of them.
Downey’s post the following day, “The anti-standards bill: A whole lot of crazy,” again referred to Carter’s cross-examination of Ligon. Downey thought we’d hear a “lengthy rumination.” As if Ligon were an errant school boy, she wrote, it was expected that he “would have devoted the last week to reading up on the standards so he could dazzle the audience with his fluency.”
In two emails I asked Downey to name three standards that she liked. I followed up with two phone calls. Downey did not respond to either.
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 that 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.”
“There are some issues,” she added: “They were rolled out too quickly.” Teachers did not have enough time to grasp the new way of teaching, for example, the math: “a different kind of learning,” especially for fifth-graders. Parents are protesting because it’s too “rigorous,” she asserted. (The Internet, however, is filled with parents in the science, engineering, and accounting professions who object, not to the rigor, but to the lack of rigor and to the confusing nature of the problems.)
Carter claimed that the public is confused about “standards” and “curriculum.” She explained that 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.”
Carter teaches Career Pathway courses under a program called “Teaching as a Profession.” It’s a three-class program that gives high school students an opportunity to explore teaching as a career option. Her students participate in elementary and middle school internships.
So what can we say about “standards” that have high school juniors and seniors sitting in little groups talking instead of debating, or writing 10-page research papers or literary analyses? We do not need advanced degrees or teaching certificates to understand that knowing how to take turns talking is not evidence of academic “rigor.” Most of us learned these skills by first grade.
Proponents like Millar have essentially admitted that Common Core is little more than job readiness training, even as he defers to the “very smart” educators such as Carter.
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.