Copyright © 2014 jsd

Common Core – Some Questions and Conjectures
John Denker

*   Contents

1  Preliminary Thoughts
1.1  Policy versus Politics; Reality versus Perception
1.2  Standards versus Downstream Consequences
1.3  Topics and Content of the Standard
1.4  The Name’s the Thing, or Not
1.5  Development and Rollout
1.6  Alternatives, and Neglect Thereof
2  References

1  Preliminary Thoughts

1.1  Policy versus Politics; Reality versus Perception

There has been very little discussion of the actual merits of Common Core.   For more than a year now, the debate over Common Core has been dominated by partisan political wrangling.

  Do you recall the Romneycare individual mandate? Republicans considered Common Core to be a good idea until President Obama endorsed it, whereupon it became tyranny and treason.

I would much prefer to discuss the policy issues. There are actual factual non-political reasons for being skeptical of some of the stuff that is (rightly or wrongly) being tagged with the name “Common Core”.   I don’t recommend it, but if you want to see a typical discussion of the politics, to the exclusion of policy, see reference 1.

1.2  Standards versus Downstream Consequences

It pays to distinguish between the common core standards (strictly speaking) and the common core movement (more broadly speaking).

If you were talking about just a standard, with no strings attached, nobody would object to it. Nobody would care much about it, either way.   The common core movement consists of a standard with lots of strings attached, lots of downstream consequences. That’s where the problems are. Serious problems.

If somebody starts talking about “common core” it is sometimes hard to know what they’re talking about. It’s ambiguous.

In more detail: I would argue that standards of any kind (common core or otherwise) seldom have much direct impact. What matters is what happens downstream of the standards ... namely teaching, textbooks, tests, and decisions based on tests. The stuff that matters is only loosely (if at all) controlled by the standards.

Making this distinction – or failing to make it – is super-important, both in practical/operational terms and political/symbolic terms.

In yet more detail:

  1. Standards loosely influence the creation of textbooks. A bad standard can force the textbook to be bad, but a good standard cannot force the textbook to be good.

    To say the same thing the other way, we are suffering from a plague of really bad textbooks, but you should not blame this on the standards.

  2. Similarly, standards loosely influence the creation of standardized tests.
    1. A bad standard can force the test to be bad, but a good standard cannot force the test to be good, in terms of content.

      To say the same thing the other way, we are suffering from a plague of really bad tests, but you should not blame this on the standards.

    2. On top of questions about the subject-matter content of the tests, there are issues with the structure and administration. You can have little tests and quizzes that are useful to the students and teachers on a day-to-day basis ... or you can have big useless invalid tests such as AIMS.

      In the teaching business, "invalid" is a highly technical buzzword. It means the test does not measure what it was supposed to measure, whatever that may be.

    3. Then, much depends on what you do with the test results ... such as making life-changing decisions about students, teachers, and entire schools based on the outcome of an invalid test..........

It must be emphasized that a standard is very different from a test. I get really tired of having education bureaucrats tell me how great their standard is. More than once, I’ve had the following conversation:

They:Look at our standard.
Me:Show me your test.
They:Look at our standard.
Me:Show me your test.
They:Our standard is really great.
Me:Your test is lousy.
They:But our standard is really great.
Me:I don’t care, because your test is lousy,
 and that’s what matters.

The Common Core was developed by a consortium of states (reference 2). Meanwhile a separate consortium is developing some tests (reference 3). I reckon the latter is doomed, because it is in direct competition with a half-dozen commercial test vendors; see reference 1 and reference 4. When it comes to buying lobbying politicians, the vendors will outbid the consortium. The vendors win, the states lose, teachers lose, and students lose.

1.3  Topics and Content of the Standard

To the limited extent that the content of the standard matters at all, I would argue that common core is not a bad standard. You can read it yourself; see reference 2.

Here’s one thing I particularly like. It says:

Modeling is best interpreted not as a collection of isolated topics but rather in relation to other standards. Making mathematical models is a Standard for Mathematical Practice, and specific modeling standards appear throughout the high school standards

And then ... amazingly enough ... we find that modeling is in fact mentioned in many places, dispersed throughout the standards. (This stands in pleasant contrast to some other standards I’ve seen, standards that were written by committee and spectacularly failed to take their own advice, failed to live up to their own standards.)

On the negative side of the ledger, the common core standards are conspicuously incomplete. They cover only English Language Arts (ELA) and math. They don’t say anything about biology, chemistry, physics. Maybe they are hoping that will be covered by the Next Generation Science Standards, even though that is a very weak reed to lean on. CCSS mentions computers very briefly under the heading of using appropriate tools, but this ends up being a vague recommendation, not a standard, not a topic of study unto itself, and not integrated into the other topics to any meaningful degree. Neither common core nor NGSS covers history, civics, foreign language, music, PE, theory of knowledge, or any of that.

1.4  The Name’s the Thing, or Not

  1. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer recently decided that the state standards (ACCRS) are separate from common core and should not be called common core.
  2. On the other hand, ACCRS is based on and indistinguishable from common core, and has been since 2010, so the renaming has little impact in practical, operational terms.

    The name itself is taken straight from the infamous common-core talking points, which are discussed in reference 5.

  3. On the third hand, the renaming seems like a smart move, in perceptual and political terms. It is good for people to feel that the state has the option to tinker with the standards, even if the option has not been exercised.

1.5  Development and Rollout

I am not at all convinced that this was rolled out in a smart way. It looks like an untried idea was imposed top-down, via heavy-handed political pressure, lubricated with more than 200 million dollars from somebody with no actual teaching experience. See reference 6.

This seems like poor project management. For less money, and with less risk of backlash, you could have rolled it out gradually. You could have made sure it was fully debugged prior to large-scale deployment. You could have made sure it was something people actually wanted, before (or instead of) imposing it.

  1. They could have waited until suitable textbooks were ready.
  2. They could have waited until suitable tests and quizzes were ready.
  3. Last but not least, teachers are part of the team. Teachers are not robots that can be easily reprogrammed. If you want to guarantee failure, roll out a program that places new demands on the teachers, without providing them the necessary resources – including materials, training, and time – to deal with it.

1.6  Alternatives, and Neglect Thereof

I wonder why they started from scratch, rather than starting from something like the International Baccalaureate (IB) program ... something that is a known quantity, widely respected, covering a far more complete range of topics, supported by a full range of textbooks, tests, and other materials, et cetera. See reference 7.

Obviously the rednecks would be outraged by anything with the word "international" in the name, just as they were outraged by the idea of "common" as opposed to state standards, only more so. However, this can be dealt with in the same way, by repackaging and renaming the product.

2  References

Stephanie Grace,
“Forget Obamacare. Common Core is the Republicans’ new big enemy”

Common Core State Standards Initiative,
“Read the Standards”

Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers

Cathryn Creno,
“Arizona withdraws from PARCC testing group”

Diane Ravitch,
“The Excellent But False Messaging of the Common Core Standards”

Lyndsey Layton,
“How Bill Gates Pulled Off The Swift Common Core Revolution”
Washington Post 7 June 2014

International Baccalaureate Organization,
Home page:

“Diploma Programme curriculum framework”

Common Core State Standards Initiative,
“High School: Statistics & Probability ≫ Conditional Probability & the Rules of Probability”

Copyright © 2014 jsd