The notion that Common Core’s college and career readiness standards are “rigorous” needs to be publicly put to bed by Arne Duncan, his erstwhile friends at the Fordham Institute, and the media. Two of Common Core’s own mathematics standards writers have publicly stated how weak Common Core’s college readiness mathematics standards are. At a public meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in March 2010, physics professor Jason Zimba said: “the concept of college readiness is minimal and focuses on non-selective colleges.” Mathematics professor William McCallum told a group of mathematicians: “the overall standards would not be too high, certainly not in comparison [to] other nations, including East Asia, where math education excels.” What words don’t Duncan, Finn, Petrilli, and the media understand? Why keep on pretending that Fordham Institute’s A- for Common Core’s math standards was an honest grade.
Common Core supporters still can’t figure out how to deal with legitimate criticisms of its ELA standards. So they just keep parroting the line that Common Core’s ELA skills are actually standards, are rigorous, and prioritize literary study, when it’s quite obvious to any English teacher that they are none of the above.
That’s why Duncan, speaking recently to an audience of editorial board members, whined on and on about the critics of Common Core. He was seeking to avoid all debate, which has been a cornerstone of the entire Common Core effort from the beginning. He does not want to see a real debate and possibly real live debate within state legislatures about Common Core. After all, state debates might prove fatal for these state-driven academic standards!
Legislators might ask questions like: Why are we doing this if there is no correlation between national standards and student achievement? Who is going to pay for this? What are the legal dimensions of states using a copyrighted set of standards? Who will amend the standards? What do parents, teachers, or institutions of higher education do if they find problems with the standards? Good questions one and all.
If legislators actually start debating Common Core’s merits, they might conclude that, once CCSSI got going, Common Core was not about high-quality national education standards. It was not about getting low-income, high-achieving students into advanced math and science courses in high school and then into college. CCSSI was and is about how to lower the academic level of what states require for high school diplomas and for admission to public colleges.
Of course, Common Core proponents can’t say that lowering academic standards is their goal. Instead, they claim that its standards will reduce the seemingly terrible problems we have with interstate mobility (actually less than 2% nationally) or enable Massachusetts teachers to know how Mississippi students compare to theirs (something they never said they were eager to learn), or facilitate nationally the sale of high-tech products to the public schools (something the P-21 skills folks were eager for). They have looked desperately for motivating issues and these are the best cards in their deck, as poor as they are.
Their major selling point is how poor our K-12 public education system is in too many states. The fault of the teachers in them? Of course not. The fault of education policy makers who enjoy being Lord High Central Planners? The fault of the education schools and the professional development “providers” that “trained” them for the last 50 years? These possibilities have been outside the bounds of public discourse and beyond the grasp of the media. Besides which, what could be done to the keepers of the “cash cow?” Prospective teachers need some pedagogical training.
Proponents of Common Core never understood, however, that as parents or grandparents learn more about Common Core and see the lessons built off of Common Core, they will fight it. No parent or grandparent of any color or gender is willing to see his or her kids or grandkids sold short. They want capable doctors and engineers who build bridges and tunnels that won’t collapse.
This is in part an educational question, but it is also a political one. So let’s have the political conversation. Are we as a society really ready to agree to Common Core’s low-expectations for college readiness (as Professors Zimba and McCallum indicate)? Are we willing to lower the bar as a way of closing the achievement gap?
What kind of answers might state legislators come up with? Some would pull their states out of Common Core and establish a real process to develop high-quality academic standards, involving subject area experts from their best colleges as well as teachers. To ensure public integrity and input, they would have a long public comment period and transparency about how they structured their draft standards.
But there are many different paths they could take. Perhaps some states would opt to offer differential high school diplomas. Other legislatures could require all high schools to offer advanced mathematics, science, and English coursework, available without exception to all who qualify, that would lead to the academically advanced diploma, with all others qualifying for the Common Core diploma if they pass Common Core’s minimal competencies?
And, yes, as has always happened in these United States, there will be a few states that decide simply to give everyone a college diploma when they complete grade 12 (instead of a high school diploma). After seeing Common Core’s low aspirations for our kids, they might just think that it is a much cheaper way of achieving the same goal.