First, Do No Harm: What is the Common Core?


Iatrogenesis is a term used in the medical community that suggests the cure should not be more harmful than the disease.  Common Core has been offered as a “cure” for the United States “failing” education system. However, the implementation of the Common Core has caused many stakeholders to wonder if the remedy prescribed is more harmful than the symptoms. As informed citizens we must ask: which schools are failing and by whose measures are these schools failing?  Further, although seeming cynical, it is nonetheless important to inquire who benefits financially from a new set of educational standards.

For the past few years, the term Common Core has been synonymous with public education as well as, for many, frustration.  Despite its prevalence in educational conversation, Common Core remains an abstract idea.  What is it?  Who came up with it?  Are these national or state requirements?  As the Common Core has begun to roll out across the country and is already being implemented in New York, it is important to answer these questions.

 

What Are the Common Core State Standards?

The goal of the Common Core State Standards Initiative was to create a comprehensive set of standards for K-12 education.  The first new phase of the Common Core State Standards began with English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics standards in the United States.  The intent was to align curriculum and standards throughout the country to educate students to be more prepared for college and to prepare students for the global society in which they live.  The emphasis of the Common Core Standards, then, is to require students to analyze and apply rather than memorize and repeat. 

While the standards have begun to be implemented, the standardized tests that align with these standards are being re-evaluated.  College entrance examinations such as the SAT and ACT have also been adjusted in response to these standards.  In addition to changing assessments for students, teacher evaluations have also been adjusted, and linked to students’ proficiency on Common Core State Standards assessments.  However, it should be noted that each state or locality may determine its own standards for evaluating teachers.

 

Who Came Up with the Common Core State Standards?

The Common Core Standards were created by state leaders including governors and state commissioners of education.  Teachers were also involved in the development of the standards.  However, private entities also made contributions to the standards as well.

 

Are the Common Core State Standards National or State requirements?

The Common Core State Standards have been advertised as state driven.  While they are a set of standards being implemented at the national level, it is up to each individual state to align the standards to its curricula.  Although the same standards will be used throughout the United States, the developers of the Common Core Standards assured that alignment would not lower each individual state’s present set of standards.

 

Implications of Common Core State Standards

While there is nothing inherently wrong with the Common Core State Standards, there is reason for some concern.  Many states and school districts have felt unprepared to begin aligning their curricula to these standards.  Teachers and administrators were especially concerned because district funding and new teacher evaluations are all impacted by standardized test scores.  Parents have also felt that pressure from overemphasis on testing.  As a result, more than 200,000 have opted out of Common Core State Standards assessments.  With all of the negative attention that the Common Core has garnered, students have begun to think unfavorably about the standards as well without grasping the concept of what the standards mean.

While no one is against high achievement, there is concern that aligning high-stakes assessments to these standards has not been fully vetted.  If one of the main reasons for a shift towards Common Core is to enhance students’ higher-order thinking, then the way students are assessed should reflect this goal.  At present, it does not.

With an emphasis on achievement on Common Core State Standards exams, teachers feel pressured to spend more class time preparing students for test preparation and less time for assignments that focus on higher-level thinking techniques.  Further, having teaching evaluations based, in part, on student achievement, puts a much greater emphasis on test results.  In November, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gave New York State teachers a two-year reprieve from the new Regents grades affecting their evaluations.  This policy change leads to concerns about the implementation of the Common Core and its link to teacher evaluations.

Standards are not new to education; it appears that just as teachers and districts become accustomed to one set of standards, a new set of standards is produced.  The Common Core is that new set of standards.  Instead of running headstrong into a new set of standards, perhaps the best course of action would have been to fully implement and meet the objectives set forth in old ones.  While there is nothing wrong with change, abrupt change on this scale has a history of producing poor results.  This is supported by evidence of many individuals who have had unfavorable reactions to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

While the standards are supposed to help students, it is important to know who might be benefitting from these changes.  With new standards come new assessments that need to be produced, new textbooks that need to be developed, and new curricula to be written.  All of these cost money and private companies have monopolized this market.  While students throughout New York State may benefit from a new set of education standards, the cost of change is really benefitting the private for-profit sector.

The future of the Common Core State Standards is unknown; however, dissent is evident and the concern is understandable.  The best course of action is to be informed.  While the Common Core State Standards for ELA and mathematics have already been implemented, the next stage in the rollout is the updating of the science standards with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  It is important to stay informed and to ask questions.  The Common Core standards are here and the new high-stakes assessments are being re-evaluated prior to their administration.  Therefore, educators and parents need to be aware of the situation and stay proactive in their responsibilities to monitor and advocate for the best interest of students. 

In short, our suggestion to improve education would be to place a greater emphasis on student-teacher relationships.  Teaching and learning are both human endeavors that work best when a personal connection can be made in the classroom.  Policymakers can continue to develop new standards, but the promulgation of standards is not synonymous with a true love for learning.