Beyond the politics of Common Core Standards

Below is a guest blog by Robyn Oatley recently featured in Education Week. Oatley works as a consultant with the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and leads ReadyKentucky, a project designed to inform citizens about the Common Core Standards.

Where are the Internet-fueled push to oppose the Common Core Standards and claims of conspiracy coming from? Well, it does not help that the Republican National Committee has issued a draft of a statement calling the standards a “nationwide straitjacket on academic freedom and achievement.” How many members of the RNC are trained educators? How many have even read the standards? Better yet, how many of them know what a standard is? Would they be opposed to this expectation for every 12th grader: “By the end of grade 12, read and comprehend literature [informational texts, history/social studies texts, science/technical texts].”

Kentucky has been implementing the new standards since February 2010, following a legislative mandate in 2009 requiring more rigorous standards to get more students college and career ready. As a veteran educator, I was hired to lead ReadyKY, a Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence initiative, and began a public engagement campaign to inform citizens and stakeholders about the standards and what they mean for our children’s futures. We had many partners, including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, and the Kentucky Department of Education, to get the word out.

The ‘word’ in 2010 was what a standard is and isn’t. A standard is just a sentence that states what a child should know and be able to do at the end of the year. In some grade levels there may be 10 math standards; in some grade levels 20 standards. For example: in kindergarten, students are expected to be able to count to 100 and do basic addition and subtraction. Can your 5-year-old already do that? Then your school is responsible for moving your child’s learning to meet the next level of standards.

Standards are not curriculum. The standards do not dictate how teachers teach those standards, what materials they must use or anything else about the local classroom. That is up to the experts who teach your children every day. States joined this movement voluntarily and could add to the standards, if they had something specific their state valued.

Most of the spokespeople who claim there is a conspiracy behind the standards want us to think the federal government is mandating a public education curriculum. The truth is that the federal government has done nothing, except offer temporary financial incentives for states to work together on standards they could share; there was no mandate to adopt the Common Core standards – states had a choice. And this was after 2009, when 48 governors decided that it was crazy for every state to reinvent the wheel when developing expectations for student performance levels by the end of each school year.

Fourth grade in Kentucky ought to have some similarity to expectations in any other state. Louisville, KY, a community with more than 100,000 students, loses approximately 400 kids to transiency every day – that’s the size of a small school! If those families move to any one of the 45 states with similar standards, those students will have the same academic expectations. Think about military families who are in Fort Campbell today and San Diego on Friday. Because the Department of Defense is using the Common Core standards, these military students stand a chance of some consistency in their academic careers.

Most of the initiatives opposing Common Core are not even based on the content of the standards. They have made up fearful statements like “the classics have been thrown out of the curriculum.” All anyone has to do is go to and pull up Appendix A of the English Language Arts standards where The Grapes of Wrath is used as a ‘model’ for teachers to teach the classics in high school English classes. There are many examples, largely considered classics, for educators to use in their classrooms to encourage the reading of more complex texts.

Kentucky has come a long way in education reform, but we have a lot farther to go. We have gained national competitiveness but our graduates are not all internationally competitive. Still 40% of our high school graduates have to take at least one remedial class in college. That is unacceptable. The standards, more highly effective teaching and monitoring of student learning are lifting us to higher levels of performance by our graduates. We are going the right direction for now. This is the next logical step for many states to increase their student achievement, one of many tools necessary for growth.

Reflections to consider:

· Standards are the cornerstone, but we know we have to build a house around it: it’ll take professional development and teacher reflection,locally built curriculum and cycles and cycles of designing-trying-refining-trying again on instruction. This is the work of true implementation.

· Kentucky is a state of local control. We are local citizens who believe the standards are right for students. We believe it because we read them. They’re strong and clear and better than what had before. No one coerced us. No one bribed us. We read, reflected and committed.

· We are local citizens who remember the invitations to contribute to the standards and who have heard directly from Kentucky teacher panels that their thoughts were embodied in the final document.

· Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is a publicly available document. In reading, the key issue is that science reading has to be embedded in science study and history reading in history study, and literary texts will be only a small portion of that work in those subject areas. Literary texts will remain a huge portion of the English Language Arts curriculum. In fact, if science and history take up a greater share of the reading and writing skills that belong in their disciplines, ELA can put more time and energy into literature and literary non-fiction, not less.

· The Prichard Committee is proud to work with and hear the voices of hundreds of teachers, across multiple disciplines, who tell us their students are working at new and higher levels using CCSS-aligned tools. CCSS didn’t make that happen, but it made the tools possible. Again, CCSS is a cornerstone, and we’re busy building the house around it. So it’s working, with no guarantees but with plenty of reason for hope and growing confidence.

A recent national survey of public school teachers in states across the country found:

  • 73 percent of teachers surveyed have a favorable view of Common Core State Standards.
  • 74 percent of teachers surveyed support their state’s decision to adopt Common Core State Standards.
  • 77 percent of teachers surveyed say their state is already teaching to Common Core standards.

Listen to the educators; this is the next logical step for our kids. There is power in consistency of expectations between states. There is power in the international competitiveness of our graduates when they meet high standards and apply for jobs in the global workforce.

Don’t politicize our kids’ futures by turning a strong collaboration between states working together into a polarized political debate.

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