Common Core: Are You a Good Switch or a Bad Switch?

School's should welcome diversity of ideas but shouldn't tolerate political agendas

School’s should welcome diversity of ideas but shouldn’t tolerate political agendas

PART I: A Primer in American Education

Who’s Afraid of Common Core?
Education in America is often the centerpiece of someone’s agenda, and the newest chapter of the how-to-fix-our-schools controversy is called Common Core. Conservatives have apparently decided that Common Core is the path to Satan. Liberals have reservations about Common Core because it smacks of a factory-like environment that assumes every student and school is the same.

The problem is that the most vocal critics of Common Core have no authority to speak on effective educational methods. Common Core is a significant paradigm shift in education, and opinions of untrained, uneducated, unhelpful ‘experts’  do nothing to move forward the debate on how best to prepare our children for Life 3.0.

The Cost of Achievement
In 1950, only one-third of the population in the United States had a high school degree or better, and only six percent had a college degree or better. In 2010, almost ninety percent of Americans had at least a high school degree, and thirty percent had at least a college degree. That increase is impressive, but what is astounding is that in the same sixty year time frame, America’s population doubled. 

To accomplish that feat cost money. A lot of money. As the bandwagon to attack government spending gained steam, education loomed large in the sights of conservatives. The real cost of the success of American educational achievement has been to become a target of the post-Reagan  agenda.  

Public school in Panama: Seeking to achieve the American dream

Public school in Panama: Seeking to achieve the American dream

A Historical Perspective
In the pre-Information age, schools were isolated in their own districts. How well the students of any given school performed was a local issue, not a state or national issue. In addition, a relatively small percentage of students sought out a college degree, and there were few school districts keeping track of college bound students.

The goal for most school districts in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s was graduate as many students as possible, which sometimes opened the door to unethical practices, such as giving diplomas to students who clearly did not meet reasonable expectations (ability to read, write, etc.) to graduate.

However, by the 1990’s, the idea that all schools in the United States should be able to measure academic success through a unified set of academic standards began to take hold. As the Internet became the backbone of our society, the resulting information explosion forced us to accept that adequate math and reading skills were vital for success as an adult in a technologically advanced society. 

First Generation of Educational Standards
By the beginning of this century, plans had been put into motion to establish a set of educational standards for all schools and testing of all students to determine a school’s success or failure. Under President George W. Bush, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB,) was mandated and it required States to establish standardized testing, teacher qualifications, and annual academic progress reporting. This was one of the most sweeping federal intrusions into public education. The primary focus of NCLB was to improve reading, writing, and mathematics in schools nationwide, while allowing States to establish the educational standards that would have to be met.

The catch was that rather than investing in those schools that needed help, No Child Left Behind focused on punishing schools that didn’t meet the artificial standards. Almost ever reputable educational review of NCLB  has given it a failing grade. Some of the reasons are as follows:

  • The emphasis on reading, writing, and math during a time when States were cutting funds for kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12) created a shearing effect on other programs (language, history, music, arts, etc.) as money had to be reallocated to the studies under the NCLB Act.
  • Politicians had little understanding of education and the variables in a classroom environment and they attempted to apply factory-like operations to school systems that failed to address the real issues that impact the ability to learn.
  • NCLB assumed that teachers were mostly at fault for poor educational performance and politicians sought to intervene by imposing punishments for schools rather than actually acting in the best interest of the students.
  • The education of higher performing students was sacrificed in order to devote more resources for the poorer performing students.
  • Students with special needs were not excluded from the testing standards creating a population of students that automatically counted as failing against the school.

Educational Standards – Second Generation
Soon after taking office, the Obama administration began to move away from NCLB by introducing “Race to the Top.” This program flipped NCLB by seeking to reward States for adopting standardized programs rather than punishing them for not meeting federal standards. States competed for additional federal education funding; however, not every State rushed to play the game that offered no guarantee of financial carrot at the finish line.

The most searing problem with Obama’s Race to the Top program may have been the requirement that a teacher’s performance had to be linked to the student’s test scores. This concept of Pay For Performance suggests that teaching professionals must be threatened with a financial stick, forcing teachers to teach students to be successful on the tests by sacrificing all other educational values. It also discourages teachers from working with groups of challenging students who will not be able to produce the test results of more privileged and economically stable students.

PART TWO: What is Common Core?

Cartoon in Chicago Tribune about parent reaction to Common Core

Cartoon in Chicago Tribune about parent reaction to Common Core

The Third Generation of Standardized Education
The basic premise of the George W. Bush (43rd President) administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandate was that reading, writing, and math are fundamental to all learning. This is a sound concept; however, these basic skills cannot supplant other subjects traditionally taught in K-12 schools, nor can they be isolated from those subjects. Our society, both business and personal interactions, require an adequate understanding of a wide variety skills and knowledge that exceed the basic skills of reading, writing, and math.

Common Core is an attempt to refine the concept of NCLB by creating standards for all schools that focus on reading, writing, and math, but it also folds these skills into other subjects that impact personal success in the 21st century. Common Core emphasizes teaching methods and outcomes, but leaves it to the State, school district, and school on how to incorporate the program into the curriculum.

Why Some Parents Dislike Common Core Math
Some of the methods adopted by Common Core have angered parents and politicians. In particular, the approach to teaching math. The math issue centers on bewildered parents who don’t understand the revised math teaching methods and why equations seem to be more complicated than when they attended school. The assumption by parents is that whatever they were taught is good enough for their children; however, that is not necessarily true.

Almost every adult in this country was taught that the symbol for a number (e.g.; ‘7’) was everything we needed to know about the number that it represents. We were taught to memorize how the symbol ‘7’ multiplied by the symbol ‘9’ equals the symbol ’63.’ That teaching method does not mean that the student understands that ‘7,’ ‘9,’ and ’63’ are symbols representing a group of objects. 

This is a subtle, but important understanding in math functions. The equation ‘7 x 9 = 63,’ means that we are taking a group of seven objects, adding eight more groups of seven, and determining the total of objects. That is much more complicated than just memorizing that 7 x 9 = 63, but it helps us realize that multiplication is a shortcut to manually counting out 63 objects individual, rather than grouping them.

The weakness of memorization of relationships between symbols also creates confusion as a student moves into higher mathematical equations. In algebra, geometry, and calculus the numeral symbols become less relevant. For example, X = (X+1) and Y = (X-3) can be confusing because ‘X’ stands for EVERY number.

The Credit Card Example
A man is given ten credit cards, but he is NOT told that each credit card represents an amount of money in the bank and, that if used, the money is replenished the next day. He is told how to use each credit card. One card is to buy gas, one to use at the grocery store, etc. Today, he’s at the gas station and it so happened that two of his friends are already there. He decides to pay for his friend’s fuel, which they appreciate. They go on their way, but when he tries to pay for his fuel, the credit card is declined. He didn’t understand that the card represented a limited amount of money, he just assumed it could be used for any amount of fuel. That is similar to how math has been taught in the past. We may have known what to do with the numbers (symbols,) but we may not have fully understood that numbers are just symbols.

Good News, Bad News
Parents objections to the new math teaching methods are a good sign that our children are gaining a deeper understanding of mathematics than their parents did in school; however, parents need to be able to assist their children with homework.¹ This means parents need to be taught the new methods, but few if any schools have developed programs to teach parents because there is no funding available to accomplish the task.

Who Came Up With the Common Core Math Techniques?
Despite the belief that Common Core math techniques were invented in the past few years, the techniques were modeled off educational programs in certain Asian countries where they have been more successful at preparing students for college. In 2009, a coalition of State Governors and Educators worked together to build an educational program that would serve as a ‘best practices’ guide for American schools, which was the birth of Common Core.

¹Most studies indicate that students perform better when parents are involved in their children’s education. At the very least it indicates to the child that their parents place a high value on becoming educated.

PART III:  An Answer to the Question:  Good or Bad?

Implementation of Common Core/US News and World Report

Implementation of Common Core

In the past year significant political forces have targeted Common Core. The protests have been at near hysterical levels in many communities around the country. The complaints about Common Core are as follows:

  • Standards create a factory-like environment that attempt to put all students in one ‘box.’
  • Teachers focusing on test scores, not educational achievement
  • Parents don’t understand math methods
  • United States history under Common Core is un-American because it includes both positive and negative aspects of the history of our country
  • A belief that parents should define school curriculum, not the school, district, state, or federal government
  • A belief that President Obama is behind the implementation of Common Core and other conservative conspiracy theories

Many of the issues have been generated by conservative voices after a push by Republicans during the past election cycle to ignite anger and votes against public education. Almost all of the complaints would have occurred from any attempt to improve and refine American educational techniques, especially when those improvements involve standardization for all American schools.

If you believe that setting minimum standards in reading, writing, and math is bad, then Common Core is bad. If you believe that children in your community should graduate with similar skills to other students around the country, then Common Core is good. If you believe that a high school degree should be the end of a person’s education, then Common Core is bad. If you believe that every student should receive an education that would prepare them for college, then Common Core is good.

Despite the politicizing of Common Core, there is a real issue in implementing any change in education. Funding.

Any business that seeks to upgrade or improve their methods knows that there is a real cost to any change. Yet, even smart business people seem to forget that to improve our educational system requires a major funding commitment. It takes money to research and establish new programs. It takes money to train school districts, principals, and teachers. It takes money to create new teaching materials, and it takes money to educate parents.

What Common Core is missing is the funding needed to make it a success. Until we can accept the fact that a commitment to education requires a commitment to funding, then we will continue using 20th educational techniques in a 21st century world. America’s efforts to update our educational system will cost money and Common Core is a victim of a society that has abandon quality education because it costs too much.

Unfortunately, Common Core lost a lot of support in the past twelve months. Much of that was due to the political rhetoric during last year’s campaigns, but some teachers are also pulling back support. This is not surprising. As parents become more vocal in opposition, few teachers are willing to oppose parent sentiment even if they are wrong.

Common Core is not a perfect educational system, but it does attempt to better prepare America’s children for a higher level of achievement. Most of the real issues can be resolved with better funding. Just as a school built in the 1950’s is no longer relevant for 2015, education methods of the pre-information era are not relevant today. Our population is continuing to increase and the skills our children must have to thrive as adults are going to advance. Education is going to be expensive, but if we don’t pay now, we will pay more later.