Did I Accurately Guess the Fate of the Common Core? You Be the Judge (Opinion) | Big Indy News
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Did I Accurately Guess the Fate of the Common Core? You Be the Judge (Opinion)



A decade ago, back in 2012, when the Common Core was still riding high, I penned a cautionary piece imagining how the effort would look a decade hence—in 2022. In this imagined “future,” I conjured up an excerpt from a book supposedly written by my friend, the education historian Jonathan Zimmerman (he’d graciously agreed to let me use his name). The title of the fictional history was Great Promise Thwarted: The Humbling History of the Common Core, 2008-2018. Well, it’s 2022, and I thought it worth revisiting what I wrote so that readers can decide how prescient or off-the-mark my prognosticating proved to be. Here it is:


For a brief time, during 2010-2012, the success of the Common Core seemed assured. Proponents had compelling arguments. Existing state standards were generally awful. The No Child Left Behind accountability system designed to accommodate variation in state standards and assessments was problematic.

Conservative supporters argued that the Core would make it possible to do away with intrusive federal regulations governing accountability and easier to provide transparency and accountability with a light touch. Moreover, the Core would make it possible to credibly compare student and school performance across the nation, while allowing mobile students or those learning online to move across schools or programs with minimal disruption.

Proponents argued that the Core would reduce the barriers that hindered virtual schools, online instruction, and the emergence of “21st century” assessments and instructional tools. Observers generally characterized the standards as a substantial improvement on those in place in most states. And Core proponents enjoyed enormous political muscle.

A push that would have been laughable in 2006 seemed a fait accompli by 2010, with forty-plus states on board. The effort enjoyed the enthusiastic backing of the Gates Foundation (what we today would call Gates-ECB; this was before the Foundation absorbed the European Central Bank following the third Greek default), the Obama administration, nearly the whole of the education “reform” community, and Republican leaders including both members of the 2016 GOP presidential ticket. Major publishers and test-developers were quiescent or supportive, while education technology entrepreneurs were enthusiastic.

So, what went wrong? Why is it that today just eleven states use a Common Core assessment, less than a third of the states are judged to have made any effort to adhere to the Core, and the phrase “Common Core” remains polarizing and generally unpopular with Republicans, parents, and teachers? How did such a promising effort run aground?

In hindsight, four factors were responsible. Notably, none turned on technical debates over the merits and rigor of the standards. All were the product, to varying degrees, of the “we’re-in-a-hurry” hubris that has so often humbled would-be social reformers. Indeed, as one of the Core’s great champions, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation president Chester E. Finn, Jr., prophetically wrote in early 2012, “It will, of course, be ironic as well as unfortunate if the Common Core ends up in the dustbin of history as a result of actions and comments by its supporters.”

First, an effort that began as a bipartisan, state-driven enterprise, spearheaded by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, started to look to skeptics like a federally-inspired, politicized project. The Department of Education’s decision to link federal funding to the Core in its Race to the Top program, its NCLB waiver effort, and its “ESEA blueprint,” and the provision of $350 million in federal funds for Core-related tests, all alienated anti-Washington conservatives who would have remained neutral if the question had merely concerned states collaborating to set standards in math and English language arts.

By the time nationally influential conservative pundit George Will questioned in 2012 whether the federal government had exceeded its legal authority, the challenge for proponents was clear. Indeed, “Tea Party” conservatives came to regard the Common Core as part and parcel of Obama administration efforts to extend the federal role in domestic policy, an extension of contemporaneous fights over health care, spending, clean energy, the auto industry, housing, and financial regulation.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan demonstrated an unfortunate knack for making it appear that the Core was a pet Obama project—initially, when he excoriated South Carolina in 2012 for expressing second thoughts, but most famously when he futilely blasted the dozen states that announced their “implementation hiatus” in 2014. All of this served to make the Core a partisan question viewed with suspicion by conservatives, undermining the bipartisan support needed to sustain implementation in many “red” and “purple” states.

Second, the Common Core advocates were tripped up by their own impatience. After nearly all states adopted the Common Core in an early rush, proponents exhibited little interest in making the case for its merits, responding to critics, or explaining what was in store. Outside of the occasional op-ed, little sustained attention was devoted to explaining the changes or building broad-based support.

For instance, hardly anyone other than Core enthusiasts realized that the comfortable, familiar high school math curriculum of math, algebra and geometry was to be eliminated and replaced with the antiseptically titled Integrated Math I, II, and III. When the magnitude of the shift became clear in 2014, confused parents and irate math teachers bombarded legislators and state board members with calls to delay implementation or alter course.

Enthusiasts concentrated on designing instructional materials, consulting with states and districts, and training leaders and teachers, seemingly presuming that the public knew what they were up to and supported their effort. In the event, this turned out to be a fatal miscalculation. The early success of the Common Core was remarkable, but proponents failed to recognize that this quick success meant few voters or legislators really understood what was involved or that real success would depend crucially on the breadth and depth of support.

Third, Core advocates never did a good job of explaining how their efforts intersected with other reform priorities. Observers asked about whether the math assessment would strangle the abilities of charter schools or specialty district schools to use nonstandard math curricula. Core proponents never really answered such questions in public, tending instead to favor quiet, technical fixes (in this case abandoning mandatory “through-course” assessment) that didn’t address broader concerns.

Skeptics wondered whether the testing “windows” needed to assess all children with the new computer-assisted tests would be so wide as to undermine the viability of sophisticated value-added evaluation systems that states were eagerly building. The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews pointed out, in 2012, that the new assessments would “delay, if not stop altogether, the national move toward rating teachers by student score improvements” and that radical change would force systems “to wait years to work out the kinks in the tests” before they could resume those efforts. In hindsight, the backlash produced by the chaos over teacher evaluation and school accountability systems during 2014 and 2015 was predictable and preventable.

Finally, insufficient public attention to practical questions of cost, technology, and practice ultimately proved crippling. Despite frenzied efforts to support new assessments, instructional materials, and implementation during 2011-2014, interviews from that era with state legislators, district officials, educators, and parents showed remarkably little awareness of the costs and practical difficulties that lay ahead.

When the 2012 technology scan showed that most districts had the requisite technology platform, few realized that the minimum specs had been dumbed-down or that this meant the new tests would sacrifice most of the hoped-for features—turning them into little more than traditional paper-and-pencil tests taken on a computer. At the same time, lousy records and a desire to avoid embarrassment meant that many districts had overstated their capacity in the tech census; they were suddenly faced with millions or even hundreds of millions in unanticipated new expenses, even as they dealt with the practical headaches of inadequate technology.

And when the price tag for the full cost of new technology, training, leadership, teacher preparation, and all the rest became clear in 2014 and 2015, just as states emerging from the Great Recession were restoring cuts to state agencies and hoping to trim taxes, it was no surprise that a slew of states decided they’d keep the Core standards but also their old assessments, instructional materials, training, and teacher preparation.

The Core is still with us, of course, but it remains a shadow of what its more optimistic proponents envisioned a decade ago.

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Adnan Syed of ‘Serial,’ Newly Freed, Is Hired by Georgetown University



Adnan Syed, who was freed in September after he spent 23 years in prison fighting a murder conviction that was chronicled in the hit podcast “Serial,” has been hired by Georgetown University as an associate for an organization whose work mirrors the efforts that led to his release, the university has announced.

Mr. Syed, the subject of the 2014 podcast and pop-culture sensation that raised questions about whether he had received a fair trial after being convicted of strangling his high school classmate and onetime girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999, will work for Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative.

Mr. Syed, who was 17 at the time of Ms. Lee’s death in Baltimore, has steadfastly maintained his innocence.

The university said that Mr. Syed, now 41, will help support programs at the organization, such as a class in which students reinvestigate wrongful convictions and seek to “bring innocent people home” by creating short documentaries about their findings. The program, founded in 2016, “brings together leading scholars, practitioners, students and those affected by the criminal justice system to tackle the problem of mass incarceration,” according to its website.

Georgetown University, which is in Washington, said that in the year leading up to his release, Mr. Syed was enrolled in the university’s bachelor of liberal arts program at the Maryland prison where he was incarcerated.

“To go from prison to being a Georgetown student and then to actually be on campus on a pathway to work for Georgetown at the Prisons and Justice Initiative, it’s a full circle moment,” Mr. Syed said in a statement. “P.J.I. changed my life. It changed my family’s life. Hopefully I can have the same kind of impact on others.”

He added that he hoped to continue his education at Georgetown and go to law school.

The new job this month culminated what has been a remarkable year for Mr. Syed, whose case has again received widespread public attention after a flurry of recent legal activity.

In September, Mr. Syed was released from prison after a judge overturned his murder conviction. Prosecutors said at the time that an investigation had uncovered various problems related to his case, including the potential involvement of two suspects and key evidence that prosecutors might have failed to provide to Mr. Syed’s lawyers.

In October, prosecutors in Baltimore dropped the charges against Mr. Syed after DNA testing on items that had never been fully examined proved Mr. Syed’s innocence, officials said.

Ms. Lee’s family filed an appeal with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals after prosecutors dropped the charges.

On Nov. 4, the court said in an order that the appeal could be heard in court in February.

Marc Howard, the director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative, said in a statement that Mr. Syed’s “commitment to the program and to his education was clear from the moment he stepped into the classroom.”

He added that Mr. Syed “is one of the most resilient and inspiring people I’ve ever met, and he has so much to offer our team and the other students in P.J.I. programs.”

In a Georgetown University article about the hiring, Mr. Syed said that he was in disbelief when he first saw a flier for the program.

“It became this domino effect to see us be accepted,” he said. “It made it become something real in the eyes of others, that there are opportunities. There can be a sense of hope: a sense of hope that things can get better, a sense of hope that I can work hard and still achieve something, a sense of hope that I can still do something that my family will be proud of.”

His attachment to the school was evident on Sept. 19, when he walked out of prison for the first time since he was a teenager.

Amid a throng of reporters and his supporters, Mr. Syed walked down the courthouse steps in Baltimore, smiling. He gave a wave.

And in his hand, he carried a binder with a Georgetown sticker. His graded papers and tests were inside.

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At Berkeley Law, a Debate Over Zionism, Free Speech and Campus Ideals



“Supporting Palestinian liberation does not mean opposition to Jewish people or the Jewish religion,” the group said in a statement to the Berkeley law community. Members of the group did not respond to messages seeking an interview.

After learning about the bylaw, Mr. Chemerinsky met with the university’s Hillel rabbi and spoke with several Jewish students, but, aside from concerns within the law school, the reaction was relatively muted, he said.

That changed, he said, after Kenneth L. Marcus, the civil rights chief of the U.S. Education Department during the Trump administration, wrote about the bylaw in September in The Jewish Journal under the explosive headline “Berkeley Develops Jewish Free Zones.”

Mr. Marcus wrote that the bylaw was “frightening and unexpected, like a bang on the door in the night,” and said that free speech does not protect discriminatory conduct.

The article went viral.

Mr. Chemerinsky said he learned about Mr. Marcus’s article, which he described as “inflammatory and distorted,” while he was in Los Angeles for a conference. Mr. Chemerinsky said he typed out a response to the article, which was appended to it, and then didn’t think much of it. That afternoon, he was deluged by emails. At an alumni event that night, the law school’s perceived hostility to Jews was “all anyone wanted to talk about.”

In an interview, Mr. Marcus, a Berkeley law school alumnus, said that he was contacted by law students there who were concerned about the bylaw. He said he spent weeks trying to support them and wrote his article after Berkeley did not “rectify the problem.”

Not allowing Zionist speakers, he said, was a proxy for prohibiting Jews. The provisions, he said, are “aimed at the Jewish community and those who support the Jewish community,” even while acknowledging that the policy could allow Jewish speakers and bar those who are not Jewish.

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‘Better Defined By Their Strengths’: 5 Ways to Support Students With Learning Differences



“People with learning differences are human,” wrote Deanna White, a neurodiversity advocate and parent learning coach in response to a question we posed on LinkedIn. “Unique individuals and wonderful humans that are better defined by their strengths. So stop focusing on the weakness.”

We invited our social media followers across Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter to weigh in on the most effective way schools can better support students with learning differences.

Responses ranged from shifting educators’ mindset—like highlighting student strengths—to more far-reaching changes that would require schoolwide or district support.

Focus on students’ strengths

There are many ways of encouraging students to play to their strengths, as educators Winston Sakurai and Phyllis Fagell demonstrated in an August 2022 article by Education Week Assistant Editor Denisa Superville.

They detailed how they shared their own learning struggles as a way to connect with their students. Their personal successes show students, who may be struggling academically or socially, that anything is possible.

Here’s what other educators had to say.

1. Help them understand their learning strengths and challenges and growing them as strong self-advocates.

2. Devoting time and money to developing teachers’ abilities to differentiate.

– Amy S.

By having high expectations and giving them exposure to high-quality materials and experiences, even ones that seem “above them.” They will shock us with their insights every time.

– Angela P. 😒😒🥴

Meet students where they are

In a 2015 primer on the topic, EdWeek Assistant Editor Sarah D. Sparks wrote about how “differentiated instruction”—the process of identifying students’ individual learning strengths, needs, and interests and adapting lessons to match them—became a popular approach to helping diverse students learn together. Respondents largely agreed.

Time to work with every student. If you can meet with a child for a bit of time to help with exactly what she or he needs, it might ignite both learning and understanding.

Alison K.

So many ways…start with environment, a.k.a. The Third Teacher.

  • Reduce obstacles

  • Increase supports

  • Meet kids where they are

(h/t @drncgarrett)

Matt R.

Small class sizes, strong positive teacher/student relationships, differentiated instruction, and reflection.

Yvonne E.

Smaller class sizes

In a 2017 Opinion essay, former teacher Marc Vicenti wrote about “the daily wear and tear on educators when trying to juggle a full teaching load and meaningful relationships with lively young people who all have different needs and experiences.”

“We can either choose to be less effective in our practice or exhaust ourselves—neither of which is beneficial to students or our own well-being,” he wrote.

Smaller class sizes are one way of mitigating the risk of burnout while working to meet each student’s needs.

Small classes, small schools, local control. I am the principal in a pretty small school in a small community and I know every child, and every family and we can build programs to meet our students’ needs. A country run or state run school system can’t do that.

Ryan G.

Increase funding to actually lower the student-to-teacher ratio. This allows teachers to give more time to the individual.

Cathleen W.

Fewer standardized tests

Standardized tests have long been criticized for narrowing instruction and for holding all students to the same standard when “students enter school at varying levels and learn and grow at different rates.”

The backlash against standardized testing renewed interest in alternative ways to evaluate students’ learning progress, like “performance assessments—the idea of measuring what students can do, not merely what they know”.

STOP standardized testing.

Dawn W.

Fewer standardized or timed tests, teaching to mastery, not according to a schedule.


Give students a voice

Sometimes it’s best to go to the source to discern how to best tackle an issue. Giving these students a voice can not only empower them in their learning, but also help educators understand how to have the biggest impact.

Ask them how they learn and what helps. Give them a voice!

Grisel W.

Yes! Listening to what students need and giving them a voice is something we need to do for all students, but especially those who need more help in the classroom.

Victoria D.

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