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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Four Students Are Injured in Shooting Near Philadelphia High School



Four teenage students were injured in a shooting near a high school in West Philadelphia on Wednesday, just after classes were dismissed for Thanksgiving break, the authorities said.

The students, two 15-year-old girls and two 16-year-old boys, were taken to hospitals and were in stable condition, John Stanford, first deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, said at a news conference on Wednesday.

The shooting happened just after 11:30 a.m. outside a beauty salon and about a block from Overbrook High School. Deputy Commissioner Stanford said a group of students had been standing outside the salon when someone inside a passing silver S.U.V. fired at them.

The police did not name the victims. One 15-year-old girl suffered gunshot wounds to her left shoulder and left thigh, and the other 15-year-old girl suffered a gunshot wound to her left shoulder, the police said in a statement. A 16-year-old boy was shot in the left hand and had a graze wound on his face, and the other 16-year-old boy suffered a gunshot wound to his right leg.

The police said that no arrests had been made and no weapon had been recovered. Deputy Commissioner Stanford said it was too early in the investigation to know if the students had been targeted.

“Just another incident of gun violence in our city,” he said at the news conference.

Gun violence in Philadelphia has been particularly bad this year. More than 1,400 people in the city had been shot as of August, a higher toll than in the much larger cities of New York and Los Angeles. Officials are struggling to respond to the number of guns on the street. For every illegal gun seized by the police in Philadelphia between 1999 and 2019, about three guns were bought or sold legally, according to a city report released this year.

“We’re going to have to have some real serious help to get our arms around our city problem with these guns,” Tony B. Watlington, the Philadelphia schools superintendent, said at a news conference on Wednesday.

In September, a 14-year-old student, Nicolas Elizalde, was killed and four others were injured in a shooting near Roxborough High School. The five teenagers were leaving the field after a football scrimmage when the shooting occurred. Roxborough High School is about five miles north of Overbrook.

Four people between the ages of 15 and 21 have been arrested in connection with the Roxborough High School shooting.

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Sizing Up the First ‘Normal’ School Year



The busy holiday season is here, and before we know it, many of us will be gathering for parties, visiting relatives and ringing in the New Year with friends. (Now is a good time to stock up on at-home rapid tests and high-quality masks and to consider getting an updated booster, if you haven’t already.)

Schools are also winding down the first half of what, by many accounts, was the first truly back-to-normal school year since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

As we approach winter break, we thought we’d take a look at how the school year is unfolding during this stage of the pandemic. I spoke with my colleague Sarah Mervosh, who covers education.

What has the school year looked like so far?

Masks are not required in an estimated 99 percent of districts, according to Burbio, a school tracking site. I think by and large there’s a recognition in schools that the coronavirus is here to stay, and we’re learning to live with it.

Last year, we heard a lot about behavioral issues and mental health issues. Students were still adjusting from the traumas and the disruptions of the pandemic and adjusting to being back in the classroom. But this year, I’m hearing less about that and more about the urgency around helping students recover academically.

How are students doing academically?

During the pandemic, kids learned less. We got a sense of how seriously they were affected this fall with the results of a key national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests fourth and eighth graders in math and reading. The results were pretty devastating.

Eighth grade math scores fell in 49 out of 50 states. Only about a quarter of eighth graders were proficient, down from about a third in 2019. Fourth graders fared a little better: There were declines in 41 states in math, with just 36 percent of fourth graders proficient in the subject, down from 41 percent in 2019. Reading ability declined a bit less across the board, but scores still fell in more than half the states. In both fourth and eighth grade, only about one in three kids were proficient.

The stakes are high for kids because establishing literacy in early elementary school is important for their future success in high school and beyond. Similarly, it’s important for eighth graders to be set up for success as high school freshmen, a crucial transition year. And districts and schools are on a tight timetable to use pandemic relief money to help kids catch up.

How so?

There were three rounds of pandemic relief funding, and the last one, at $123 billion, was the federal government’s single largest investment in American schools. That’s about $2,400 per student. At least 20 percent of the money has to be spent on academic recovery and needs to be allocated by 2024. This is a big year for actually spending the money and getting the interventions that kids need.

What approaches are working?

There has been a lot of focus on tutoring. When done in small groups of three to four students with a trained tutor multiple times a week during the school day, it can be quite effective. It can be even more effective than lowering class sizes, for example, or summer school.

Some experts have advocated extending the school day or year, and lots of places are doing summer school. No one strategy is going to be the thing that is potent enough to help kids recover.

What about the argument that every child experienced the pandemic, so if they’re all a little behind, it might make less of a difference?

This is a very important question. I can see why it’s appealing to say, “Well, everyone was affected, so why does it really matter? This whole cohort of children is sort of in a similar place.” But that’s not actually true.

We know that in fourth grade math, for example, Black, Hispanic and Native American students lost more ground than white and Asian students. This deepened divides in outcomes, because white and Asian students were already scoring at a higher level for many reasons, which include structural societal advantages. And we are also seeing a troubling drop-off among the country’s lowest-performing students, particularly among younger students and in reading. So it is the very students who were struggling most coming into the pandemic who were most affected, and will now need the most help.

What does the future look like?

The pandemic and everything that came with it disrupted kids’ lives in huge ways. So that means that this recovery is going to need to be long-term. I’ve talked to people who are concerned that one day, when this is all sort of in the rearview mirror, we’re going to forget that the pandemic happened and we’re going to blame some kids for being behind. Or we’re going to say, “Well, these kids recovered from the pandemic easily. Why didn’t those kids?” It’s important to remember that some kids have a higher mountain to climb. They have a longer path to recovery, and this is not going to be something that is fixed overnight.

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We recently asked students how being back in the classroom felt this year. Thanks to all of you who wrote in.

“It’s really stressful. I’m growing more nervous, anxious and stressed constantly. I sleep less, constantly worrying about everything and nothing. I feel like I have no relaxation time, that I can’t breathe. Covid times has made me incredibly anxious, and I don’t know how to calm down. My mind is too active.” — Yuxuan, Paris

“The school year started off really strong, but around mid-September the overall atmosphere of my campus changed drastically. Everyone began to suddenly slump into a deep depressive state and fall behind in their work. Professors were affected, too. Many of them would come to class drained and not even remotely enthusiastic about what they were teaching. I would hear students talk about failing back-to-back tests and just not caring.” — Nicholas L., Rohnert Park, Calif.

“The school year hasn’t been completely terrible, but it hasn’t been perfect. I feel like lots of students lost the ability to socially mature, resulting in a kind of split between their maturity level and actual grade level. I was in the seventh grade when everything stopped so I missed a chunk of middle school. Returning to school has been hard especially because I lost so much motivation and I never had the desire to really get it back. My biggest concern is that I won’t be prepared to enter adulthood because there was a gap in adolescent socializing.” — Zen James, Miami

“Overall, I would say that I am thrilled to be back in school and am having a fun and enriching experience. Seeing the full faces of my teachers and peers — and being forced to roll out of bed instead of opening a Zoom meeting on my phone — has definitely helped concepts in the classroom stick. For me, the larger concern is the decay of my healthy habits. Covid (and the online school) enabled me to sit in my room for hours on end, practically developing an entertainment dependency. I often scroll through my phone or watch videos for hours, and there are many times I glance at the clock in awe at how much time has flown right by me.” — Jake Glasser, Mercer Island, Wash.

“My school year so far has been difficult. I’ve noticed that I’ve distanced myself from my peers. I’m usually a hard-driven student with a strict schedule that I push myself to follow. Ever since the pandemic began and my school was pushed online, my will to stick to that schedule diminished. I’ve never felt burnout this way before Covid.” — Presha Kandel, Conroe, Texas



Thanks for reading. We’ll be off Friday for Thanksgiving. Stay safe this holiday, and we’ll be back Monday. — Jonathan

Email your thoughts to virusbriefing@nytimes.com.

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Gratitude for Arts and Science Educators



This month, as we’re thinking about gratitude, I’m reflecting on the tremendous impact that educators have had on my life. I would not be where I am today without the many teachers, counselors, librarians, and mentors that have lifted me up, and, now as an educator and mentor myself, I hope to pass that encouragement on to the next generation of students.

From the teachers that pushed me to do my best in class to the guidance counselors that helped me apply to universities, I am grateful that so many people in my life helped me become a first-generation college student, and now a successful artist and scientist. Despite attending a Title 1 school in Memphis, Tennessee with defunded arts programs and a 95% math proficiency fail rate, my educators were dedicated to ensuring my peers and I had every opportunity in STEM and the Arts that they could manage. In my senior year, I received a full scholarship to attend American University in Washington, DC as a Computer Science major.

I quickly realized that I was set up for failure. As a first-generation college student, 900 miles away from my family for the first time, I was already trying to get my bearings, but the real struggles came in my introductory STEM courses. I was an eager and accomplished learner through grade school, and I was in the university’s honors program on a scholarship, so why did it feel like everyone was miles ahead of me every time I stepped foot in a STEM class? Thankfully, I had many professors and advisors that took me under their wings and helped me ‘catch up’ in math and science while also fostering my interests in arts and design as a corollary to my STEM work. Because of their willingness to mentor me, I graduated with a B.S. in Computer Science and left DC for graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, where I earned an M.S. in Lighting in 2021 and am currently a Ph.D. student.

Through all of my experiences, I’ve found that both the arts and sciences are incredibly important components of a well-rounded education. I also understand that these programs are historically underserved, especially for low-income and disadvantaged students. The Arts[HA1]  teach students creativity and confidence, and STEM teaches students problem-solving skills and technological literacy. When these two subjects are left out of a child’s education, they miss out on key life skills and opportunities to explore potential passions and careers. I am so thankful for the educators in my life that enriched my educational journey with opportunities in STEM and the A[HA2] rts, and I hope to provide those opportunities back to more children.

As the reigning Miss United States, I am given the opportunity to nationally advocate for a cause of my choice. I have chosen to advocate for the importance of STEM and Arts education through my nonprofit Art Technically. Every child deserves a chance to grow as an artist and scientist regardless of their background. I have grown so much as an artist and scientist thanks to the dedicated educators that helped guide me. As a mentor to students in both STEM and the Arts, I am helping them grow as well-rounded individuals prepared to do great things for the world, just as my teachers did for me. That opportunity is what I am most grateful for.

Lily K. Donaldson is the reigning Miss United States and a Ph.D. student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studying Built Ecologies within the Institute for Energy, the Built Environment, and Smart Systems (EBESS). Originally from Memphis, she’s passionate about advancing educational equity within traditionally underserved communities in the South and beyond, especially related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and Arts education. She’s the founder of Art Technically, a nonprofit dedicated to providing STEM and Arts educational opportunities to students at Title 1 and rural K-12 schools.

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