Uncertainty and unknowns beneath the gloss of Common Core

January 29, 2013
Peter Schrag

Peter Schrag

Listening to the people at the State Department of Education who are charged with California’s transition to the new Common Core K-12 learning standards, as I did (twice) earlier this month, you’d have to conclude that it’s all going pretty well.

Everything’s on schedule, local districts are moving ahead to “varying degrees” to get ready, teachers are champing at the bit to be liberated from the chains of rote learning and fill-in-the-bubble multiple-choice tests, and there’ll be materials to support the new focus on analytical skills, critical thinking, problem solving and essay writing.

By spring 2015, the state officials say, the kids will be ready – many of them anyway – for the “Smarter Balanced” computer-based test assessments that will measure how well they’re doing. (Yes, Virginia, “smarter balanced” is a test, not a shoe or a brand of margarine.) Anyway, they say, local districts will have a lot of flexibility on when to get on board.

If all the foregoing resonates with a bit of skepticism, it’s meant to.

For state Department of Education officials, from Superintendent Tom Torlakson down, optimism is part of the job description. But California, one of some forty states that have signed up for Common Core, faces an enormous task not only because of the apparent magnitude of the change, but because its education system, and the state Department of Education itself, are so badly strapped in so many ways.

In the past few years we’ve laid off thousands of teachers; our average classes are among the largest in the nation; we have the fewest counselors and librarians per pupil; our per-pupil spending is near the bottom, even after Gov. Jerry Brown’s much-ballyhooed tax hike. And now we will take on this change as well.

The other day Torlakson estimated that it will cost $1 billion for California to make the change, and that, too, may turn out to be optimistic. So far most districts have been left dangling with little help other than the information – and there’s a fair amount of that – they can glean from the Department’s websites.

Even the optimism at the top – all of it from good people with good intentions – has some weasel wording. What does it mean that districts are getting ready to “varying degrees”? How many teachers are eager to change?

And a lot is left unsaid. The state may adopt texts and other classroom materials for Common Core, but the locals will have to buy them out of already strapped budgets.

Tens of thousands of teachers who have followed the same “basic skills” lesson plans – read “drill and kill” – all their careers will have to be retrained. And so, in a manner of speaking, will parents. Will there be any way to compare scores on the old California standards tests with Smarter Balanced?

And who will train the test examiners judging the essays? And what’s being done to get the next generation of teachers ready for Common Core? In reply to a query, Linda Darling-Hammond, the chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, said  “there is a lot going on in ed schools to rethink curriculum in light of the common core, and the CCTC is also working to revamp its accreditation and licensing standards to incorporate Common Core.” But there’s a big difference between “rethinking” and actually turning the ed-school battleship.

There’s a lot to celebrate in Common Core, which was created under the aegis of the nation’s governors and the chief state school officers, and which may be the nearest thing the nation will ever have to national school standards. And it probably will liberate many teachers to be more innovative – to really teach and not just follow a script that asks students to memorize and regurgitate. If it’s handled right, it might even get more people from the top ranks of their college classes to choose teaching as a career.

But anyone who’s followed the pendulum swings in American education will also regard this latest change with a great deal of caution. For most of the past century, we’ve seesawed from progressive education with open-ended questions and lots of emphasis on creativity and analytical skills to “the basics.”

In the1960s, following the Soviet launch of Sputnik, there was a great swing to new curricula – the new math, the new biology, PSSC physics. I was part of a group that designed a new course in American history. But the backlash began soon enough when parents decided that with all that fancy stuff, say in math, their kids weren’t learning to add or subtract, and when employers complained their new hires couldn’t read the manuals they were hoping to train them with.

So beginning in the late 1970s, we swung back. Direct instruction, so called, replaced “discovery learning.” Phonics replaced look-say and “whole language” in the teaching of reading.

The advocates of Common Core say that students will still have to learn to read and add and multiply, though even here there have been great debates. Is it still necessary to learn your times table when everybody now has access to a cheap calculator? And what kind of facts do you need to memorize when Google is now at almost everyone’s fingertips?

Two of those at the Department of Education charged with the Common Core implementation, Deb Sigman and Barbara Murchison, say that because California’s old curricular standards aren’t all that different from Common Core, the changeover won’t be all that tough. But then why would all those teachers be champing at the bit for liberation?

The goal is worth it, but get ready for a choppy ride.


Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report.

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