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Common Core State Standards Fear-mongering

Phyllis Shlaffly’s July 21 article, posted in the Eagle Forum pieces together a number of undocumented sources commenting on the prospect of a national curriculum and the Common Core State Standards. Following is her article and my responses to her concerns and comments from the perspective of a public school teacher and educational publisher.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

National Curriculum is Bad for America

More than 200 distinguished educators have issued a critical response to the U.S. Department of Education’s plan to develop and impose a national curriculum and assessments based on national standards. Here are some direct quotes from their public statement:

“We … oppose the call for a nationalized curriculum. … We also oppose the ongoing effort by the U.S. Department of Education to have … national curriculum guidelines, national curriculum models, national instructional materials, and national assessments. …

… We do not agree that a one-size-fits-all, centrally controlled curriculum for every K-12 subject makes sense for this country or for any other sizable country. Such an approach threatens to close the door on educational innovation, freezing in place an unacceptable status quo and hindering efforts to develop academically rigorous curricula. …

Moreover, transferring power to Washington, D.C., will only further subordinate educational decisions to political imperatives. … Our decentralized fifty-state system provides some limitations on special-interest power, ensuring that other voices can be heard, that wrongheaded reforms don’t harm children in every state, and that reforms that effectively serve children’s needs can find space to grow and succeed. …

First, there is no constitutional or statutory basis for national standards, national assessments, or national curricula. …

Second, there is no consistent evidence that a national curriculum leads to high academic achievement. …

Third, the Common Core definition of “college readiness” is below what is currently required to enter most four-year state colleges. …

Second, there is no consistent evidence that a national curriculum leads to high academic achievement. …

Fourth, there is no body of evidence for a “best” design for curriculum sequences in any subject. …

Fifth, there is no evidence to justify a single high school curriculum for all students. …”

First of all, the Common Core State Standards was and is a product of state, educational, and private-based interests, not federal interests. True, that the U.S. Department of Education has endorsed and encouraged states to adopt these standards with various carrot and stick approaches, such as the Race to the Top funding. However, states have already and will continue to adjust the standards according to their own interests. The standards are completely subject to state legislative control and are not a “one size fits all,” “my way or the highway” national mandate. As of this date 43 of 50 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards.

Secondly, Ms. Schlafly’s arguments regarding lack of rigor and research are simply uninformed. Only two of the states (Massachusetts and California) had more rigorous or exacting standards. So, in terms of college readiness, the levels of expectation have been notched up considerably. With respect to research on how a national curriculum affects student achievement, Ms. Schafly confuses standards with curriculum. A brief or detailed glance at any set of the Common Core State Standards will show what standards are all about: a basic grade-to-grade scope and sequence of instructional concepts and procedures. Adopting national standards does not and cannot affect student achievement. Implementing these standards via a written curriculum does drive learning. The Common Core organization has established a curricular mapping project, in which optional curricular resources have been aligned to the standards. Yes, teachers will quibble over whether serial commas should be introduced prior to introductory commas, but these are in-house matters. Yes, teachers will have real concerns regarding how the Common Core State Standards will be applied, e.g. national high stakes testing, but not with the standards themselves. And the U.S. Department of Education is not advocating a national assessment based upon the Common Core State Standards. Individual states have joined testing cohorts to explore revamping standards-based assessments, but to imply that U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is spearheading a national curriculum and assessment plan in which every third-grader is on the same page in their history textbook on any given day and taking the same standardized test to assess achievement is ludicrous.

Lastly, Ms. Schlafly’s concerns about centralism and constitutional/statutory authority are understandable, given her consistent states-rights conservatism. However, in a pragmatic sense there really are advantages to some semblance of a national educational framework. Two examples should suffice: Currently, publishers have to design curriculum according to the whims and special interests (note California’s recent legislative inclusion of gay rights instructional mandates) of 50 different states. This, of course, inflates the price per textbook to absurd levels. Additionally, this decentralization actually induces special interest meddling via political, private educationpreneurial, and publisher lobbying. Another advantage to a basic national framework is from the perspective of the college admission process. Currently, the job of evaluating transcripts for college applicants is difficult at best and discriminatory at worst. An “A” in a Boston college prep high school is not the same as an “A” in some Atlanta schools (cheating scandal aside). Thus, colleges have to lean more on nationally normed tests, such as the SAT and ACT, to compare “apples to apples.” So, the lack of nationally accepted standards actually forces colleges to lean more heavily on nationally standardized tests and less on what conservatives favor in terms of local and state control of the curriculum.

Mark Pennington is a seventh-grade English-language arts teacher and educational publisher of reading and English-language arts curricula. Visit his Pennington Publishing website for curricular resources aligned to the Common Core State Standards. 

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