Nan Austin

On Campus: Confusion grows over Common Core standards

For Independence Day week, the nation’s growing confusion over Common Core standards seemed like a good topic to tackle.

I’ve heard the pros and cons from the schools’ side. To understand the arguments solely against the standards, I watched the 10-video “Stop Common Core” series narrated by Jane Robbins. While it does take some time, Robbins presents concerns in a way that’s easy to understand.

Here are key concerns she laid out, and what I’m seeing in classrooms, boardrooms and the research:

All too Common

Robbins’ argument that nationwide standards will drive curriculum makes some sense. For years, textbooks were keyed to Texas standards because of its statewide buying policy, so we know purchasing power will drive what publishers develop. That’s a savings for those buying off the rack, a major expense for those who want to buy custom.

But to date, most materials off the rack are a poor fit, with many older textbooks basically just getting a retrofit with new covers, local textbook choosers say.

An in-depth analysis of Common Core-aligned texts by Morgan Polikoff found only 27 percent to 38 percent of widely available fourth-grade math textbooks lined up perfectly with the standards, and roughly a quarter of the standards were not covered in the books. Polikoff is with the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.

Many local districts, including Modesto City Schools, are developing many of their own materials or patchworking from a variety of sources.

On the merits

Robbins argues that the English standards push out fine literature, asking students to read menus and manuals instead.

That ignores the wide range of high-quality nonfiction available in every school library, as well as history and science textbooks that have been gathering dust under the No Child Left Behind standards.

Common Core math is disdained as pushing algebra into high school years, not leaving time for calculus.

Common Core switches from separate math subjects into using everything a child has learned to solve realistic problems. Students in early grades study subtraction and addition. Third- through fifth-graders learn multiplication, division and fractions. Grades six through eight study ratios, proportions and linear algebra.

High schools have a choice of updating the old system or switching to what’s called integrated math, a mix of geometry, algebra, trigonometry and precalculus. High schools can offer condensed courses for the mathematically gifted to sprint ahead and make the leap to AP calculus. But it is a thorny issue every district will have to deal with in its own way.

On the cost

Computers and computerized tests will cost taxpayers more, and retraining teachers will cost them a lot more, Robbins correctly points out.

The push to computerized tests will indeed force districts to buy technology, a move that would have happened anyway. Even watching television takes computer savvy these days.

I would argue that professional development for teachers is money well spent. For example, there is a move to strengthen math concepts and teaching skills for elementary grades.

The taxpayer issue stands as one that can be judged only with time and results.

On the politics

Robbins lays out that state governors and state superintendents of schools led the movement for a common set of national standards, but she focuses on the federal arm twist using competitive grants and waivers from the expired No Child Left Behind Act to encourage states to switch to Common Core.

Rewriting the expired act so 50 states won’t be fighting for waivers is one thought here. But I lose the thread where encouraging participation leaps to controlling the program.

The hoopla over controversial figures having similar discussions decades earlier, and Common Core getting backing from wealthy philanthropists, notably the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, gets political traction. But the standards are here now. Let’s look at them.

Overall, I found myself alternating between sharing concerns and utter frustration as issues took on political overtones and veered away from classroom reality. There are good reasons to be on watch as Common Core rolls out in our neighborhood schools, but I’m not convinced the naysayers are looking at what matters.