Common Core: Baby and Bath Water

Maggie Gallagher has a piece about Indiana’s suspension of implementation of the Common Core here. You should read it. It’s okay, I’ll wait here.

I am implementing the Common Core standards myself, according to procedures I understand to be best practice. I have not even considered the possibility that the Common Core includes other guidelines — and that’s a good thing, as this article makes clear. I guess I should be proud and concerned that I have only read the Common Core standards and not the practical recommendations for Common Core implementation.

I’m a little concerned because I suppose if I’m going to implement something I should read all of it, but I’m proud because the confidence I have in the training I’ve received over the last few years has guided me to avoid the idiotic mistakes that launched the Indiana controversy.

I’m worried because the knee-jerk association of “watered-down” with “Common Core” could cause people to oppose what I’m doing without hearing me out. It’s the usual conservative self-defeat: what could a mere teacher know about education? We all went to school. We know what should happen there.

The Common Core is a new attempt at a national curriculum and thus it is, as the National Review article claims, trying to undermine local control of curriculum. That’s a fact, just as true of CC as it was of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). As a Catholic with conservative political leanings, I’m not a fan of that. I am a fan of rigorous, challenging curriculum that imparts skills and knowledge in a memorable and compelling fashion, and, in the practical and content standards of the Common Core, I see improvement over the standards my state used to use. The fact that a curriculum purports to be national is not enough to toss it all out as a Commie plot, as conservative education “reformers” are wont to do.

The trigger for the Indiana controversy, according to Ms. Gallagher’s article, was a series of third-grade math assignments that eschewed repetition, including only four items each evening, but attempted to draw analysis- and evaluation-level answers from 8-year-olds after they have left the classroom.

This should not have become a controversy. The school should simply have fired the teacher and the principal who backed the teacher up and the publishing company that provided support for such idiocy. This is not best practice and they should all know it, because that fact is well-documented in the research literature. No matter how many white papers the Gates Foundation or the Common Core folks put out, they cannot undo the good work done by Robert Marzano and many other serious researchers, including conservative darling E.D. Hirsch (one of my personal heroes), who have established that repetitive practice is important in skill acquisition and knowledge retention. In his book Classroom Instruction that Works, Marzano et al. tell us that 18-20 repetitions are necessary to drive retention to the 80% mastery level. For third grade math — the grade where I learned my basic math facts from 0 to 12 — the repetitions must be much more and the mastery level must be at or above 95%. Without those facts, math instruction is lost on students, and the Indiana parents were right to key on this. Where I fear they err is in romanticizing their cause: this will inspire others to chuck the Common Core as a whole when there is actually some good in it.

The article describes people who purport to be professional educators and education publishers defending the idea that repetition is not important to learning. Fire those people. I’m with anyone who wants to do that; however, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. There are some really nice things in the Common Core that we can put to good use.

I’m not defending the Common Core in its entirety — because I haven’t read all of it. Now that I read Ms. Gallagher’s article, it’s clear that I’m not implementing Common Core as a whole — and, based on what’s happening in Indiana, that’s something of a relief. I just hope my own students’ parents will give me time to explain that to them, as they will surely challenge me.

National Review is one of the few information sources I generally trust for my political news. Unfortunately, as an educator, I see the coverage Ms. Gallagher gives to the Indiana story as sensationalistic and likely to produce overreactions among parents who are usually my natural allies. I’m talking about the parents of my students who actually want me to push them harder and make the mathematical element in their educations more rigorous and challenging. Those same parents may now retch and jerk their knees at the mere mention of Common Core, tainting some well-written practical and content standards with their appropriately negative reactions to this story (and probably others) of poor implementation.

I’m the last guy to defend the American education establishment, either. As a group, we’re not good, to redirect Chevy Chase’s assessment of Rodney Dangerfield’s golf skills in Caddyshack. I’ve not always been as good as I am now, and I am going to get better because I can and I want to improve. On too many occasions earlier in my career, I was, quite simply, bad. I am quite sure that over the last four years of my career, I’ve done the best job of teaching content that I could do at those points in time, and each of those four years has seen me improve and grow. I expect to continue that trend by implementing the enumerated Common Core standards according to the practices I’ve learned over the last four years (and not according to the notions that misguided its implementation in the case Ms. Gallagher documents).

Thanks to unions (yes, the NEA is a labor union, disgustingly so), tenure, and institutionalized arrogance, there are plenty of teachers who simply don’t even try to improve each year. They insulate themselves against legitimate concerns from parents and colleagues (administrators are colleagues, but the NEA treats them as enemies) and let kids down year after year. If there is one such teacher, then there are too many — and there appear to be many more than one.

The teachers have a few points in their side of the education “debate.” I put that it in quotes because what we call a “debate” has for years now regressed into two or three groups of kids yelling “nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah!” at each other — and this is just how the NEA and progressives like it, because it strengthens them in their desire to produce a malleable, controllable populace that will identify its hopes and dreams with those of the government, making liberty expendable. Indeed, they have liberty on the ropes in America, and the prognosis is not good.

As a conservative, I see the last twenty years as proof of their success. It is absolutely true, as teachers claim, that higher salaries would attract teachers of greater quality into the profession and also support teachers in pursuing more professional growth, and it is absolutely true that education is too often a political football and not often enough a collective responsibility that all American adults take seriously. Benefiting as much as they do from such stagnation and paralysis, however, the NEA and progressives (but I repeat myself) have no desire to improve things. Apparently they have embedded that agenda in the part of the Common Core I haven’t read.

I guess I’ll read those implementation guides someday, but not soon. I’m too busy preparing to teach my students so that knowledge and skills will stick and so that they will learn to question and criticize assumptions and assertions of fact that lack the support of data and experience. Perhaps the first thing we should learn to do is question the wisdom of rejecting all of a complex thing when some parts of it can support the thing’s appropriate purpose.

I believe the practical and content standards of the Common Core are rigorous and comprehensive; they are certainly more so than the ridiculous standards I taught under NCLB for the last decade. The Indiana controversy which Ms. Gallagher wants to spread all over the nation is about bad educational practice — and people should be vigilant about that. The Common Core standards — the enumerated and organized statements of what is to be taught — are not the issue here: we all agree that we should have rigorous and comprehensive standards, and the Gates Foundation progressives have actually put together just such a set of standards, apparently to veil their desire to dumb down educational practice even more than we have seen in the last century. The issue is in the fine print of implementation guidance and in the mushy minds of people who shouldn’t ever be allowed to work in or around schools.

I don’t see a problem with implementing the enumerated Common Core standards rigorously and according to best practices supported by research, and I won’t be changing course. This controversy will simply force me to clarify what I am doing and defend it. I don’t resent that, but I will probably resent the fact that some parents will just assume that anything “Common Core” is bad. They will key on the flawed ideas about implementation and won’t countenance the enumerated standards, assuming that they simply repeat what appears elsewhere. As is usual with educators, I will wish that I could focus on serving students instead of winning over parents: I want to engage in pedagogy, not advocacy. Ms. Gallagher is trying to turn good parenting into saving the world and probably the conservative equivalent of a Pulitzer, but she will only succeed in making parents tilt at windmills. Thanks to her and others like her, and well-meaning but condescending parents, I will have to be an advocate as well as a teacher.

I hope that the knee-jerkers among my own conservative brethren will not insist that the entire Common Core — both baby (enumerated standards) and bath water (implementation drivel) — must go. Given the knack conservatives have these days for proudly and publicly shooting themselves in their feet and then inserting those same bloody feet firmly in their mouths, I’m preparing for the worst.

Ora et labora, ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus.