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Experts Discuss the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Common Core Rollout

by Tim Walker (NEA)

May 20, 2014 -  Three years ago, very few education leaders and experts predicted that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) would become one of the hottest political footballs of 2014. While a certain degree of controversy was inevitable, the intensity has caught many off-guard. And recently, the comedian Louis C.K. brought the attention to a new level when he tweeted that the standards had turned his daughter against math.

And yet the general public by and large remains fairly unaware of the standards and so far only one state, Indiana, has pulled out. So where does the implementation stand?  On Monday, a group of educators, academics, state officials, and other stakeholders – supporters and critics – gathered at the 2014 Education Writers Association National Seminar to discuss the status of the CCSS and try to make some sense out of what is happening in the classroom, legislatures and the media. The panelists included NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, Patrick McGuinn of Drew University, Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York, Sandra Alberti of Student Achievement Partners, Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, and Michael Cohen, president of Achieve.

Much of the discussion focused on the political backlash, although the panelists had different takes on how it would ultimately affect the standards. Terry Holliday said objections in his state emerged immediately after the Obama Administration publicly threw its support behind the CCSS. A state-led initiative suddenly became something more ominous.

“Suddenly, you heard a lot about ‘federal intrusion,’” Holliday recalled. “It really wasn’t very helpful.” This has been a source of deep frustration for Holliday because Kentucky has been a leader in all phases of the Common Core. Kentucky was the first state to adopt and implement the standards (virtually without any objection). The Common Core in English/language arts and mathematics have been taught in Kentucky classrooms since the 2011-12 school year and have been embraced by educators.

“A lot of smoke, but little fire” – that’s how Patrick McGuinn, a political scientist at Drew University, characterizes the controversy around the standards, at least so far. The backlash is real, but McGuinn pointed out that Indiana is the only state that has officially withdrawn from the standards (it’s also worth noting that the Hoosier state’s newly proposed math and English standards are similar to the Common Core’s) and he expected that, at most, two or three states will follow.

“The Common Core is like a Rorschach Test,” McGuinn said. “To critics it is a evil monster, supporters see a beautiful butterfly. But there is no single opposition. There are many different oppositions, and it cuts across ideologies.”

While Tea Party followers see “ObamaCore,” many on the left are concerned about the role of Big Data, others are concerned about the speed and cost of the standards and the potential significant drop in student achievement as measured by the new assessments.

McGuinn added that the debate over Common Core is really much of a “debate” at all, at least how its playing online. Opponents are talking to opponents, supporters are talking to supporters.

Could it have been avoided? The panelists agreed that while controversy was inevitable, the fervor could have been neutralized with better communication, although the condensed time frame and overarching complexity of the process “left the general public in the dust,” said Michael Cohen of Achieve.

And to some extent teachers. But many educators’ apprehension, explained NEA President Dennis Van Roekel,  should not be confused with opposition to the actual standards. It’s about how they are being implemented, driven by the understandable fear that a new wave of high-stakes accountability is coming. Van Roekel pointed to the growing opposition across the nation as proof that the NCLB era is over.

“That system is crumbling,” Van Roekel said. “It’s not coming back. You can’t have a week go by nowadays without a new study showing that value-added simply does not work. The whole system, not just teachers, needs to be held accountable.” Van Roekel is critical at how some states have implemented the standards, but believes scuttling the Common Core Standards will cement the failed policies and practices of NCLB in which rote memorization and bubble tests drive teaching and learning.

Carol Burris, author and principal of South Side High School in New York, believes that teacher concerns about the CCSS aren’t being taken seriously in the public debate and urged the journalists in attendance not to categorize them as merely part of the “political backlash.”

“This is authentic pushback. Teachers are the canaries in the coal mine and the canaries are not doing well,” Burris said.

As Common Core moves forward, “teachers need support, not sympathy,” added Sandra Alberti of Student Achievement Partners.

“Accelerating support doesn’t mean we have to slow down the work. It’s a professional opportunity to shape education policy in this country, and teachers across the country are taking on this challenge with energy and commitment.”