Sunday, March 16, 2014


IN DEFENSE OF THE COMMON CORE: What matters most is whether the new curriculum standards are an improvement. They are.

By The Times editorial board |

March 13, 2014  ::  If there's anything more surprising than how quickly and calmly 45 states embraced the new Common Core curriculum standards, it's how quickly and contentiously the backlash erupted.

The standards, which California adopted in 2010, outline the skills and knowledge public school students should acquire in each grade from kindergarten through high school. Overall, they call for covering fewer topics, but covering each more deeply. They require students to think their way through math problems, rather than taking so much direct instruction from teachers. More careful reading is another part of the standards, along with the reading of more nonfiction. Students do more analysis and a lot more writing.

But almost as soon as the new standards got underway — most California schools began teaching the related curriculum this year — the coalition began to shred. Tea party conservatives claimed that the standards were being pushed too assiduously by the federal government, intruding on the states' authority to set curriculum. There's some justification for that argument. The Obama administration demanded higher academic standards from states that wanted federal grants or some freedom from the onerous No Child Left Behind law; though the Common Core standards were developed under the aegis of the National Governors Assn. and adopted by states voluntarily, it was known that embracing them would increase a state's chances of federal beneficence.

There's also a pragmatic motivation behind conservative opposition to Common Core: Its success would represent a political victory for the administration.

Backlash has also come from parents and teachers' unions, who rightly argue that the standards have been implemented hastily and sloppily in too many states. They have legitimate worries that schools and teachers will be held responsible for student performance on standardized tests even as they try to work out the kinks in a dramatically new set of expectations. Researchers recently reported that, so far, there are no textbooks that are truly aligned with Common Core standards.

Several state legislatures are now pushing back. Bills in Georgia and Wyoming call for reviewing the standards with a possible eye to junking them; legislation in Wisconsin and Alabama would repeal Common Core altogether. New York is delaying full implementation after a rushed and botched start. At the federal level, Republican legislators have introduced bills and a resolution that would scold the administration for pushing the standards, and bar any use of federal grants or regulatory favors as a reward for adopting them.

What gets lost amid the political and administrative squabbling is the issue that ought to matter most: whether the Common Core standards are a solid improvement on what most states, including California, had before. And with a few caveats, they are. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics praises them for following a more logical track in building math skills. The standards are also more closely aligned with how the top-scoring nations in international tests teach math. Educators are pleased that students will do more writing under the standards; colleges have long complained about the poor writing skills of incoming students.

California's old curriculum standards were particularly well known for being a mile wide and an inch deep. Here's one small example: In the middle of second grade, students were taught about obtuse and acute angles even though they had no geometry background to understand the concept. Although they didn't know what a right angle was or how many degrees it had, they would do a few work sheets and then drop the subject for several years.

The Common Core standards eliminate that sort of nonsense and build, from the earliest years, understanding of topics that now befuddle many students, such as multiplying and dividing fractions. In kindergarten, they might start very simply: folding paper in half, and in half again.

Criticism of Common Core — of the standards themselves, not the politics or implementation — focuses on a few areas. One is that while in many states, including California, most students are supposed to take Algebra 1 in eighth grade, under the new standards most take that or an equivalent course as high school freshmen. That gives them no time to reach calculus in high school, though advanced students may follow an accelerated course of study that allows it. If any group ought to be worried about that, it would be mathematicians. Yet the Mathematical Assn. of America says it isn't a problem. It's more important, a spokesman said, for students to get a deeper understanding of what they're being taught; and besides, the idea that a high school education must include calculus is outmoded.

Students who are still learning to speak fluent English might be at a disadvantage under the standards, which call for students to be able to explain their mathematical reasoning, not just perform mathematical operations.

The amount of nonfiction that students are supposed to read also has raised hackles, especially the 70% required in high school. Supporters of the standards point out that most of that reading and writing would take place in history and science, not in English classes. At least, in theory. What's not taken into account is that history and science are not included in the standards, so there's no guarantee that the 70% nonfiction requirement will actually be achieved.

Common Core offers a richer and more logical learning plan, but also one that's harder to carry off well. It's easier to teach students facts and grade them on answers than to spur them to think and at the same time make sure they are gaining the required skills and knowledge. The standards should have been field tested before they were adopted, but that failure isn't a reason to toss them out at this point.

Given the lack of field testing, what's needed now is flexibility, care in upgrading instruction and more reasonable ways of measuring Common Core's successes and weaknesses. This is where the federal government and many states are failing, and where California is getting it right.

COMMON CORE LEARNING CURVE:  Schools need the time to build robust new teaching methods with all the right supports in place.

By The Times editorial board |

March 14, 2014  ::  If a sentence contains the phrases "New York state" and "Common Core," chances are that somewhere between the two is the word "botched." New York and California have taken opposite approaches to implementing the new academic standards, which have been adopted by 45 states but are now the target of a backlash. California's approach bucked the Obama administration's rules, but as it turns out, California was right.

New York jumped feet first into the new standards, administering tests based on them — tests that, among other things, were supposed to be used in teacher evaluations. Unfortunately, the state's teachers hadn't been trained properly, and they lacked instructional materials that reflected the new curriculum. The resulting test scores were predictably abysmal. Parents and teachers rebelled, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan only worsened matters by dismissing the outcry as coming from "white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were."

That remark wasn't just snide. It was wrong. The new tests don't measure intelligence or even whether students are more or less advanced than they were before; rather, the tests measure a certain set of skills that are markedly different from those that have been taught for years. In some ways, that's good. Teachers can't "teach to the test" when the tests measure deeper understanding — which is the underlying principle of the new standards — rather than rote knowledge. At the same time, students, especially older ones, aren't going to make an overnight shift to a dramatically different way of thinking.

New York is now in repent-at-leisure mode, with the state Board of Regents putting off some aspects of Common Core, legislation calling for yet more delays and a panel convened by the governor to report on what went wrong.

In California, by contrast, there has been no backlash. The state began instruction using the new standards and related curriculum this school year. Gov. Jerry Brown set aside $1 billion for implementation, including teacher training, and plans to invest at least as much again next year. And schools and teachers will not be held accountable for results on the new standardized tests this year and possibly next, while they're field-tested and schools learn more about how they work.

But instead of being praised for its smooth, considered rollout, California got into hot water with the Obama administration because, for a year or two, there will be no test results that can be used to discipline schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. We think that's fine. Teachers who are enthusiastic about a strong new curriculum aren't going to stop trying hard because the test scores don't count for a couple of years. Earlier this month, the administration finally (and wisely) blinked, backing off from threats to sanction the state for its rebelliousness.

Federal education officials should worry less about rushing the new standards into schools and judging teachers and schools by early results, and more about giving schools the time to build robust new teaching methods with all the right supports in place. A prominent researcher recently released a review of public-school textbooks concluding that none are fully aligned with Common Core, even though publishers sometimes claim otherwise. And no one should expect to see dramatic shifts in learning for the first few years.

If the Obama administration and Common Core supporters want to quell the backlash against the new standards, they should consider the following changes:

• Recognize that Common Core, though it has many features in its favor, isn't necessarily perfect. There needs to be more willingness at the federal and state levels to listen to legitimate concerns and to allow for flexibility when the standards' ideals don't match up with reality.

• States and schools should be given a few years to implement the standards. Teacher training and textbooks need to be in place.

• Schools and teachers should not be held accountable for standardized test scores for the first few years; rather, test scores should be used solely to guide future instruction as everyone adjusts. There will almost certainly be kinks to work out.

The history of education is filled with fads that were foisted on schools with too little planning and flexibility, and as a result faded away when they proved imperfect.

letters to the LA Times |

March 16, 2014

Contrasting on Common Core

Re “In defense of Common Core,” Editorial, March13

The Obama administration’s attempt to meddle in public education has been a failure. The switch to Common Core cannot be an administration victory over the conservative contingent in Congress because, as it has been articulated many times over, the federal government has no business in education. (Read that old document called the Constitution, Amendment10.)

You cite the numerous groups that are leading opposition to Common Core, and in fact you also voice minor opposition to many facets of this ill-conceived grand illusion of a “fix” to education once and for all. There is no “cure-all” because education is delivered by people, to people and generally administered by other people with little appreciation that the teachers and students are individuals who teach and learn differently.

One size has never fit “all.”


Rancho Palos Verdes


Good teachers get comfortable with their routine over time. What they do in class day after day, year after year, becomes second nature. And change is not a welcome thing.

But what if the change makes their craft easier? And what if it makes their students learn more and learn better?

Common Core is an opportunity to create critical thinkers in the classroom. For teachers who have been around since the1970s and are acquainted with the word “inquiry,” Common Core will not be so new.

Common Core presents an opportunity to put students onstage and shift the responsibility of learning to their shoulders. Common Core is an opportunity for the teacher to truly become a facilitator of learning.

In social studies classrooms, teachers will be transformed from information givers to question askers. With proper questioning, students can move to the higher levels of evaluation and synthesis.


Garden Grove


I would like to offer a brief sidebar to the debate over Common Core from the viewpoint of a parent in a high-performance district in Orange County:

I agree that the concept behind Common Core — going deeper into fewer topics — has merit. However, the timing for adopting this philosophy is unfortunate, especially here in California, where we have high class sizes.

Our teachers are fantastic, but it’s extremely challenging to achieve depth of learning when you’ve got 35 students. Class size still matters.


Laguna Niguel

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