Common Core

Sunlight as disinfectant: Why the Common Core deserves a loud and untidy debate

It isn’t always easy to hear complaints and misunderstandings about the Common Core, new standards meant to increase critical thinking and problem-solving skills in the nation’s 100,000 public elementary and secondary schools.

Changing the way teachers teach and test students has been anything but smooth in the 46 states that have initially adopted the standards.

Dr. John B. King, Jr.

It should come as no surprise for a major sea change in education to meet both criticism and cheers.

The Common Core has already seen its share of both at the local and national levels. And parents, teachers and students will continue to need more information and reassurance about new expectations, curricula and tests.

That’s why it was so disturbing when New York State Education Commissioner John King, Jr. abruptly canceled four town-hall style meetings about the new standards earlier this month after being heckled by angry parents in Poughkeepsie.

The decision did not go over well. Parent groups and politicians alike called for King to resign.

King’s explanation—that the meeting had been “co-opted by special interests”—rang hollow to many, and was seen as undermining the democratic process of debating new initiatives, particularly one as complex as the Common Core.

On Friday, King’s office backed down, agreeing to hold new forums throughout the state with Board of Regents members, moderated by state legislators and held in school auditoriums. The announcement came after Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said she wanted “to hit the reset button” and called for “cooled-down rhetoric” over the Common Core.

That may be difficult. History and experience suggest there will still be plenty of rhetoric that approaches the hysterical—some of which will be rooted in fear and ignorance.

But now is the time to listen.

Over the last eight months, reporters for The Hechinger Reportin partnership with the Education Writers Association—have been listening. We’ve traveled across the United States to see how the Common Core is playing out. We’ve done so impartially, gathering information, asking questions and reporting what we see and hear and learn.

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We’ve visited classrooms in Kentucky, where teachers are pushing for more critical thinking and a deeper understanding of math concepts in their lessons.

We’ve watched English lessons in Florida that encourage depth over breadth, and that draw out examples from a variety of texts.

We’ve observed a California teacher encourage high-school juniors to back up their thesis statements with evidence, and we’ve listened to a carefully constructed lesson on how the Gettysburg Address might be taught under the Common Core.

High-quality journalism that explores and explains such issues is critical to the public dialogue about education. Yet so too are the public forums we’ve attended and will continue to monitor.

Of course, they get loud and out of control at times. We’ve heard the Common Core referred to as “the Commy Core” in Louisiana, where State Superintendent of Education John White defends the new standards as essential to improving the quality of education in a state that ranks near the bottom nationally in students’ math and literacy skills.

In Mississippi, where test scores are among the country’s worst, participants in one particularly vituperative public meeting complained that the Common Core is akin to “a Muslim takeover” of schools.

That complaint was not based on a shred of evidence, but the person’s view entered into the public dialogue nonetheless.

Sometimes, uninformed opinions highlight exactly why better education is needed. They won’t always be polite and measured. That’s democracy.

There are plenty of differing views on the Common Core, and it’s been fascinating to hear the wide variety of critics and supporters, not all of whom follow strict party or ideological lines.

While Tea Partyers are pushing hard against the new standards, seeing in them a federal takeover of schools, mainstream support for the Common Core is bipartisan.

Democratic President Barack Obama believes in them, as does former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

On the one hand, education historian and author Diane Ravitch—once a strong supporter of national standards—dislikes how the Common Core standards were created and introduced, and believes they should have been field-tested first.

On the other hand, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten supports the new standards, but has called for a moratorium on high-stakes testing based on them.

Journalists at The Hechinger Report are not taking a stand one way or another, but are committed to reporting this important story and showcasing a variety of views.

That brings us to New York, where many teachers welcome the new standards, even though students who were tested on them last spring—before many schools had connected their lessons to the Common Core—didn’t fare too well.

Predictably, scores dropped, and reactions to the Common Core were—and remain— highly charged.

That’s why it’s more important than ever to continue holding public hearings and forums about the Common Core in New York state and throughout the nation.

There may be shouting. Let it in.

Letters

Liz Willen

Liz Willen, a longtime education reporter, has been proud to lead an award-winning staff of The Hechinger Report since 2011. She was recently honored for… See Archive

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