Common Core State Standards: Legitimate Boon or Trojan Horse?

Hey, what’s this? A majestic, sculpted giant of a wooden horse snuggled right up to the gates of our school? Who built it, how, and why? It is certainly an attractive structure, but the details are sketchy, at best. It seems to have been placed here as a gift from the same so-called reformers who have spoken loudly and often against my pedagogy, my union, and my professional commitment. Can this offering be trusted? After all, the builders seem to be the same individuals who demand greater test-based accountability (for teachers, at least), more competition in and between public schools, and who seem to believe more in the magic of high-minded language (If we just believe hard enough, say No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, A Nation at Risk, Goals 2000, et al., we’ll certainly find a solution to our complex educational challenges.) than in the power of evidence. Where is the evidence?

America’s relatively unquestioned rush to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is as dizzying as it is disquieting. I’ve read and heard many thoughtful opinions, perspectives, definitions, Orwellian redefinitions, beliefs, hopes, and dreams relating to the CCSS, but what I still haven’t seen is actual evidence (ironically, a prime focus of these standards). I appreciate an optimistic viewpoint as much as the next teacher, but the more rhetoric I hear, the more this process resembles a pep rally, and the more skeptical I become. My problem boils down to this: Those who believe that these standards will have a positive effect on schools have the responsibility to prove their case, at least beyond a reasonable doubt. The CCSS are undeniably the largest single curriculum project ever attempted in the United States, and I have yet to see any significant body of evidence regarding the likelihood of success for a broadly applied, highly reductive, cross-disciplinary, standards-based, test-centered curriculum.

Just take a look at the CCSS site. They claim research support for the project but do not cite a single source. Extended web searches undertaken by my students and I turned up plenty of related sites claiming that the CCSS are based on scholarly evidence, and yet not a single one listed said research. My sense of professional responsibility as a student and teacher of American K-12 curriculum and its history (given that we’ll undoubtedly be doing a lot of work related to the CCSS over the next few years and given the broad impact of the CCSS effort) demands a certain degree of skepticism. How can we be reasonably sure that we’re tossing all of our students a life-preserver and not a cinder block? High aspirations do not count as evidence. If the evidence exists, why wasn’t it included in the CCSS website for all to see and evaluate? To clarify, I’m not referring to evidence for the appropriateness of the specific content goals included in the CCSS, but to evidence related to the efficacy of implementing this sort of grand scheme, overall.

Here is my main concern, and I think it merits our serious and immediate consideration. The kids at the top will continue doing just fine, generally, and will do so no matter what standards and tests are imposed. The kids lower in the distribution, however, are much more sensitive to the particular instructional format and content. In the case of the CCSS, we’re talking about a format and content which are apparently untested and unsupported by serious research. Without supporting evidence, the CCSS are a huge experiment with our children’s lives and futures. We would have a very hard time convincing a university Human Subjects Committee to green light this massive and heretofore unsubstantiated project, but many otherwise responsible and kindly educators appear ready to subject the kids from 45 states (and DC, four territories, and the DOD) to this long-term “pilot study” without asking a great deal more about the pertinent details, inherent inequities, and potential pitfalls.

Let me quote directly from the CCSS (English Language Arts Standards, Introduction): Career and college-ready students “…use relevant evidence when supporting their own points in writing and speaking, making their reasoning clear to the reader or listener, and they constructively evaluate others’ use of evidence.” I find many worthwhile goals within these standards, including this one, but, ironically the CCSS do not appear to meet their own stated expectations. Will someone please show me the relevant evidence, the clear reasoning, and explain to me the rationale for excluding it from the CCSS website? Until then, the jury is still out as far as I am concerned. Without suitable research to guide us in this all-encompassing endeavor, the chances of successful outcomes when applying the CCSS are significantly reduced.

While we’re at it, I also need someone to explain to me how the so-called “achievement gap” will narrow when we raise expectations while simultaneously failing once again to invest heavily in helping the lower scoring echelons meet the new requirements. It seems that these particular standards, despite their supporters’ sense of goodwill, will only lead to a broadening of that gap. Again, the kids at the top of the pile will be fine, and those below will be (or at least appear on tests to be) farther behind.

One last point: Please take a moment to consider the cover of Forbes Magazine, dated November 19, 2012: “The $1 Trillion Opportunity: No Field Operates More Inefficiently than Education – A New Breed of Disruptors is Finally Going to Fix It – Here’s How to Join Them.” How can we be so sure that, by passionately supporting the development of national markets via the CCSS we’re not inadvertently playing right into the hands of ego-inflated profiteers who care less about our children than about their bottom line?

This lovely wooden horse isn’t actually outside our gates – Race to the Top made sure that it’s already smack dab in the middle of campus, whether or not we, the educators, found it to be of value to our instructional efforts. It may be that it benefits all, or that it is a pedagogic demon bent on rampant privatization. It is much more likely, though, to be something in between. I’m not suggesting that we burn the thing down. I’m only asking that, before the sun goes down, we drill a few holes into the belly of the beast to at least find out more about its composition and likely impact. However, it has been my observation that the horse and those who find it most beautiful seem to be ironclad and impervious to reasonable skepticism and/or deeper investigation.

The CCSS assert that they ensure a high quality education for all students, but remarkable claims demand remarkable evidence. Where is that supporting body of evidence? What are the caveats and how do we avoid the hazards? What, exactly, are we buying into and what is the likelihood for our children’s success? Are the CCSS a legitimate boon or just another empty hope?

John Eichinger, Ph.D.
Professor, College of Education
California State University, Los Angeles

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