What to Make of the Debate Over Common Core- page 4 | Innovation | Smithsonian
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The Common Core State Standards is a new initiative that outlines literacy and mathematics expectations for K-12 schools across the country. (iStock)

What to Make of the Debate Over Common Core

Across 45 states and the District of Columbia, teachers are working off the same set of standards. What makes that so controversial?

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(Continued from page 3)

Dividing fractions is another story. What does it mean in practical terms to divide three-quarters of a pizza by two-fifths of one? Why does the procedure of flipping numerator and denominator and multiplying across lead to a correct answer? Why do fractions get larger, not smaller, when divided? Properly implemented, a student well versed in the Common Core should be able to reason out responses to such conceptual queries.

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That the standards have been adopted by 45 states is itself a notable calculus considering that every previous attempt to create common standards has failed.

U.S. history standards funded through a federal grant in 1991 fell victim, four years later, to that decade’s culture wars after critics said they presented an overly negative portrayal of key American events. And a Clinton-era attempt to create a national panel to certify whether states’ content standards were equal to the quality of a “model” national standards was never seated.

The political winds that sank prior efforts continue to swirl around the Common Core.  In recent months, measures seeking to scuttle or delay implementation have emerged in a half-dozen state legislatures. No state has yet pulled out of the project, but the criticism seems unlikely to fade away quietly.

Conservatives have opposed the standards on the principle of local control, arguing that even if the Common Core was led by states, they were effectively coerced into participating. Among those critics, Florida Senator Marco Rubio voiced his concern that the standards would create a “national school board,” the same formulation used by critics of the earlier 1990s efforts.

In a public letter, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley called for a measure to block the implementation of Common Core in her state, noting “South Carolina’s educational system has at times faced challenges of equity, quality and leadership – challenges that cannot be solved by increasing our dependence on federal dollars and the mandates that come with them.”

The U.S. Department of Education provided financial incentives to states to adopt the Common Core standards, most prominently via the Race to the Top initiative. But it had no hand in crafting the standards, a process led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

A new front of criticism centers on the statewide, standardized tests being developed by consortia of states to measure students’ attainment of the standards–and to replace the hodgepodge of current exams. But because these new exams will attempt to gauge application of knowledge rather than factual recall, they will be costlier for some states. When a report released by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of the two consortia developing tests, announced its expected per-student cost, officials in some states such as Arizona used the figures to argue that the program would be prohibitively expensive. Georgia, Indiana, and Pennsylvania have announced that they won’t use the common tests, though they will still teach to the standards.  

In one of those strange-bedfellows phenomena, progressives on the other side of the political spectrum are opposed to the standards on similar grounds. Shared standards, they argue, will lead to a lockstep approach to teaching and learning, more standardized testing, and even less flexibility. In a flexing of progressive opposition to the Common Core program, some members of the National Council of Teachers of English, which represents educators in that field, attempted to make opposition to the standards a formal policy of the organization. The bid narrowly failed, but a nonbinding resolution to the same end passed.

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