Explanation is hard: For decades, it has been an accurate piece of conventional wisdom:
Public education is driven by fads.
In our experience, whatever the latest fad may be, it will almost always be implemented quite poorly. It will then be replaced by the next of the latest new fads.
In truth, educational innovations may not even be described with clarity. This brings us to the latest innovation, the so-called Common Core.
What is (or are) the Common Core (standards)? We’re often puzzled by the descriptions we read in major publications. In this morning’s Washington Post, Lyndsey Layton provides the latest example.
In her news report, Layton describes a speech by Bill Gates at a Washington conference. As Layton starts, she describes Gates making a heartfelt plea:
LAYTON (3/15/14): Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder who is spending part of his considerable fortune trying to improve U.S. public education, called on teachers Friday to help parents understand the new Common Core academic standards in an effort to beat back “false claims” lobbed by critics of the standards.Gates wants teachers to explain the so-called Common Core.
“There are many voices in this debate but none are more important or trusted than yours,” Gates told several thousand educators gathered in the District...
Billionaire college drop-out, be careful what you wish for! Two paragraphs later, Layton gave it the old press corps try:
LAYTON: The Gates Foundation has spent more than $170 million to develop and promote the Common Core standards, and is their biggest nongovernmental backer. Forty-five states and the District have fully adopted the standards, which call for wholesale changes in the way math and reading are taught from kindergarten through 12th grade.Do you understand the highlighted passage? More specifically:
The standards are a set of expectations about knowledge students should have and skills they should possess by the end of each grade. The standards are not curricula; decisions about what and how to teach are left up to states and local school districts.
Until now, every state has set its own standards, and they varied widely in quality.
If the standards define “the knowledge students should have” by the end of some grade, in what way are “decisions about what to teach” left up to the state or school district?
Frankly, we don’t understand that. Let’s consider an example.
Below, you see one of the Common Core “standards” for fifth grade math. Just for the record, what follows is written in English:
CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.5.NF.A.1If all fifth graders are supposed to know how to “add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators by replacing given fractions with equivalent fractions in such a way as to produce an equivalent sum or difference of fractions with like denominators,” in what way is the “decision about what to teach” left up to the local school district?
Add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators (including mixed numbers) by replacing given fractions with equivalent fractions in such a way as to produce an equivalent sum or difference of fractions with like denominators. For example, 2/3 + 5/4 = 8/12 + 15/12 = 23/12. (In general, a/b + c/d = (ad + bc)/bd.)
In what way does that “standard,” and its several companions, not define a fifth grade math “curriculum?”
We don’t mean to single out Layton. It seems to us that journalists routinely fumble and fail, in these same ways, as they try to explain what the Common Core (standards) is (or are).
Routinely, journalists say it: The Common Core standards are not a curriculum. Do you understand what that means?
Frankly, we pretty much don’t.
It seems to us the confusion starts with the use of the fuzzy term “standards.” We’re not sure why the directive we’ve posted above should be described as a “standard.” It seems to us that a lot of the fuzziness starts with that unforced error in life’s vocabulary test.
At any rate, we were struck by the contrast between Gates’ plea and Layton’s subsequent effort. Gates wants the Common Core explained.
Layton tried. In our view, she failed.
What no journalist can explain let all groups cast asunder: Do you understand the rest of the passage we’ve posted above? Layton writes this:
“Until now, every state has set its own standards, and they varied widely in quality.”
If each state has assembled its own fifth grade “standards,” it’s no surprise if the sets of “standards” have differed. But Layton says they have differed “in quality.”
Do you understand what that means? Frankly, we do not.
What no journalist can explain, everyone will challenge! Later on, Layton describes the Babel which will occur when a major proposal defies even simple description:
LAYTON: Opponents span the political spectrum, from tea party activists who say the standards amount to a federal takeover of local education to progressives who bristle at the emphasis on testing and the role of the Gates Foundation. Some academics say the math and reading standards are too weak; others say they are too demanding, particularly for young students.It’s like the blind men groping the elephant! Can you feel the winds of the next major fad assembling itself off the coast?
Meanwhile, parents are left to wonder about all the changes taking place in the classroom.
Gates urged teachers to talk with parents and explain the value of the new standards and said that was the most effective way to shoot down false claims.
“We don’t have time to answer every false tweet and post,” Gates said. “The most authoritative voices will be teachers who’ve had this exposure [to the standards].”...