Common core: why all the fuss?

Yesterday I was sitting at the breakfast table, having some coffee with my wife before we got ready for church.  My son had left his homework out from the day before (my daughter has migrated to doing her homework in her room, but my son still does his at the kitchen table) and I just happened to look at his math workbook.  Right on the cover was emblazoned “Your Common Core Edition”.   Collectivist language aside (it’s not “my” common core, it’s the state’s) I have to say I was a little concerned.  Common Core has become an issue du jour for various “conservative” talk show hosts, tea party groups and bloggers looking for something to blog about and most of the news has not been good.
There have been teacher’s that have resigned over common core, students that used to be good in math that now struggle to get C’s and one time  supporters that have ‘seen the light’ and now oppose it.  I read through these stories, but decided to look at the standards themselves.  After all, my kids both go to private, Catholic schools (a decision my wife and I made 8+ years ago and one that we continue to consider the best of available options for us despite the fact that we end up paying for 4 kids to go to school instead of 2) and most of the storied have been about the impact of Common Core on public schools.
A quick Google search later (the filetype: has got to be the second best Google search parameter out there after site:) and I was reading through the 100 page standard document.  I clicked the link in the table of contents for the 7th grade (how nice of them to include links) and found:

In Grade 7, instructional time should focus on four critical areas: (1) developing understanding of and applying proportional relationships; (2) developing understanding of operations with rational numbers and working with expressions and linear equations; (3) solving problems involving scale drawings and informal geometric constructions, and working with two- and three-dimensional shapes to solve problems involving area, surface area, and volume; and (4) drawing inferences about populations based on samples.

That all seems pretty straight forward to me.  It gives teachers four main areas to focus on for 7th grade math and all of them seem to be age appropriate and good setups for algebra, pre-calculus and geometry.  The rest of the first page goes into detail about each of those four areas.  The next page lays out the 8 practices for 7th grade (i.e. the things that all 7th graders should be able to do for example ” Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.”…don’t we want that for students of all ages?) and an overview of the 5 curriculum areas:

  • Analyze proportional relationships
  • The number system
  • Expressions and equations
  • Geometry
  • Statistics and Probability

Again, no red flags in any of these areas nor the details behind them.  This all seems like the things I would want my 7th grader learning.  I will admit that I didn’t read the whole document (it was written by academics after all…I have to stay awake at least past 9 PM or the AARP will start sending me spam) but I also didn’t find any mention of “fuzzy math” concepts that some are afraid of.  I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen – but it doesnt’ seem to specifically be part of the standard.
I found an article on (a site clearly in favor of the new standards) that listed the mainstream objections to Common Core:

  1. The standards themselves are flawed.  In my review (admittedly amateur) for 7th grade math they seem OK.  Again, that’s an amateur’s view based on looking at the standards for one grade withing one subject.
  2. They will be difficult and expensive to implement. This one is probably a push for me since everything is expensive at private, Catholic school.
  3. They won’t make any difference in student achievement.  This one is murky to me because I can’t quite tell, but I suspect what they mean is that fewer students will be able to pass standardized tests under common core.  To that I say that IF (big capital IF) the tests are designed to accurately evaluate the skills a student should have and fewer people pass, that is OK and something we actually need to know.  In addition to the big capital IF about what the tests actually measure, I am also assuming that teachers will NOT simply teach to the test.  Both of those assumptions are probably wrong, so there are more fundamental questions we should be asking ourselves about how we measure and encourage “achievement”.
  4. States would do better on their own and switching to common core would just mess them up.  This is another one that is hard for me to comment on since I must admit this is the first year I have noticed a Common Core seal on any of my kids text books.  To be honest, I’m not sure I had heard the term at the start of the last school year.  So I’m not sure when my son’s school started to be able to look to see if there was any appreciable change in his performance.  But this will be something I am finding out.
  5. “National” is not the right way to do anything in American education.  I need some more details to figure out where I come down on this one.  It would seem to me that having a set of national standards as a baseline (not a minimum) would server educators well as a sort of best practice sharing.  Why re-invent the wheel for the basics?  This one is complicated though when you throw in the coercive effects of federal dollars (see the next point) and the fact that people will naturally take the path of least resistance (i.e. we are all lazy) and if presented with a set of standards we will see those and the end goal rather than the start.  This will be something else I am going to look into – what beyond the common core standards are being taught?
  6. Common Core will be politicized, corrupted and tuned from national/voluntary into federal/coercive.  I completely agree with this issue, but I am not sure that it applies in my situation – specifically the private, Catholic schools.  As far as I know they don’t get any federal $’s (at least we still follow that separation of church and state) so that limits some of the coercive power to make them adopt it.  However it doesn’t eliminate it because they all still want to earn the designation as a “National Blue Ribbon School” which is awarded by the Department of Education.  I don’t even need to do a search to know that results on common core based standardized tests is a strong determinant of which schools get that award.  So while the influence is less direct, it’s still there because getting a NBRS award can mean an 20% swing in enrollment…and tuition income.

The real issue with common core is not necessarily what it is now, but what it’s likely to become in the future: thousands of pages of conflicting regulations (no longer standards) tied to incentives and penalties that firmly place student achievement behind political machinations.  After all, does anyone ever achieve more when overseen by increasing bureaucracy?  And do we really want folks in Washington deciding not only how, but what all kids learn?  Seems to be rife with opportunities for abuse.
At a personal level, there are a few things I need to look into a bit more as noted above, but I am less concerned than I was when I first saw the Common Core label on my son’s math workbook.  Replacing that worry is a bigger one that we have opened an educational Pandora’s box that will get us one step closer to an idiocracy.






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