Common Core, Part 1: Is The Hype Really Just Hype?


Common-Core-based standards hang on the wall of master math teacher Beth Moore's classroom at Walker Elementary in Northport, Ala. Schools across the state are using the math standards, and the language arts standards go into effect this fall. Walker has enthusiastically embraced the Common Core. Photo by Dan Carsen.

90.3 WBHM Birmingham-- There's been a revolution in American K-12 education: the "Common Core State Standards." Released in 2010, they're math and language arts standards meant to raise rigor and establish consistency across the nation. They've been adopted in 45 states. But in the first of a three-part series, the Southern Education Desk's Dan Carsen tells us that even in those places, all is not quiet on the Common Core front:


A wise person once said, "If a liar says it's daytime, that doesn't make it dark." That subtle thought may apply to the controversy over Common Core. The new standards aren't exactly fun to read. Most people haven't, and that's part of why pundit Glenn Beck can say this:

"Our kids are going to be indoctrinated with extreme leftist ideology. That should terrify most people."

Conservative activists are fired up. That's certainly true in Alabama, which has adopted Common Core.* According to Elois Zeanah, president of the state's Federation of Republican Women, "Your child will not be able to escape Common Core materials that are anti-Christian, anti-capitalism, and anti-America, or that are pro-homosexuality, illegal immigration, unions, environmentalism, gun control, feminism, and social justice ... Remember the quote by Hitler, 'Give me your children, and in 10 years I'll change society'? The Obama administration intends to do just that."

But there are also temperate critics of Common Core. State senator Dick Brewbaker sponsored a bill to pull Alabama out of the standards. It failed, but similar measures are popping up in Alabama and across the country. Even so, Brewbaker himself admits some of the criticism is off-base. "Let's put it this way," he says: "The only 'conspiracy' is one to make money."

For the record, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, not Obama, developed Common Core. But all the guilt-by-association aside, Obama's education department has used grant money to encourage states to adopt it. And speaking of money, publishing and assessment companies do stand to make a ton. "Common Core aligned" is a strong sales pitch.

Brewbaker has misgivings about any trend toward nationalization of education because he says innovation comes from "our 50 laboratories." And regarding his home state specifically, he adds, "Our problem in Alabama has never been low standards. We've had some of the highest graduation requirements in the country. Our problem is we are a low-funding state. We are a state with a very high dropout rate. We are losing far too many students, and I just don't think content standards are why they're leaving school."

Some educators think Common Core will further increase the use of high-stakes tests, boosting pressure to cheat or to turn schools into test-prep factories where standards become curriculum. In other words, instead of learning a book that's full of literary techniques, Johnny gets separate exercises on, say, identifying theme, context clues, and alliteration. The standards themselves become the curriculum, the focus of lessons, as opposed to something learned along the way. That's actually the opposite of Common Core's intent, but especially when educators' jobs are on the line, it often happens that way on the ground.

Math teacher Beth Moore circulates during a group-work lesson. Photo by Dan Carsen.

But supporters point out, among other things, that kids who move from one state to another will be able to make easier academic transitions under Common Core. Alabama is already using the math standards and is set to implement the language arts standards this fall.

At Walker Elementary in rural Northport, master teacher Beth Moore likes what she's seeing. Thanks to the new standards, she says, "rather than just hitting the surface on a lot of things, I'm really going deep. It has kicked my job up to a level that has been a real challenge for me, and is an ongoing challenge, in an exciting way. I don't wanna be an old teacher -- you can teach an old dog new tricks, but she's gotta get in there and work on it. [Common Core] increases the level of rigor tremendously."

Many foundations, business groups, and education reform organizations support Common Core. So do school administrators who don't even want to think about trying to squeeze the metaphorical toothpaste back into the tube, despite some growing pains.

So, will Common Core be good for American education? It's too early to tell, but this big ball is rolling, and there are a lot of adults behind it. And kids in front of it.


* Alabama has also kept a few of its own previous standards. Officially, the state education department calls the combination "The Alabama College and Career Ready Standards," but it's basically Common Core with a few homegrown standards mixed in.


April 8, 2013


Dan's education reporting can be found here.