The complicated politics of national standards: Even more sources of opposition (Part 2 of 3)

In a previous post, I detailed several different sources of discontentment that various coalitions have cited as reason to oppose the Common Core State Standards. In this post, I will identify and discuss even more sources of opposition to the standards.

Curriculum and culture wars

The crafting of new national standards also has reignited long-standing ideological debates about multiculturalism — how American literature and history should be taught, and whether the science curriculum should include reservations about evolution and global warning. Opponents of the Core cast it as a national curriculum that is ill-suited for a country with such religious, political, ethnic, and cultural diversity. Some conservatives are concerned that progressive educators are using the public schools to indoctrinate children with liberal social and economic values on such hot-button issues as homosexuality, abortion, sex education, and socialism.

In reality, the standards outline the essential skills and information that students should know in math and language arts but do not mandate a particular curriculum for delivering instruction. Core advocates have endeavored in vain to communicate that standards are not curriculum, but the general public has neither understood nor embraced the concept. In addition, Core opponents say the standards mandate particular textbooks or pieces of literature. They do not. But the authors of the standards have recommended a list of materials that have been judged to satisfy the Core. Nonetheless, this is another area where public misperception is driving down support for the Core, as only half of Americans who have heard of it understand that states and local school districts retain the ability to choose their own educational materials.

Anti-testing backlash

Other opposition to the Core—particularly among parents—is related to a broader backlash against the amount of testing and teaching to the test that students are perceived to be facing in the wake of NCLB. While the Core standards are separate from the new assessments—states can and have adopted one but not the other—they have become conflated in the public mind; concerns about testing have spilled over into the push for common academic expectations. While proponents argue that the Common Core standards and assessments are designed to be an improvement on NCLB that addresses many of its failings, many have come to see the Common Core as simply NCLB 2.0.

Meeting the higher bar

The debate over the Common Core has also become entangled with long-standing concerns that governments are not doing enough to address poverty, safety, health, and other out-of-school factors affecting student achievement as well as concerns that teachers are not being given sufficient training and resources to effectively instruct disadvantaged students. These views have been prominently articulated by Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling-Hammond, and others. Civil rights and antipoverty groups, while supportive of the effort to raise expectations for students, are concerned about the effect the harder assessments will have on disadvantaged students. They worry that adequate resources won’t be devoted to remediation. In particular, they fear that poor and minority students will perform worse, leading to more holding back from grade advancement or lower pass rates on exit exams needed to earn a diploma, thus exacerbating already large racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.

Teacher and administrator evaluations

Teachers, administrators, and their unions were initially supportive of the Common Core and its potential to improve teaching and learning. They have become increasingly concerned, however, that states have tied evaluation systems to the new standards and assessments before the kinks have been ironed out. They fear this will result in arbitrary or unfair personnel decisions. A 2014 Gallup poll found that 76 percent of teachers continued to support the goals of the Common Core, but only 27 percent supported using computerized tests to measure student performance, and only nine percent supported using those test scores to evaluate teachers. Teachers and principals are the most frequent—and most respected—communicators with parents, so their concerns have likely been passed along. The U.S. Department of Education is permitting states to delay the use of student achievement data in teacher evaluations, and, in states that have chosen to do so, this likely will help disconnect the two reforms in peoples’ minds.

Problematic implementation

State education agencies and districts are struggling to finance and manage implementation of new standards and assessments, and this is generating pushback in some states where people say the effort is proceeding too quickly. States have varied widely in how well they have implemented the Common Core and the aligned assessments and how effectively they have communicated with educators, parents, and the general public. Implementation problems have led to political pushback in New York, where critics cited insufficient preparation for teachers and parents. Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the state’s rollout of the standards “flawed,” and the New York affiliate of the National Education Association withdrew its support until “major course corrections” take place. Tennessee and Kentucky, on the other hand, are widely praised for their implementation and communication work, and California developed a comprehensive program of supports funded by a $1.25 billion grant that included stakeholder engagement, teacher preparation, and statewide field testing of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium’s assessments.

There is widespread recognition of the need to prepare the public for the new Common Core-aligned tests, which debuted in spring 2015, and for the subsequent release of test scores. However, a June 2014 survey found that 47 percent of the adults surveyed had not heard of the Common Core at all. Of those who had, only 22 percent said they’d heard a lot about it. It thus does not appear that the communication efforts by Core proponents have been successful in most places.

Note: This article is excerpted and adapted with permission from Challenging Standards: Navigating Conflict and Building Capacity in the Era of the Common Core, edited by Jonathan A. Supovitz and James P. Spillane (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).