It Is Not the Standards

Most people trying to combat Common Core seem to be focused on proving that the standards are bad, wrong, harmful, stupid, and otherwise nefarious. I think this is the wrong approach.

What's So Bad About Common Core?

“Common Core standards” are not some magical, immovable, self-evident set of guidelines and goals that are time-tested and mother-approved. Rather, they are a set of tasks that are promoted mostly by people who stand to gain from their implementation and others who aren't remotely conversant about what they are promoting outside of memorized rhetoric (see Utah’s District #12 school board representative Dixie Allen, et. al.)

The “standards” can change at any time. They can be moderated to quell the opposition or moderated to make the opposition powerless.

The Core Standards website has a page titled Read the Standards. It's really an our-standards-are-awesome-sauce-even-through-we-cite-no-sources cheerleading page. (You know, because of academic rigor and all that.) From there you can go to a mathematics standards cheerleading page and a language arts cheerleading page. Which makes one wonder if the standards are so obviously keen, why so much promotion has to precede the actual presentation. But I digress.

The problem with the “standards” we are imposing on children all across the country is that we are imposing them on all children all across the country.

The feds are in control of the standards and the feds can change them at will. We are dependent on them because we are choosing to accept the bribe and all the conditions that go along with it. We all know that once we become accustomed to “free” money, we almost never go back. We will continue to capitulate to the demands made by the federal government to keep the “necessary” money coming in. And if we ever suggest otherwise, we will be accused of hurting the children.

In the supposed “reddest of all states,” seeing the money/power grab from Governor Gary Herbert, appointed Attorney General Sean Reyes, and other self-proclaimed conservatives is most disheartening. Your children are the sorry “benefactors” of this move and by the time it is repealed (if it is) the damage to their generation will be done.

The foundational problem with Common Core isn't any particular standard on any particular day. It is giving up control of education to: federal bureaucracy; people, agencies, and companies with severe conflicts of interest; and people who are not and will never be accountable for the results.

It Is the Curriculum

Proponents of Common Core insist that teachers are free to use whatever curriculum they choose. As the Utah state website declares:

Common Core does not dictate what lesson plans, programs, or textbooks teachers will use for curriculum. Local teachers, principals, superintendents and school boards will continue to make important decisions about curriculum and how their school systems are operated.

They all seem fundamentally unaware that the high stakes testing given to students is standardized, even though the law demands that it be so. Per the state website again:

Utah law requires the State School Board to develop an assessment method to uniformly test students in basic skills courses.

How feasible would it be for me to ask a student to take a biology test after spending the year studying chemistry? Or to take a trigonometry test after completing an algebra course?

Testing dictates curriculum. Period. Either the teachers choose the particular curriculum from which the testing is created or they gerrymander their “selected” curriculum to mimic the state-chosen curriculum. It's a difference that makes no difference.

It Is Data Mining

If you either:

  1. Do not understand the data collection involved
  2. Think the federal government should have unfettered access to so much personal data

You probably have something to gain from this federal intrusion into private life. If not, please leave your name, address, phone number, social security number, and banking information in the comments below. Oh, and how many bathrooms you have in your house and what brand of toilet paper you use. And what TV shows you watch. And how often your kids eat at McDonald's. And…

It Is One Size Fits All – and Developmentally Inappropriate

Dixie Allen declares:

I believe the new math standards are much better than our previous standards. Mainly because we teach all the standards to all students.

This in spite of developmental ability or disability. Dr. Gary Thompson can disabuse you about this educational systemic abuse.

As Debbie Brandewiede said:

Over 500 early child development specialists wrote about this to the authors of the Common Core explaining their grave concerns about its implementation. The authors did not respond by changing any standards. They responded by putting a disclaimer on them! Yes, there is a disclaimer on these standards indemnifying the authors of any damage they cause.

They have now gone beyond incompetence, to educational malfeasance and cognitive abuse on our children. This is outrageous and any attempts to debate the standards seem ludicrous and irrelevant considering this fact.

It Is the System

Complexity Does Not Equal Clarity or Improvement

One of my daughters took a few classes at Willow Creek Middle School (in Lehi, Utah) a few years ago. I was informed that the school schedule was changing (again):

Counselor: The new time slot will be used for SSR.

Me: What's SSR?

Counselor: Silent sustained reading.

Me: You mean reading?

Counselor: No, silent sustained reading.

Me: So…kids are going to get a book and read to themselves. Like…reading.

Counselor: Well, it's more involved than that.

But, actually, it wasn't more involved. The kids sat at their desks and read books. But somehow obfuscating a simple task by piling on educationese made it sound so much more important — and inaccessible to the simpleton parents who cannot possibly understand without a teaching certificate. “You silly parents. You understand regular reading, but not our groundbreaking SSR.”

While the education culture is steeped in using verbiage to produce the illusion of complexity, this shouldn't be allowed to pose as real academic improvement or rigor. It is not. It is just bloviating.

The Math Problem Defined

I agree with some of the Common Core standards as currently described. Yes, it's true. That's not to say they won't change later and not to say that I'll have anything to say about how they change. But as they stand, some are pretty decent.

For example, I've long been a proponent of constructvist or discovery math. I hate Saxon math and any other course grounded in rote drill and memorization and teaching of algorithms without understanding. When parents screech about “new math” or complain they don't understand their kids homework it is often a clear signal to educators that parents are clueless about math and should be ignored in deference to “those who know better.” This is not where parents want to be.

Parents too often complain about this “new math” where “the wrong answer is right.” That's not exactly true. It's that the process is being considered. Just as upper level math courses may give partial credit to a student who follows a correct path and understands the appropriate method, but makes a small computational mistake, an elementary student who is working through a math problem can do very well in understanding the process even though they make an arithmetic error along the way.

It's not that the right answer is not important, but that how one arrives at the right answer is also important. Understanding the why, when, and how of math will make it possible to use math in myriad situations — even situations that don't fit the specifics of the story problems worked through in Algebra I.

Some past attempts at better ways to teach mathematical understanding over the decades have failed miserably because the curriculum was lousy. But just as often these attempts failed because the teachers didn't understand it any better than the parents — and so they don't have the capacity to teach it.

When I was in elementary school (in Orem, Utah) I was taught to divide fractions thusly:

Ours is not to question why, just invert and multiply.

It's a trick. It works. Just do it. Don't ask me to explain it. (Because I can't.)

I challenged my son-in-law to bring this up in his college math class at Utah Valley University. He did and his instructor could not explain the algorithm, either. Just memorize and regurgitate. What does it matter?

A classic example of the problem with this approach is illustrated with a question posed to a number of Saxon-type students and a number of constructivist-type math students. The question was this:

You go to the store and buy three loaves of bread. Each bag holds two loaves. How many bags do you need to carry your bread home?

Constructivist answer: 1 bag and carry the other loaf or 2 bags (one with two loaves the other half full)

Saxon answer: 1.5 bags

Algorithm memorizers are often good at testing (assuming they recognize the form of the problem so they can plug in the numbers appropriately)., but they aren't good at using math in the real world unless they intuit it or learn it from other sources. Given the US dearth of mathematicians, engineers, and scientists, I'd say most of us aren't very good at crossing that bridge.

So why do so many parents object to better ways of teaching math? Unfamiliarity is the biggest barrier I see to persuading parents to get on board and one that can be overcome. But there is something much more problematic and this problem is the reason I hope parents are not persuaded.

Lack of Rigor

Education is (one of) the easiest, least rigorous college majors available. It tends to be heavy on theory and classroom management and light on subject content. In other words, we get really great bulletin boards and educationese-filled lesson plans, but really lousy understanding of language, science, and math.

As Moneywatch put it:

Research over the years has indicated that education majors, who enter college with the lowest average SAT scores, leave with the highest grades. Some of academic evidence documenting easy A’s for future teachers goes back more than 50 years!

Math Avoidance

According to numerous studies (see Sells, Hess, et. al.) on education pedagogy, the majority of education majors:

  1. Choose the major to avoid upper level math
  2. See math as a set of tricks rather than a problem solving tool

Generally speaking we have people who don't like math, don't understand math, and actively selected a career in an attempt to avoid math teaching math to our children. And we wonder why we have a problem.


Given general lack of subject rigor in education departments and the general distaste for and lack of understanding of math, the typical teacher does not have the ability to teach the understanding-based math that Common Core is touting.

“Guided discovery” math — where process is important as well as outcome — requires a teacher who understands math well enough to be able to lead the child through the process. They must be able to see what parts of the process the child is doing correctly and where the errors occur, so they can explain and redirect the thinking — without simply telling them the answer or giving them a “magical” trick — so they can work through to a correct response.

Even the newer math education majors have not shown a marked improvement in this foundational problem.

Unless/until education becomes a rigorous major with profound content understanding, any standards that drift down from the theoretical ivory towers will continue to fail.

OK, It Is the Standards After All

The typical elementary school scope and sequence includes things like:

  • Colors
  • Modes of transportation
  • Print awareness
  • Shapes
  • Sizes
  • Communicating orally
  • Water can be liquid or solid
  • Examples of bodies of water
  • Characteristics of mountain
  • Weather changes from day to day and seasonally

This is just a tiny sampling what children must endure while confined to a desk. It's also a tiny sample of the topics I never forced on my children. Still they managed to pick them up naturally in the course of living life. Many things that schools require are fluff, padding, and other nonsense used to make the list of stuff-we-teach-your-kids-that-you-are-not-qualified-to-teach-without-certification deceptively long.

Similarly, some of the standards are sheer nonsense.

In language arts, for example, do you know anyone who is well read in classic literature who cannot understand a coherently written “informational text”? (And let's us not confuse tax forms, bicycle manuals by non-English speakers, or school attendance policy statements with coherent materials.) On the other hand, do you know many educators who can “read and comprehend literary nonfiction at the high end of the [collegiate] text complexity band independently and proficiently”? (Neither do I.)

Why not focus on things that are interesting and insightful and eloquent to teach a concept rather than the dry and tedious?

And what of mathematics? It's profoundly wrongheaded to insist on teaching kindergartners “number and operations in base ten” given the actual complexity of the base system. (Do these people have any idea how long it took humanity to come up with bases as a way of simplifying enumeration?) The inefficiency is staggering, particularly in light of the fact that they do not spend that kindergarten time teaching something almost all kindergartners intuitively understand: fractions. (If you don't believe kindergartners can understand multiplication of fractions, put two kids at a table with a pile of M&Ms and tell them they can each have half. They will not make a mathematical error.)

Why not capitalize on things children can understand when they can understand them, rather than spend years of repetition forcing them to memorize things that are beyond comprehension?

It Is Wrong

As with all things “free,” most Americans scramble to get their piece of the educational pie. In doing so they have become dependent on the government to educate their children (including transporting them to the schools and feeding them while they are there). They have been told they don't have the means, the brains, the certification, the general wherewithal to teach basics.

Common Core further entrenches the dependency and further removes responsibility, accountability, and the ability for families, faculties, and locally elected officials to have any input into education.

We need to cut the cord and take back our parental responsibility from those who would take if from us for personal gain.