Why MA needs to defund Common Core

By Sandra Stotsky – July, 2013

Why Massachusetts needs to defund implementation and testing of Common Core’s current standards

In this essay, I suggest why Common Core’s English language arts and mathematics standards need revision before further implementation in any Common Core state—and well before tests are given that are based on these flawed standards.

First, Common Core’s ELA standards have many flaws:

Common Core expects English teachers to spend at least 50 percent of their reading instructional time on informational texts at every grade level. It provides 10 reading standards for informational texts and 9 standards for literary texts at every grade level. (An informational text is a piece of writing intending to convey information about something, e.g., gravity, bicycles, nutrition.) However, there is no body of information that English teachers have ever been responsible for teaching, unlike science teachers, for example, who are charged with teaching information about science. As a result, English teachers are not trained to give informational reading instruction—by college English departments or by teacher preparation programs. They typically study four major genres of literature—poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction—and are trained to teach those genres.

Common Core reduces opportunities for students to develop critical (analytical) thinking. Analytical thinking is developed in the English class when teachers teach students how to read between the lines of complex literary works. It is facilitated by the knowledge that students acquire in other ways and in other subjects because critical (analytical) thinking cannot take place in an intellectual vacuum. By reducing literary study in the English class, Common Core reduces the opportunity for students to learn how to do critical (analytical) thinking.

Common Core’s middle school writing standards are developmentally inappropriate for average middle school students. Adults have a much better idea of what “claims,” “relevant evidence,” and academic “arguments” are. Most children have a limited understanding of these concepts and find it difficult to compose an argument with claims and evidence. This would be the case even if Common Core’s writing standards were linked to appropriate reading standards and prose models. But they are not. Nor does the document clarify the difference between an academic argument (explanatory writing) and persuasive writing, confusing teachers and students alike.

Most of Common Core’s college-readiness and grade-level standards in ELA are empty skills. Skills training alone doesn’t prepare students for college-level work. They need a fund of content knowledge. But Common Core’s ELA standards (as well as its literacy standards for other subjects) do not specify the literary/historical knowledge students need. They provide no list of recommended authors or works, just examples of levels of “complexity.”

They require no British literature aside from Shakespeare. They require no authors from the ancient world or selected pieces from the Bible as literature so that students can learn about their influence on English and American literature. They do not require study of the history of the English language. Without requirements in these areas, students are not prepared for college coursework.

Common Cores’ mathematics standards also have serious flaws.

Common Core does not complete the teaching and use of the standard algorithms of arithmetic until grades 5-6.

Common Core defers the study of many Algebra I concepts to grade 9. This makes it difficult for mathematically able students to complete an authentic Algebra I course in grade 8. As the 2013 NAEP results indicate, over 30% of 13-year olds nation-wide take Algebra I, a percentage that has been increasing regularly since 1970.

Stanford University Mathematics Professor R. James Milgram testified before an Indiana House Education Committee that: “Our students will be more than two years behind international expectations by grade 8. The top countries start algebra in grade 7 and geometry in grade 8 or 9. By the end of grade 9, their students will have learned all of the material in a standard geometry course, all the material in a standard Algebra I course, and some of the most important material in a standard Algebra II course. This allows a huge percentage of them to finish calculus before graduating from high school.”

While at first it is surprising that Common Core’s non-rigorous standards received a grade of B+ from the Fordham Institute in its 2010 review, one needs to know that Fordham received about one million dollars from the Gates Foundation to promote them and also used a different evaluation and grading scheme from the one it had used in earlier reviews of state standards. Thus, one should be skeptical about Fordham’s claim that Common Core’s ELA standards are superior to most states’ standards. Many states would benefit from better standards for K-8 than they had, but Common Core’s ELA standards have different but more serious problems than the previous standards in many other states and must be revised before their students can benefit from them.

What should revision address? Common Core’s standards need international benchmarking, credible authors, and removal of the arbitrary percentage for literary study in K-12. Its Validation Committee (VC) was supposed to ensure that its standards were internationally benchmarked. Even though Professor Milgram (the one mathematician on the VC) and I (and possibly others) regularly asked for names of the countries to which the standards were supposedly benchmarked, we didn’t get them. Indeed, Common Core’s chief mathematics standards writer made it clear that its aim is not to increase the number of students for the freshman mathematics courses that science, engineering, and nursing majors should take. He told the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education at a public meeting in March 2010 that Common Core’s vision of college readiness means readiness for admission to a non-selective college.

Moreover, neither of Common Core’s chief standards writers (David Coleman and Jason Zimba) has ever taught in K-12, nor published anything on curriculum and instruction. They are basically unknown in the field of education.

For credibility, Common Core’s standards must be revised by high school English and mathematics teachers, literary scholars, and science, engineering, or mathematics instructors of freshman mathematics—groups that were excluded from the development of Common Core’s standards. This would ensure that states that adopted Common Core to increase achievement in low-performing students are not at the same time inadvertently reducing the academic challenge needed by other students.

As many states proceed to implement Common Core’s standards, they should keep in mind: (1) These standards are NOT internationally benchmarked. (2) They are NOT rigorous. (3) NO research supports Common Core’s stress on “informational” reading instruction in the English class or its approach to geometry in secondary schools. (4) NO state needs Common Core to find out how its students compare with those in another state. It can already use NAEP state results to do so. (5) The inter-state mobility rate in K-12 is estimated at less than 2% of the school population.