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Getting Beyond the Popular Debate:
Critical Points on Common Core
By Robb Scott

The Common Core State Standards Initiative has come under increasingly vitriolic attack in the past six to nine months, and appears to be developing into a major rhetorical battle for the upcoming mid-term election cycle.

An objective observer understandably might see all of this as "No Child Left Behind" Part 2, but there are some important differences, particularly as regards the involvement of the federal government in the process.

NCLB was the result of a bipartisan process starting in the Clinton administration and coming to a Congressional vote early in the Bush administration, before being signed into law by President Bush. From one perspective, NCLB was very well-intentioned in its emphasis on counting students who were at-risk, or emergent bilingual learners, or students with disabilities, and disaggregating their scores so that schools and districts have more accountability for each of these traditionally underserved populations instead of cloaking their scores within the school's overall totals.

This spotlight on differentiated curriculum and instruction forced many schools and local school communities to push themselves to learn new teaching skills, and in the process many teachers experienced a revival of the passion which originally had led them to become education professionals.

The argument against involvement of our federal government in local, regional, and state-level responsibilities for the education of children is not supported by the facts of American history. Again and again, inequity at local levels has only been remedied by decisions and mandates at the national level. Discrimination and bias are eminently local phenomena which individual members of groups identified by gender, race, socioeconomic status, disability, or other factors which have led to prejudice against them by a dominant majority, are not able to defend themselves against without relationships of solidarity across territories and, ultimately, the intervention of the federal government, through legislation, case law, and regulations.

Brown v Topeka Board of Education made possible further developments on the federal level which have promoted and protected the rights of all students to a free and appropriate public education. It would be simplistic and bigoted for a white man like me to suggest that everything ought to just devolve back to the states and local jurisdictions, based on the logic that what was going on back when I was a child (I started kindergarten in 1963) was "good enough."

One prominent example of relief brought by federal mandate is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which was originally passed as P.L. 94-142 in 1975, when parents and families of children with disabilities finally were able to force schools to share the privilege of an education with their sons and daughters.

I once asked a prominent ESL/EFL guru where children with special needs fit into the super-theory of language learning that the guru was traveling all over the world promoting, and the answer which landed with a dull thud was that it didn't matter because the solution for all students was the same (as per the super theory being promoted).

Many other forces were at work during the same time as when NCLB was being implemented throughout America. One key political debate was over "English-only" rules and restrictions on bilingual approaches to the education of emergent bilingual learners (who used to be called "English language learners" or "limited English proficient"). Another trend in those years was the anti-immigrant rhetoric which led some to propose not allowing public schools or hospitals to admit undocumented immigrants.

These societal trends distracted many communities from the obvious benefits a child receives when he or she finds a welcoming environment at the local school and research support for bilingual approaches to the education of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. As one superintendent in California stated at that time in an interview, "It's like telling an art teacher that you can teach art, but you can't use the color red. You know, if, in fact, the ability to speak another language will help a student learn, not only English, but the whole learning curriculum, then why should we take that out of a teacher's hand?"

The other problem with the way NCLB was implemented is that we did not have enough administrators like Dr. Jack McLaughlin (quoted above) but instead there were many who fell captive to the pressures of the adequate yearly progress (AYP) and became, in effect, cheerleaders for school-wide efforts focused entirely on preparation for high-stakes testing, thereby communicating that anxiety to their teaching staff, who passed it on to the children, and forgot about how important it is for a child to enjoy the learning experience itself.

Common Core was not developed at the federal level. It is a concept that has driven conversations at the state level and between states, conversations which have gotten out very far ahead of where the Department of Education was at and certainly light years ahead of where our phlegmatic Congress stands firmly resisting progress on any issue.

The National Governors Association (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) have managed to develop a set of standards for English and Mathematics skills which nearly all the states had agreed upon and adopted before the Obama administration even noticed this groundswell.

It was smart of Arne Duncan to get on board and for the administration to pitch in with funding to get behind what the states had already decided to do anyway.

It is possible that Obama wants to eventually take credit for Common Core the way Bush took credit for No Child Left Behind.

I have seen some recent quotes by Arne Duncan and am disappointed by the condescending tone of his statements towards the opponents of Common Core. We are very lucky to have President Obama in office because he is so intelligent, but he and his administration all share this condescending tone that occasionally slips into their rhetoric and has very likely done a lot to prevent more progress on a number of fronts.

States busy implementing Common Core also have been ill-served by the heavily bureaucratic tendencies of New York State government and its bizarre emphasis on making the Common Core assessments as labyrinthic as imaginable.

I am a teacher educator and I have been in classrooms where teachers are implementing the new Common Core Standards. What is really going on is that teachers who have supportive administrative and colleagues are feeling that their creativity has been unleashed because they are encouraged to bring real-world applications into their teaching, bringing concepts to life for their students, who are having more fun and feeling more challenged than ever.

I am also a special educator, and I am relieved that finally we are seeing a swing in the pendulum back towards incorporating life skills in the general curriculum. These skills are central to transition to post-secondary settings in college and careers, and that is a strong research interest of mine in special education. During the era of NCLB, the entire emphasis was on academic skills, which nearly prohibited special education IEP teams from including functional, or life skills in the annual goals for individual students. I feel that the Common Core Standards are also going to have an unleashing effect on the creativity of these IEP teams in developing more innovative and effective individual plans for students with disabilities.

The real danger is that the high-stakes testing regimen of NCLB might simply be replaced by a high-stakes, over-complex Common Core regimen. Indeed, there have already been skirmishes regarding accommodations for students with special needs on the Common Core assessments.

The real challenge for educators and for legislators is going to be figuring out how to allow the Common Core Standards to influence curricula but without adding a complicated bureaucracy of testing at the top.

Article by Dr. Robert Bruce Scott, Ed.D.
Manhattan, KANSAS

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