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Pulling Back the Curtain on Common Core

Pulling Back the Curtain on Common Core

Now that the curtain is being pulled back on the real origins of Common Core, states would do well to reconsider their hasty decisions to adopt this pig in an academic poke.

Common Core’s national K-12 standards, in English language arts (ELA) and math, supposedly emerged from a state-led process in which experts, educators, and parents were well represented. But the people who wrote the standards did not represent the most important stakeholders. Nor were they qualified to draft standards intended to “transform instruction for every child.” And the Validation Committee that was created to put the seal of approval on the drafters’ work was useless if not misleading, both in its membership and in the process they had to follow. One of us served as the ELA content expert on that Committee and can attest to its deficiencies.

For many months after the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) was launched in 2009, the identities of the people drafting the “college- and career-readiness standards” were unknown to the public. CCSSI eventually revealed the names of the 24 members of the “Standards Development Work Group” in response to complaints from professional organizations and parent groups about the lack of transparency.

What did this Work Group look like? Focusing only on ELA, the make-up of the Work Group was quite astonishing: It included no English professors or high-school English teachers. How could legitimate ELA standards be created without the very two groups of educators who know the most about what students should be and could be learning in secondary English classes?

CCSSI also released the names of individuals in a larger “Feedback Group,” but it was made clear that these people were advisory only – final decisions would be made by the English-teacher-bereft Work Group. Indeed, Feedback Group members’ suggestions were frequently ignored, without explanation. Because the Work Group labored in secret, without open meetings, sunshine-law minutes of meetings, or accessible public comment, its reasons for making the decisions it did are lost to history.

(AP Photo)

The lead ELA writers were David Coleman and Susan Pimentel – neither of whom had experience teaching English in K-12 or college, and only one of whom (Pimentel) had ever helped draft ELA content standards before. But they had been chosen to transform ELA education in the US.  Who recommended them and why, we still do not know.

Theoretically, the Validation Committee (VC) should have been the failsafe mechanism for the standards. But the VC contained almost no experts on ELA standards; most were education professors and representatives of testing companies, here and abroad. It quickly became clear that the VC existed as window-dressing – it was there to rubber-stamp, not improve, the standards.

The VC was given a draft of the college-readiness standards in September 2009 and asked to review them. The ELA standards were grossly deficient. The citations provided no evidence that they supported authentic college-readiness or were internationally benchmarked. VC members’ repeated attempts to obtain the evidence for such benchmarking were ignored.

Mistakenly assuming they should fulfill their charge to improve the standards, some VC members initially circulated their critiques among themselves and compared notes. CCSSI soon put a stop to that. From that point on, individual VC members sent their critiques directly to the black hole that CCSSI proved to be. Suggestions were made, suggestions were ignored. One aspect of the ELA standards that remained untouchable was Coleman’s idea that nonfiction or informational texts should occupy at least half of the readings in every English class, to the detriment of classic literature and literary study more broadly. Even though all the historical and empirical evidence weighed against this concept, it was set in stone.

CCSSI wanted a good draft of the college-readiness and grade-level ELA (and math) standards before January 19, 2010, the date the US Department of Education had set for state applications to commit to adopting the standards to qualify for Race to the Top grants. But the draft sent to state departments of education in early January was so bad that some alarmed VC members forced CCSSI to delay releasing a public draft until March. The language in the March version had been cleaned up somewhat, but the draft was not much better in organization or substance – the result of unqualified drafters working with undue haste and untouchable premises.

The final version released in June 2010 contained most of the problems apparent in the first draft: lack of rigor, minimal content, lack of international benchmarking, lack of research support. None of the public feedback to the March draft has been made available.

So this was the “transparent, state-led” process that resulted in the Common Core standards. The standards were created by people who wanted a “Validation Committee” in name only. An invalid process, endorsed by an invalid Validation Committee, not surprisingly resulted in invalid standards. Now that the curtain is being pulled back on the real origins of Common Core, states would do well to reconsider their hasty decisions to adopt this pig in an academic poke.


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