The basic concept of Common Core—when it was adopted by most states of the U.S. in 2010—was to create a uniform set of learning standards for all citizens. But the implementation has been marred by extreme misunderstandings of the negative impact on students from poverty, especially with regard to the essence of teaching and learning.
As a result, students from poverty are being damaged. I have been in the education business for 40 years, have spoken to more than 1½ million educators, and have been on countless K–12 campuses across the country and around the world. I have never seen an approach that has been so problematic—and I have seen plenty. Here are seven reasons the current Common Core approach is so damaging:
1. The underlying assumption is false. The assumption is that compliance and standardization create human capacity. Compliance and standardization do not create capacity. Compliance works only as capacity is developed. Innovation and capacity are developed in environments where experimentation, exploration, passion, and interest intersect. The standardization is a “cookie-cutter” model that attempts to make everyone the same (one or two high school diplomas when there are at least 650+ job descriptions??). What does this do to students from poverty? They are often denied the development of their own interests, passions, understandings, talents. Why? Often their parents cannot support them outside of the institution, and the institution is forced by legislation to make them all the same. The amount of talent that thereby goes undeveloped is a huge loss to individuals and to the United States.
2. When teacher evaluation is tied to student achievement, many excellent teachers opt not to teach students from poverty. Because students from poverty have fewer resources and outside supports, they often require much more time and energy from the teacher. Then to tie the teacher’s evaluation to factors that he or she does not control (violence, hunger, environmental pollutants, taking on adult roles of childcare and sick care, addiction, high mobility, etc.) cause even the best teachers to find students for whom academic success is easier. So in most high-poverty neighborhoods, students are taught by teachers who have less than five years of experience. As soon as a beginning teacher can transfer to a better teaching assignment, he or she usually does. One study found that it takes on average five years of teaching before an individual can make a significant difference in student achievement. Many times students from poverty teach the teacher how to teach effectively rather than have the benefit of teacher expertise from the outset.
3. Testing has replaced teaching. All of us have one thing in common—24 hours a day. When one-third of the school year (yes, this is the practice in many schools) is spent pre-testing and testing, then one-third of the school year is lost to teaching. Students from poverty desperately need to be taught; that is how capacity is developed.
4. Common Core contributes to a meaningless curriculum. In order to get the states to agree—because of differences in textbooks and materials—Common Core has led to a fragmented, unrelated, often skills-based curriculum. Learning has meaning only in context. Without meaning, there is little motivation to learn. For example, if a high school football coach led drills and practice every day, but the players never played a football game, eventually most of the players would become uninterested and quit. But that is what we do to students every day. Many states have computer programs that spit out activities for the standard, but the activities are skills-based and loosely connected to content or context. One of the trends across the United States is that students, particularly high school males, are voting with their feet and not coming to school. Why? Learning has no meaning. Students who come from educated households have parents who explain the significance of the learning and assign future-oriented meaning to it. Students from poverty often do not have those resources.
5. Evaluating the teacher by watching the teacher is archaic. Business owners do not “watch” their employees; rather, they look at their productivity—and that productivity is not measured with a paper/pencil test. It is analogous to watching and making a video of a National Football League coach, giving the players a paper/pencil test on football, but never actually having the players play. We evaluate a coach by the performance of the players on the field. Paper/pencil tests measure knowledge; they do not measure what a person can do—they measure only what the person knows. (Writing can be an exception, as are a few others.) If we really wanted to evaluate teachers well, then we would look at student work. It is the ability to produce that allows one to be successful in work. For students from poverty, to not be given the opportunity to produce meaningful work further limits their potential as adults. Very few schools have a protocol for looking at student work. Teachers give grades on homework but seldom calibrate the work against standards.
6. The tests are biased against students in poverty. SAT and ACT officials know that test scores are directly linked to the socioeconomic status of the student. Knowledge bases are developed by environments. For example, one of the questions on the Texas state assessment in the third grade several years ago was this: “Describe your closet in detail.” That question assumes the following: (a) that you have a closet, (b) that there is something in it, (c) that you have the language to describe it, and (d) that you know what a closet is. For example, one of the questions on an IQ test is this: “What do you call someone who designs and builds houses?” If the student said a builder, he or she received no points. The correct answer was architect. Another example: One of the IQ tests for second-graders has a picture of a couch, chair, and table. The correct answer was furniture. One of our students said, “A garage sale.” He received no points. And so students score low or are failed, in part because they have not had the opportunity in their environment to learn the knowledge bases that are tested by Common Core.
7. There are almost no allowances in the implementation of Common Core for the following examples (all true):
a) A student who is 14, a political refugee, has no English, has not had any schooling for four years. What grade do you assign to the student? Which test?
b) A student who is 15 from another country with a 10-year-old sibling who will not leave her side because of trauma. How do you test the sibling?
c) A student who has been home-schooled for three years and received virtually no instruction.
d) A seventh-grader whose mother is bedridden, whose father abandoned them when the child was 6, and who feeds and bathes his mother every day without any adult support. (The school found out about it when he ran across desks screaming.)
e) A student who comes to school every day simply for food and safety and eats little or nothing on weekends. In 2014 in the United States, 54% of all children receive assistance from WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), the government food subsidy program for children under 5. What value does testing bring to these students or the teacher who teaches them??
Right now, the implementation of Common Core and other aspects of the U.S. educational system are taking us off the path of developing human capacity in our students. We don’t need to worry about global competition; we will implode from within—that is, unless we begin to teach meaningful content again; honor individual student talents, situations, and needs; and develop capacity rather than spending inordinate amounts of time in our schools trying to measure it.