In the business of journalism, criticism is part of the deal. We are taken to task for leaving out important parts of the story or for getting the facts wrong, and sometimes we get criticized for not doing the story that the viewer wanted to see. That’s the preface to the question of this piece: “Was our 2-part report on the Common Core national standards an infomercial,” as one viewer charges? That was the harshest criticism leveled at us (as far as I am aware), but two other viewers wrote to say that we missed important parts of the story. The harshest critique came from Jamie Gass of the Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts-based, right-leaning think tank that opposes the Common Core.
This piece really seems like an infomercial for Common Core that doesn’t provide any opposing view or criticism of either the academic quality of the Common Core, the legal issues (three federal law explicitly prohibit the federal govt from funding, validating, or directing national standards, tests or curricula), or the costs to states/districts. For three years, Pioneer Institute has done nationally recognized research on all these topics.
This is an interesting segment, John, I’m just not sure this is actually what I would call journalism.
(Mr. Gass to the contrary, the Common Core was not developed by the federal government and is not curriculum. Washington has played and is playing a major role, of course. We reported all of that.)
I responded to Mr. Gass as follows:
I respectfully disagree but take your point. The politics of the Common Core deserves its own segment, and it’s one we are planning. As you are aware, it’s a moving target, with some strong opposition from left and right.
My own personal view, which won’t be in any piece, is that the CC may calcify age-grading–ironically and perhaps tragically at the very time when technology allows true individualization.
The cooler aspects of the CC such as collaboration, speaking persuasively and the like, cannot be tested by machines, meaning the system will have to trust teachers. But it’s designed to be in part a “gotcha” system (as we pointed out), which is beyond paradox. A genuine contradiction.
We trust the intelligence of our audience to recognize, for example, the strong hand of Washington in the CC.
Thanks for writing and for all the good work Pioneer does. It’s solid and interesting and very often invaluable.
The civilized back-and-forth continued, in Mr. Gass’ response:
As you may know, our opposition has turned on the lower academic quality of Common Core, as well as cost and legality.
I’m not sure I’d characterize our opposition to Common Core as “political,” but primarily educational and legal. After all, there are three federal laws that explicitly forbids the federal government from funding, directing, or validating national standards, tests or curricula. Two of these three laws were signed into law by LBJ and President Carter. These are federal laws, not a list of political recommendations to be obeyed or disobeyed based on whim or convenience.
And we’ve done the first, most thorough, and only non-Gates funded evaluations of Common Core’s standards lower academic quality against high standard states, including MA, IN, TX, MN, and CA. Merely giving Common Core proponents unchecked and unanswered air time for their views doesn’t really serve the public interest or a robust public exchange of ideas.
It seems to me that Mr. Gass wanted us to produce a very different piece, one that debated the wisdom of the path that public education is on. (For his view.) Our view is that the debate, while important, is a different level of the story. That’s the upper atmosphere, but our intention was to give the audience a picture of what Common Core teaching can look like at ground level, in classrooms. You cannot get that in the Wall Street Journal or anywhere else in print, and I don’t think you will see it on other television news programs. And we wanted you to hear from teachers and students, not policy makers and their critics.
In Part Two we dug deep into testing issues, exposing how the federal government’s own stipulation may well doom the enterprise to failure, because the ‘new’ skills the Common Core emphasizes–like speaking persuasively and working collaboratively–simply cannot be assessed by machines. And the Feds want data that can be used to evaluate (and perhaps fire) adults, because, deep down, the folks at the top apparently don’t trust teachers.
We obviously did not produce the report that Mr. Gass wants to see, about the politics of the Common Core. At some point, I am sure we will.
Two other critics, one an economist and the other a lawyer, clearly thought we should have explored the new standards in more depth, instead of focusing on the ‘new’ skills like working collaboratively. The lawyer focused on the English Language Arts standards: “If you look at the first grade curriculum, it is ridiculous. Someone thinks they are PhDs.”
I agree with her, for what it’s worth. They are cumbersome and, to this former English teacher, horribly overwritten. Read them yourself and let me know if you can get through them without nodding off.
The economist took us to task, gently, for not exploring the complexity, not to say pomposity, of the new national Mathematics standards. He wrote: “Enjoyed your piece on the Common core on the PBS NewsHour last night and will watch tonight’s show. You might find it interesting to look at the standards themselves.”
He then provided a sample 3-part problem which he said is for 11th graders and was taken from an official document explaining the Common Core (.pdf).
“Give me 8 sheep and then we will have an equal number” said one shepherd to another.
“No, you give me 8 sheep, and then I will have twice as many as you” replied another shepherd.
First the student must solve the problem: 1) How many sheep did each shepherd have to start with?
And then: 2) Write an equation or inequality that has (a) no real solutions; (b) infinite numbers of real solutions; and (c) exactly one real solution.
Finally: 3) Solve an equation of the form f(x) = c for a simple function f that has an inverse and write an expression for the inverse. For example, f(x) =2 x3 for x > 0 or f(x) = (x+1)/(x–1) for x ≠ 1.
The economist added wryly, “Being able to solve these problems would, undoubtedly, be nice. Unfortunately, facing this kind of problem encourages a great many college freshman to enquire about how little math they can take and still graduate and many graduates to state that they hated the subject.”
The criticism notwithstanding, I believe that our pieces were balanced and fair. Our reporting about the effort to develop tests broke new ground. But our coverage was not thorough because we did not air the debate about the complexity of the standards or the legal challenges, and we did not give airtime to those on the left and right who oppose the Common Core.
Frankly, that’s asking too much of two reports of perhaps 13 minutes in total air time.
My personal concern–which you should not expect to see or hear from me on the NewsHour–is that these national standards, even if higher and deeper, may be a step in the wrong direction because they may make it harder to individualize learning opportunities. Today’s technologies allow kids to soar–or fly lower and slower where that’s appropriate, but a rigid interpretation of the national standards–”This is where you are supposed to be”–will merely repeat education’s common failing of mindlessly aiming at the middle. That would be a tragedy.
- I could not find the problem at this link. In a subsequent email he wrote, ‘they seem to have eliminated the sample problems.’↵