Criticizing Common Core Coverage

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.”

(We did look at them, honest.)

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).[1]

“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.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I could not find the problem at this link. In a subsequent email he wrote, ‘they seem to have eliminated the sample problems.’

13 Responses to “Criticizing Common Core Coverage”

  1. mike bowler 21. Aug, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

    I thought it was balanced, informative. (See Bill Keller ‘s excellent piece in Sunday Times.) I’m on the board of large district (108,000 students). Spent today in p.d. around CC language arts curriculum. These teachers are nervous and have lots of questions. The observation that the first grade is a mess has merit. But I think most believe this is the right thing to do and are willing and excited about being a part of a historic effort

    • Linda 21. Aug, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

      So they were nervous or excited? Not sure a member of a BOE will receive an honest anwser from nervous teachers. We’re really not allowed to disagree or even ask too many informed questions. Historic? Maybe but not for the reasons you think.

      • mike bowler 25. Aug, 2013 at 1:36 am #

        I talk to teachers almost every day and, yes, they are nervous AND excited. It’s known as being human.

  2. Anthony Cody 21. Aug, 2013 at 10:31 pm #

    I agree that a segment focused on the controversy surrounding Common Core would be a very different one from those you produced, and given the significance of this issue, such a segment is long overdue.

    I think the segments you produced sets us up to be a bit skeptical of the capacity of tests to measure some aspects of collaboration, but seems to accept at face value that the way they “raise standards” is a positive step.

    The fact that policymakers do not trust teachers is not merely shown by the unwillingness to rely on their judgment in evaluating student work in any dimension at all. The way the tests are being used to measure and evaluate teacher performance is a huge top-down effort to manage teaching in a way that has never been even attempted by a federal government. Teachers will soon even have their credentials depend on test scores in some states like Tennessee.

    The headline you flashed from Kentucky was telling. “Scores drop as expected.” We now know that scores dropped – as expected once again – in the state of New York this year. It is sad to say, but Arne Duncan and the architects of this project lack credibility when they speak. This project appears to have been engineered to produce failure from the start, as New York’s principal of the year Carol Burris explained recently.

    I hope you will cover the fiasco in New York, and soon, and speak not only to Carol Burris, but to Diane Ravitch, and teachers like Katie Lapham, who can tell you how the Common Core is filtering into her classroom, and replacing the units she has designed with those approved from above as “Common Core aligned.” The promises of teacher autonomy are melting away as the tests arrive. The Common Core will not rescue us from a test-centered model of instruction – it was designed to be just that, in spades.

    • john merrow 22. Aug, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

      Anthony, we expect to be covering the CCNS and its roll-out for some time, including the politics of the effort. Our job is not to take positions but to let lots of voices be heard.
      See Joe Beckmann’s thoughtful comments below regarding assessments.

  3. Joe Beckmann 22. Aug, 2013 at 11:07 am #


    The problem with Common Core, both testing and instruction, is not only that it trusts not teachers, but it very specifically does not trust students. And, since students are the supposed beneficiaries, this invalidates or at least undermines the entire process.

    Nowhere is this more evident than in why, how, or why not the systems incorporate portfolios – more specifically, those portfolios Kellogg funded through Learning Matters (this site) which document what students think of their own work. When we did that pilot program, now a few years ago, we yielded to students the opportunity to “grade” or demonstrate their own evidence of “soft skills” effectiveness – those same skills you now cite, that range from responsibility to collaboration, creativity, inquiry, technology, and the like. Since those same skills had been “validated” by industry for several decades, and finally in the SCANS Report in the 1990′s, it made sense to focus on how to capture those skills in media that these same students (and many of their teachers) already know. So the portfolios included written, graphic, video, and computerized evidence students drew from their work both in and out of school.

    One might question what criteria a student might use, but such a question is precisely what an employer, a college, a colleague, parent or teacher might, could, or should use to assess the student in any case! One might relegate such evidence to supplement test scores and other data (like “attendance,” for just one example, which is, in fact, a better indicator of whether a student drops out than a test score). Yet even as a supplement these data are far more useful to a college application or a job than most test scores, in both short and long term uses.

    One of the ironies of Learning Matters and that Kellogg sponsorship is that this method is still being used in at least one of the schools that participated in the pilot – in Somerville High School. And that makes historic data – of the last three to five years – available, if anybody has any question. Given that there is no way to “score” skills like “responsibility,” or collaboration or other soft metrics, there are remarkably easy ways to compare such evidence that students themselves provide. And, in such comparisons, one could attach a number, a grade, or an improvement metric over time….

    So don’t dismiss the “common core” when you, at Learning Matters, have already produced much richer data than Pearson and other testing companies. As Louis Agassiz said to his students in Harvard’s biology courses in the 19th century, “watch your fish.” It’s amazing what those fish can say.

    • john merrow 22. Aug, 2013 at 12:31 pm #

      Bravo. I was at the PDK/Gallup Poll release yesterday, on the panel actually. Someone in the audience how the system could focus on the whole child (et cetera) and assess progress. I volunteered that it would be simple to do that, but not easy. And then riffed on measuring what we value. I suggested that the first unit to be assessed was the school, not its students, teachers or administrators. Ask ‘how often do students have PE every week?’ ‘how often art?” ‘how often music?’. Measure teacher turnover and attendance. Count the number of evening events for parents (such as student talent shows). And so on.
      If I had had the time, I might have talked about project-based learning, portfolios, and the like.
      The event was taped for C-Span and may air soon, by the way.

  4. Gisele Huff 22. Aug, 2013 at 3:42 pm #


    It is your personal concern, expressed in the last paragraph of your posting, that makes me lose sleep as well. If the Common Core imposes a standards/assessment regime based on what grade a student is in according to his/her age, it will negatively impact the potential of blended learning. By tweaking the system and making it just as rigid in its “new and improved” form, the Common Core will represent a “sustaining innovation” not a “disruptive” one that can transform learning for America’s children.

  5. Linda Johnson 25. Aug, 2013 at 5:36 pm #

    Now that there is significant pushback against all this “reform,” it’s easy to see that those who are fighting for it (“reform”) are mainly people who are after school tax money in low-income areas (Surprise!). These people are looking for profits in testing, charters, online learning, etc. and almost none are teachers (no money in that!). Many of these people DO know what good education is like and that’s why their own children are usually in affluent suburbs or private schools with fewer than fifteen to a room and a broad curriculum.

    All this unconscionable fraud is coming to light because of people like you, John. Thank you and “just follow the money.”

    As for Common Core, my opinion is that it will be one more very expensive education fad: It will neither help nor hinder any child. Why would it? If we truly want to improve education in our country, we must respond to over fifty years of research. The answers are there but they will be neither easy nor inexpensive to implement.

  6. Jmi Stergios 26. Aug, 2013 at 1:07 pm #

    Hi John:

    Jamie’s was not a “political” one. Note that he made reference to your report’s lack of

    “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.”

    I suppose federal statutes/the rule of law and costs may be construed as political in some way. But your piece, as it dealt with what Common Core might be translated as in the classroom, was directly related to the quality of the standards, which the most highly reputed experts on academic standards have found to be mediocre. Jim Milgram, professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford University and the only academic mathematician on Common Core’s own Validation Committee, stepped off the VC because the Core leaves US students two years behind international competitors in math. Is that not a consideration worth discussing as you mention what CC looks like in the classroom? It would be to students in a number of states that had higher expectations before the adoption of the Core.

    For those interested in looking at how the Core stacks up to key states and internationally, you can go to:

  7. Joel Patterson 26. Aug, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

    Mr. Merrow,
    I’m teaching the Common Core this year in my mathematics classroom in Massachusetts. It’s good–and the practices are the main reason it is good. The topics do make sense and fit with each other, and it is better organized, I think, than the previous Massachusetts standards, which were good. But the point is the practice, not so much the content. What would an art class be if students only did paint-by-numbers? Not so great, I would say. I say that in mathematics, you want students to be seeing connections across ideas, observing mathematical structure, and generalizing because these higher level thinking skills help you deal with new and unfamiliar questions. That is not only how to prepare children to succeed but also how to help them find joy in mathematics.

  8. Joel Patterson 26. Aug, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

    By the way, those Federal provisions banning national standards are part of an old segregationist tradition of trying to make sure Southern states controlled the history books in the schools, so textbooks would have sentences like “Plantation owners treated slaves well.” In the 1960s and 1970s, LBJ and Carter could not pass legislation through the Senate without appeasing powerful segregationists. The tradition continues with people on local school boards trying to take evolution out of biology classes.

    Perhaps a states’ rights person can get up in arms about national curriculum, but most people with moderate sensibilities know the laws of physics and logic of geometry are the same throughout America, and it is no injustice to teach them to children in America as such.

    As Martin Luther King quoted St. Augustine, “An unjust law is no law at all.”

  9. Susan Goding 27. Aug, 2013 at 6:28 pm #

    In our school district we doubled the number of students taking algebra in seventh grade in one year when we switched from teacher recommendation to using the MAP test for student placement. There is a false conventional wisdom that teachers “know” their students. Teachers bring the same biases and prejudices to their classroom as we all have. I look forward to a better test like Smarter Balanced, which Washington is using. I don’t see the US investing in teacher quality any time soon. My hope is with adaptive software each student will receive an appropriate education. My hope also is that the software will provide prompts to teachers to give students correct examples, more complex analogies and give them more challenging questions to ask students.The Common Core and the new assessments have the potential to improve education if they are not watered down before they are adopted. My school district is just at the talking stage of implementing them. Our elementary literacy program went out of print in 2007, so our students will have to get something cobbled together. Don’t mention Open Education Resources, the administration is against that too. I am sure the administration is hoping that the CCSS and the tests get modified before anyone demands they do anything to prepare the teachers. Our Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction is already warning the public that test scores will drop. That drop will provide cover for inaction for a while.

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