Part 2 of 4
By Ben Velderman
NEW YORK – When Nicholas Tampio’s son started kindergarten, he was so excited about learning that he would skip on his way to the school entrance.
Tampio credits the teacher’s creative and unique lesson plans for his son’s interest in school.
But when the class began using a reading program designed to satisfy the new Common Core learning standards, Tampio says his son’s skipping stopped.
The school’s change to Common Core resulted in the teacher’s inspired curriculum being replaced with a dull and ordinary one that’s designed by a major textbook company. The teacher could no longer tailor the curriculum to each child’s needs and interests. Instead, students were assigned books from a predetermined list of Common Core-aligned materials.
The joy of learning was replaced with the dread of prepackaged lessons and standardized tests, Tampio says.
“In one fell swoop, my son’s educational experience went from an A to a C,” says Tampio, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University.
He doesn’t blame his son’s school for the drop in quality.
The fault, Tampio says, lies with the Common Core initiative that’s taking decision-making powers away from teachers, principals and local school boards – and giving them to the national organizations that are designing and implementing the new math and English K-12 standards.
Proponents of the Common Core standards – which are being implemented in New York and 44 other states – acknowledge the learning standards are different from what most teachers, parents and students are used to. But they insist the new standards are more “rigorous” and will better prepare students for college or the work world.
A recent L.A. Times editorial explains Common Core this way:
“The standards are designed to push students to deeper levels of understanding and analysis. They call on teachers to cover fewer topics but to delve into each more thoroughly, and they discourage rote learning in favor of fuller understanding of the material. In math, for example, it might be less important for students to give the correct answer to a problem than to be able to describe the best process for reaching the solution.”
Common Core’s English standards have also generated controversy because they emphasize informational texts over literature. Under Common Core, only 30 percent of a high school student’s reading will be literary-based. That mandate reportedly led one English teacher to replace a Shakespeare reading assignment with one from Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point,” a fact-based book.
No wonder some critics describe the new standards as “a mere workforce development tool.”
Common Core supporters contend, however, that the new learning standards are aligned with the practices of the world’s highest-performing education systems, and are superior to most existing state standards.
But those claims must be taken on faith, as Common Core has not been piloted anywhere in the nation. In fact, states began signing on to the new standards before they were even written, a phenomenon caused by President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative.
It will take years of test results to determine whether or not Common Core is living up to its lofty goals of improved college and career readiness. But judging from the early experiences of some teachers and students – as well as the analyses of some expert scholars – the new national standards could be sowing the seeds of an academic disaster.
‘Deeper’ understanding leads to fewer overall math skills
Under the terms of Common Core, the typical elementary math class has replaced the memorization of multiplication tables (a time-honored educational practice) with group discussions about mathematical concepts.
Drew Crandall, a third grade teacher in Washington State, explains the new approach in a video promoting Common Core.
“In the Common Core standards, [students] need to understand what multiplication and division are – not just say back mathematic facts,” says Crandall.
The video shows Crandall’s students looking at a chart of numbers that have been multiplied by four, and sharing ideas and insights about any patterns they recognize with a partner.
Crandall says the new approach gives students a “sense of ownership in their math.”
“And when they’re sharing, it helps them both learn from each other [and] it also helps them revise or defend their own thinking,” he adds.
Critics say that approach to teaching math not only slows down the learning process dramatically, but it ultimately leaves students further behind than ever.
In 2011, James Milgram, a Stanford University mathematics professor and a former member of the Common Core validation committee, warned Texas lawmakers about the effects the new standards will have on student progress.
“For example, by the end of fifth grade the material being covered in arithmetic and algebra in Core Standards is more than a year behind the early grade expectations in most high achieving countries,” Milgram said. “By the end of seventh grade, Core Standards are roughly two years behind.”
Common Core’s math standards “are written to reflect very low expectations,” Milgram added. “More exactly, the explicitly stated objective is to prepare students not to have to take remedial mathematics courses at a typical community college.”
That’s why Common Core’s high school standards only cover Algebra, Geometry, about half of the expectations in Algebra II, and nothing at all about calculus, Milgram said.
Common Core supporters insist the new learning standards are more rigorous than the ones most states are using.
Former U.S. Department of Education official Ze’ev Wurman writes that might be true for some states, but “they are certainly lower than the best of them.”
English standards focus on practical reading skills
Common Core’s English standards are also raising eyebrows.
According to the Common Core website, the new standards are designed to be “relevant to the real world.”
To that end, Common Core slowly weans students from studying literature to reading “informational texts.”
By the time students reach their senior year of high school, 70 percent of their reading will be dedicated to nonfiction, a category that includes “historical documents, scientific tracts, maps and other ‘informational texts’ – like recipes and train schedules,” reports a New York Times blog titled “The Learning Network.”
The Telegraph, a British newspaper, summed up the new approach this way:
“Books such as J.D. Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ will be replaced by ‘informational texts’ approved by the Common Core State Standards. Suggested non-fiction texts include ‘Recommended Levels of Insulation’ by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,’ and the ‘Invasive Plant Inventory,’ by California’s Invasive Plant Council.”
The emphasis of informational readings is meant to better prepare students for the workplace and college, but critics say it will drain all the imagination and creativity from the classroom – all in the name of providing students with practical, job-ready skills.
“In the end, education has to be about more than simply ensuring that kids can get a job,” Jamie Highfill, a middle school teacher from Arkansas, told The Telegraph. “Isn’t it supposed to be about making well-rounded citizens?”
It’s highly likely that once the Common Core standards take full effect, parents, school leaders and state lawmakers will find that the new learning requirements move too slowly or skim over important concepts.
Under the terms of Common Core, schools can only supplement the new standards by 15 percent. That means student learning can be slightly accelerated, at least in theory.
But the reality is that the supplemental material will not be included on the new standardized tests that are being designed to align with Common Core. And since a number of states are linking teacher evaluations to their students’ test scores, educators will have no incentive to work ahead of the national standards.
It all adds up to a lower-quality education for many students.
Nicholas Tampio has heard all the promises that Common Core standards are rigorous and high-quality, but he isn’t buying those claims.
“You can say whatever you want on the back of the cereal box,” Tampio says, “but my son’s spitting it out.”
Next Monday: Common Core’s data-mining of student records raises concern among parents