An Open Letter to Alabama Legislators
As you are certainly aware by now, a new set of instructional standards in Mathematics and Language Arts (called Common Core State Standards) have been written and adopted by many states. If you are unfamiliar with the reasons for drafting these instructional standards or with the process, I will leave that explanation to others. You must already know that Alabama’s decision to adopt these standards – as part of the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards (CCRS) – has become the topic of a great deal of concern, debate and (some would say) controversy. Note: I will continue to refer to the Common Core throughout this letter with the caveat that I am referring to Alabama’s adoption – CCRS. In spite of my efforts through parent informational meetings, information posted of our school website and the work done by our school system to provide our community with context and details to understand the shift to Common Core standards (which took place officially last year for Mathematics and this year for Language Arts), some parents continue to express concerns about this decision. More frustrating for me is the fact that many parents are not expressing concerns but make comments in passing that reveal that they have a very inaccurate understanding of what this shift means. Unfortunately, this issue which should be purely academic seems to be turning into a political one. Opinions ranging from misinformed to wildly inaccurate to conspiracy theories are bombarding our community. I assume that some (if not many) of the members of the community (and others around the state) are contacting you with these concerns. More than one has communicated to me a hope that Alabama will withdraw from the Common Core. I am writing today in the hopes that one building principal’s perspective will be helpful as you carefully consider this issue. Here are three facts I believe are important for you to know.
1. The Common Core are instructional standards only. The thread that runs most commonly through the concerns I hear is based on a misunderstanding of this fact. Instructional standards describe the academic skills and concepts that students should learn. They do not prescribe content – such as specific books that must be read. They do not prescribe how to teach – such as how fast to go or which resources to use or what order to go in. They do not prescribe the teaching of any cultural or political or religious ideologies. The confusion on this point is understandable: schools and school systems do make decisions about which resources to use and what order to go in and which books to buy. Educators draft lists that they believe lend themselves to teaching to the level of understanding prescribed by the Common Core. These actions are right and good. They are cause for differences of opinion, which should result in honest discussions and consensus at a local level. Blaming any of this on the Common Core is an act of great dishonesty by those who know better. Think of industry standards in any other profession – we do not blame the standard of excellence when individual companies make unethical decisions or change their product in the pursuit of those standards. Neither should we blame Common Core for the decisions local schools and school systems make.
2. The Common Core raises expectations. With respect to the concerned and well-meaning folks I know who have repeated the notion that the Common Core lowers academic expectations for students, this idea is simply ludicrous. In my opinion, the only way to hold this position is to be unfamiliar with the standards themselves or with the instructional standards they replaced. Any public educator who takes this position is engaging in intellectual dishonesty. To anyone who has this concern, I strongly recommend the rich set of resources accessible on the Alabama Department of Education website (and linked here). Of particular interest might be documents that provide a side by side comparison between (the former) Alabama Math and Language Arts standards and the Common Core. Let me highlight just one 7th grade math standard as an example. The instructional standard used to read as follows: “Identify whether a number is rational or irrational”. The corresponding Common Core standard that replaces it reads in part: “Apply and extend previous understanding of operations with fractions to add, subtract, multiply and divide rational numbers.” How is it possible to claim that a shift from accurately identifying something to using that same thing in complex ways is a lowering of expectations? I boldly claim that if a lowering of expectations for students does happen anywhere, it is in no way because the standard for learning described in the Common Core caused such a decline.
3. Common Core and standardized testing are two separate issues. Standardized testing is an issue about which we should be having a discussion. I am very strongly of the opinion that we have allowed our schools to become aligned to the wrong objective. In the name of raising standards, we have been spending the majority of our efforts on raising test scores over the last decade. The cost of that focus has been meaningful student learning. Here’s the problem: more learning (usually) results in better test scores but better test scores don’t necessarily prove more learning has happened. When it was time for us to choose between more learning and higher test scores, we chose better test scores. We have been talking as if those two things are the same for so long that is doesn’t even occur to most people to see a difference. When critics of the Common Core warn of new and terrible testing regimens, that assumption is completely reasonable. For many school systems, adopting the Common Core will result in the adopting of new tests. Because the Common Core is more demanding, the new tests will almost certainly be more demanding. However, the mentality that says that the only way to know that students are learning is to put a multiple choice test in front of them is the culprit in this scenario, not the Common Core. To be absolutely clear, I believe that we need the level of expectations Common Core lays out and we need to shift away from our obsession with standardized tests. I am aware that some of my colleagues do not share this position – some because they disagree but many because they simply do not believe it is possible to shake free of the culture of testing. I believe we can not afford to abandon the Common Core and that we can also not afford to continue making better test scores the purpose of school.
I have heard other objections to Common Core. Some frequently repeated include the following: it is a thinly veiled attempt to enrich curriculum developers, textbook companies, and standardized test writers; it is a conspiracy for indoctrinating a generation with a liberal worldview; it is a usurpation of the states’ right to design and provide a free, public education; it kills creativity; it robs teachers of the freedom to make decisions about their teaching, etc, etc. To all these I say there is a difference between the instructional standards that are the Common Core and the choices that local schools and school systems make to implement them. These issues may indeed be pitfalls associated with Common Core, but they can all be avoided with good decision-making.
To each of you tasked with making legislative decisions on behalf of the citizens of our great state, I make this simple appeal: refuse to let the debate over the Common Core continue to be a political issue. We should be discussing these concerns. No change of this magnitude should be made without a great deal of open dialogue, including honest dissent. However, using the Common Core as the instructional standard in our schools will only be a political issue if we continue to let it be one. Each community should hold its educators accountable to make good decisions. Please do not bow to the pressure you are feeling to force a withdrawal from the Common Core. Please do talk to educators. It is our job to know what the Common Core is; we would love to talk to you about it. Our students deserve to be taught at high levels. The Common Core describes exactly that kind of high expectation. Whether or not you represent the citizens my school serves, it would be my honor to speak to any of you interested in a more in-depth conversation regarding this issue. You can reach me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you in advance for your careful consideration of these ideas.
To anyone reading this who is not a legislator, I make this appeal: find out what the Common Core (the standards) really are. Engage the educators in your community in a discussion about this topic. Ask what is being done to implement these instructional standards and what will be done in the future. Form an opinion about the standards and about the way your school and school system is implementing them. Speak to your representative. Encourage educators from your neighborhood to do the same thing. Most importantly, insist that your school sets high standards and helps all students reach them. Your child deserves such a school. All children do.