Plenty of good reasons exist for Indiana to drop out of the Common Core, the national initiative to standardize what is taught in all public schools throughout the country.
It takes away local control. It reduces teacher flexibility. It substitutes the judgment of anonymous educrats for that of expert math and English teachers. It’s too focused on career readiness at the expense of learning for learning’s sake.
But the biggest reason to oppose Common Core has nothing to do with policy considerations and everything to do with quality. The standards are inferior to what Indiana already had in place. They are hard to understand. Yet teacher training, course materials and student testing must all be based on them.
Former Gov. Mitch Daniels and School Superintendent Tony Bennett pushed Indiana to join the Common Core movement in August 2010. Almost no public discussion occurred. The state’s various educational boards went along.
Since then, the standards — in effect for math and language arts with science and history to come — have been panned by many experts. This is especially worrisome for Indiana, where our English standards had been ranked among the best in the country.
The Legislature this session could withdraw Indiana from Common Core. The state could then return to its earlier standards or revise them to incorporate what’s good in Common Core.
One need only read the new standards to spot some glaring problems. They’re wordy, redundant and poorly organized. Some of the language leaves your head spinning. For example, Grade 6 students are to “write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence” by using “words, phrases and clauses to clarify the relationships among claim(s) and reasons.”
Compare that with the clarity and specificity of the old Massachusetts state standards, which were considered the nation’s best: “Write brief research reports with clear focus and supporting detail” or “write a short explanation of a process that includes a topic statement, supporting details and a conclusion.”
Or Indiana’s: “Write informational pieces of several paragraphs that: engage the interest of the reader; state a clear purpose; develop the topic with supporting details and precise language; conclude with a detailed summary linked to the purpose of the composition.”
Advocates say national standards are necessary to ensure students have the same foundation of skills to compete in a global economy. If this is true, don’t we want national standards that are clear, concise and easy for teachers to implement?
Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita at the University of Arkansas and national guru in academic standards, gives the Common Core a C- or D+. Stotsky testified Jan. 16 before the Senate Committee on Education and Career Development in favor of withdrawing from Common Core.
Her biggest complaint? The standards expect English teachers to spend half their reading time on informational text rather than literature. In other words, instead of reading Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” a class might read an article about Shakespeare’s life.
This is a mistake, Stotsky says, because critical thinking skills are developed by reading, analyzing and discussing complex literature. “When you learned how to read ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ you were ready for college level material,” she said.
Stotsky has many other worries. The standards muddle distinctions between general and domain-specific vocabulary acquisition; they use developmentally inappropriate terms for writing composition and fail to adequately distinguish between expository and persuasive writing; in grammar, they lack developmental sequencing and are redundant from grade to grade. The standards’ self-proclaimed goal is that “all students are college and career ready,” which may be true, Stotsky said, if they mean “non-selective vocational college.”
In many circles the debate over Common Core has boiled down to an ideological one over local versus national control of education. We needn’t go there.
“I am not a libertarian,” Stotsky said. “I would support first-class standards for the country if we had input from the experts who could assure these are first-class standards.”
Stotsky is one such expert, and she assures us they are not.
Andrea Neal is adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.