A friend asked this question on Facebook. My response:
There are several real problems with Common Core.
1) They’re still just standards, which is to say demands, not solutions. They don’t address the actual causes of education problems in the United States; they just provide a demand that the problems be solved. Real solutions would involve substantial reductions in class sizes, vastly increased funding for education, very large salary raises for teachers so as to attract and retain the best pedagogues, and redistribution of educational funding from richer to poorer districts. No, you can’t solve a problem just by throwing money at it, but not having enough money is, in this case (and other cases, for that matter), a real and substantial contributing factor to being unable to solve the problem.
2) They set the bar at the same level for everyone across the country without regard to what the starting point for different groups is. Areas that have been deeply impoverished for generations, that have substantial proportions of students whose native language is not English, that have a population of students whose parents are disproportionately uneducated or illiterate, etc. etc. etc., are held to the same standards as upscale private schools in wealthy urban and suburban areas, but the disadvantaged schools are not given additional support of any kind in reaching the goals that they’re being held to.
3) Like with every other set of educational standards that the US has tried, a determining factor is that assessment has to be done efficiently. (This is related to the educational funding problem.) This motivates teachers virtually everywhere to simply teach to the test, because the test determines whether the district will be punished with a reduction in funding. But since the test has to be assessed efficiently, it doesn’t really measure anything meaningful: it just measures the ability of the students to take a test that doesn’t really measure anything, but mandates a lot of class time be spent on learning test-taking strategies for a bullshit exam. This takes away from time that could be spend actually educating students, and gives the students a bullshit idea about what education is for.
4) The standards only (claim to) measure competence in basic math and language proficiencies. This leaves huge, important swaths of the educational field totally ignored: we don’t have any expectation that students will understand anything real about any of the social sciences (the few nods toward history being an attempt at the creation of a myth of the Greatness of America, not a real social-science education), critical thinking, politics, foreign languages, cultural literacy, personal reflection and self-development, computer skills, etc. etc. etc. AND FOR FUCK’S SAKE, WHAT ABOUT SCIENCE?
5) They set the bar very low for even those things they claim to measure. Students don’t need to engage deeply with complex texts or ideas; they just need to demonstrate, within the parameters of the exam, basic literacy skills. Similarly, students don’t really need to understand mathematics; they just need to be able to mechanically solve certain types of problems. (Notably, they don’t make any real effort to solve the problem that Americans as a group have a fucking abysmal understanding of statistics and what they mean, despite the fact that data that is statistical in appearance has a near-religious status in public debate.) Common Core is a step toward improving this, but it’s a small one. High school students are capable of doing much better in these areas then they’re currently being asked to do.
6) The standards talk a lot about preparing students for “real life,” but every time they do, they immediately define “being prepared for real life” as “meeting the needs of college and business.” (And the understanding about “college” that’s left implicit in our public discussions about Common Core, and what college is for in general, is that college is merely another step that some people — increasingly the rich — take to be even better prepared to serve the needs of business. When someone who’s arguing in favor of Common Core complains that “students are not prepared for college,” what they’re really complaining is that, in order to meet the needs of business, some — or many — students are going to need to have remedial training for things they didn’t get in high school before they can start taking a “college-level” approach to learning to better meet the needs of business.) But “real life,” under any meaningful definition, includes much more than that. Notably, nothing in the Common Core standards genuinely prepares students to be informed and active in the political process, to live satisfying personal lives, or to make meaningful decisions about whether our political and social structures are working for us, or whether we should be trying something else instead, and thinking about what that something else might be. Having a rich and fulfilling personal life is ignored; what matters is whether students can calculate the maximum weight load on a bridge or write a business letter. This is called “realism.”
7) Regardless of what politicians say in public, actual educators were not substantially involved in the design of the standards. They were designed by a think tank with few teachers involved, and those teachers who were involved were not experts in pedagogy, but rather experts in their individual fields. Expertise in an individual field is all well and good, and very important in a number of ways, but having a very few educators who don’t have a sense of the scope of the field of education in general and who are lost in a sea of consultants, B-list celebrity gurus, politicians, and people who achieved prestige through philanthropy means that (a) the educators themselves didn’t really contribute much to the design of the standards, and (b) what they did contribute was their idiosyncratic personal opinion, not the consensus of educators in general. When a draft was presented to the larger community of educators, their feedback was largely ignored; though the strong advocates of Common Core claim that they represent the consensus of educators and that educators were involved in their design, this is simply not true. The factoids about educators and Common Core that are tossed around, such as the NEA’s claim that 76% of member teachers “support” the Common Core standards, are disingenuous. Asking teachers “will you take this pre-designed thing over what you have now?” is not the same as asking teachers how education should be conducted.
8) People in different areas, with different cultures and histories, need different educational experiences. To take just one obvious example, dealing with the question of race in American history needs to be done differently in Alabama than it does in New York.
So, yeah, the Common Core standards are a step forward in some ways, but a small one, and they’re a band-aid rather than a real solution. I guess if a thug is going to attack you and take your wallet, it’s better for her to push you off of your bicycle and break your arm in three places than to beat you to death in an alley with a tire iron, but neither is really an attractive course of events. Or, to pick what’s maybe a better metaphor, if your goal is to contribute as little as possible to climate change, it’s better to drive a Prius than a Suburban, but really solving the problem will involve a lot of real changes — making nonpolluting energy sources more viable, locally sourcing food, making public transportation a genuinely viable option for everyone, abandoning the belief that profit is the only important consideration in public policy decisions — and not just making different consumer choices.
Your old friend with twelve years of education experience with junior-high, high-school, and college students in a variety of capacities isn’t enough of an expert to get tagged in this question?