Common What?

As Slate says, it seems that everyone is either against Common Core or hasn’t heard of it—but we believe that it will prevail in most states. Common Core is among the issues that are closely linked to online and blended learning, even though it is an issue for all schools in most states, whether online, blended, or entirely onsite. We have touched on it in Keeping Pace in the past, but only tangentially.

A quick primer: the Common Core State Standards Initiative is an effort led by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers to create academic standards that will augment and/or replace standards that vary among the states. Although the Common Core was created by organizations of states, it has become associated with the federal government because of the Obama Administration’s push for states to adopt it in the Race to the Top competition. The Common Core is also linked to two sets of national assessments being created by two consortia, PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and Smarter Balanced, that were funded by the federal government. The Common Core is designed, in part, to add critical thinking to standards, and the national assessments are intended to test higher-order thinking.

Common Core is linked to digital learning for several reasons. Among the main ones are:

  • Course providers will be able to create one version of each course that is tied to Common Core standards, instead of having to supply different versions of courses that align to individual state standards.
  • Comparisons of students between states will be made possible; to this point it has been difficult to compare students between states. Online providers who hear that their courses are too hard (we have been told that in our surveys of school administrators and students about online courses, not just from the providers) will have new data to bolster their argument that student achievement must be improved.
  • National assessments hold promise for creating agreement on outcomes data and perhaps, eventually, a few commonly accepted growth models that will benefit all students and schools including online and blended.

In recent months, however, several states have had high-profile discussions about dropping the use of Common Core or ending their association with one of the assessment consortia. Most recently, Florida Governor Rick Scott announced  that the state will withdraw from its participation in PARCC. Most of the opposition has been coming from conservatives who feel that the Common Core represents federal government intrusion into a state issue. Some opposition comes from liberals who are concerned about what they perceive as ever-increasing, and poorly-conceived, testing of students.

Amid all the attention that Common Core, and the political discussions, are getting, it’s worth noting two facts. First, as Slate notes, more than 60% of Americans polled by Gallup have no idea what Common Core is.  Many appear to think it’s a diet or exercise plan. While the arguments are loud among a small minority of politicians and activists, the issue has not yet caught the public’s attention.Still, plenty of political issues are decided without much of the public being involved or aware, so a second point is worth noting as well: so far there has been quite a bit of smoke (talk of pulling out of Common Core), but not much fire (states actually doing so). Part of this is certainly due to the fact that educators by and large support the Common Core and are already well along in implementing the standards at the classroom level. Joining them is the business community, which sees deeper and more rigorous standards as the key to American workforce excellence in a globally competitive environment.

Our view is that Common Core is critically important for all sorts of reasons that go beyond digital learning. As a nation we should have a set of academic standards that are consistent between Alabama and Alaska, and we should know how well those students are doing compared to one another, and against the standards. We also believe that the Common Core strikes the right balance between providing clear benchmarks for American students to compete in the world and preserving the role of individual districts, schools and teachers – whether online or offline – to shape the curriculum and instruction necessary to meet those benchmarks.

We remain optimistic that Common Core will be implemented in most states that are considering it, and that few states will renege on their adoptions. But everyone who believes in Common Core should remain vigilant and ready to enter the debate.