Common Core Standards: The Measuring Stick With No Measurements

by Linda Szugyi

I’m three chapters into Terrence O. Moore’s new book, The Story-Killers:  A Common-Sense Case Against the Common Core, and all I can say is amen.

Thanks to the military lifestyle, our family experienced a Church of England primary school, two Catholic private schools, and a public virtual school in just five short years.  These experiences were pre-Common Core, but one of the major problems we encountered was the same:  high-sounding standards, written in elaborate academia-speak, which in reality translated into Older Son being hopelessly bored half the time, and desperately overwhelmed the other half.

What do I mean by hopeless boredom?  Older Son was an early reader, but that didn’t matter in Britain’s version of kindergarten, which is called reception.  He was still required to “read” the non-verbal books, at the same speed as the rest of the class.

That’s right.  I said non-verbal.  The first several readers had no actual words in them.  The teacher explained to me that, while she noticed he was already reading fluently, these books were an important tool for teaching him to look at the pictures for clues as to what the text (when eventually provided) was saying.

Things came to a stressful climax in Older Son’s third grade year, also known as the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.  I knew it was going to be bad the minute I opened the teacher’s “welcome letter.”  The words “welcome letter” require quotation marks because three pages of single-spaced brick-wall paragraphs are frankly not that welcoming.

There were so many instructions, it was hard for me (an adult! with a degree!) to follow.  The supply list was so bizarrely detailed, I didn’t even know what some of the items were.  Also, she used too many exclamation points.

I knew we were not going to get along.

That’s a story for another post, but yes.  We didn’t get along.  She liked to use the word “rubric,” and in our first parent-teacher meeting I asked, “What is a rubric?”  She explained it as the system used for grading assignments, which really annoyed me because if it’s the grading system then why don’t you just use the word grading?

Well.  The thing is.

Thanks to The Story-Killers, I have figured out that it is not as simple as a new word coming into vogue because it makes the education establishment sound more expert.

The “rubric” isn’t a grading system.  It’s not a matter of “you get x amount of answers wrong, you get x grade.”

It’s a set of standards.

What?  You don’t know the difference?

Grades demonstrate what you have and haven’t learned.  For example, if I couldn’t write an essay without comma splices, my 10th grade English teacher would give me the grade of F.

Grades have meaning.  Standards, on the other hand, are meaningless:

“The so-called standards that states adopt, however, consist in a vague set of ‘learning objectives’ that are either general skills or amorphous concepts surrounding an academic subject.” Story-Killers, page 65.

General skills are the things that your child would learn anyway, by virtue of the fact that he is living breathing human.  Like learning that the pictures in a book give clues as to what the book is saying.  Amorphous concepts are the purely meaningless part.  Like Common Core Standard RL-2.9:

“By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories and poetry, in the grades 2-3 complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.”

Sound good?  Or at least, does it sound expert?  Let Mr. Moore put it in plain English for you:

“Students in second grade should read and understand more difficult books at the end of the year than at the beginning.  They may need help, though.”  Story-Killers, page 68.

Now, here comes the part where Common Core experiences are going to be even worse than what we have already seen.  Mr. Moore visited classrooms and found that in the Common Core world, everything will be governed by the standards.  They are posted on the classroom wall.  Teachers are forming the habit of making every lesson explicitly tied to at least one standard.  This is the “alignment” part of the Common Core creature:

“It is not a stretch to say that the schools are now operating under a cult of standards.  Everything must be connected to a standard.  Nothing can be done that is not a standard.  Very few people see the utter poverty of the standards, so the language of the standards binds all.  Teachers must write mind-numbing lesson plans in which everything they mean to teach or assign is cross-referenced to a standard. . . . Of course, much of this ‘lesson-planning’ becomes a cut-and-paste operation, just as the Common Core Standards themselves have the feel of that wonderful function of Microsoft Office.”  Story-Killers, page 78.

The proponents of Common Core, such as New York Education Commissioner John King, try to sell it as “a path to precise reading, writing and thinking skills.”  At the same time, they remind us that it isn’t a curriculum.  It’s just a standard.

How, exactly, can a standard measure a child’s reading, writing, and thinking, without stating what specific knowledge and skills (i.e., curriculum) are necessary?

Critics like me are put on the defensive, because “how can you be against raising academic standards?’  When “standards” are meaningless vagaries that allow political indoctrination under the guise of “critical thinking,” you better believe that I am against them.