The Common Core State Standards have been adopted by 46 states in hopes of better preparing students for college and their careers. Broadly speaking, there is a lot to like about the Common Core—especially the focus on literacy and critical thinking. But a number of citizens, educators, and lawmakers are wary about the standards. And, as with many education initiatives, testing has been one of the main sources of controversy around Common Core.
One prominent critic, Diane Ravitch, an educational historian and N.Y.U. professor, questions whether the standards will actually work. Once agnostic toward Common Core, Ravitch, in February of this year, publicly came out in opposition. In a blog post entitled “Why I Cannot Support the Common Core Standards,” she cited concern over the lack of field testing.
“Maybe the standards will be great. Maybe they will be a disaster. Maybe they will improve achievement. Maybe they will widen the achievement gaps between haves and have-nots. Maybe they will cause the children who now struggle to give up altogether,” Ravitch wrote in the post. “Would the Federal Drug Administration approve the use of a drug with no trials, no concern for possible harm or unintended consequences?” she asked, concluding that the Common Core adoption has made us “a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time.”
Meanwhile, parents and educators are rising in opposition to the plethora of new exams that will be used to assess student learning under the Common Core standards. This opposition has culminated in the formation of a national “opt out” campaign from a nonprofit group: The United Opt Out National offers state-by-state guidelines on its Web site that parents can use to affirm their right to opt their children out of state tests. The Web site also features a toolkit of sample letters and other resources for parents and concerned citizens to share at PTA and school board meetings, and with the general community.
Fanning the flames, last month, the state of New York released new standardized test results. As expected, the scores were not good. Just 31% of students grades 3–8 across the state met or exceeded the English Language Arts (ELA) proficiency standard, and just 31% met or exceeded the math proficiency standard. And the scores of minorities reflected the concerns Ravitch expressed about achievement gaps: only 16% of African-American students and 17% of Hispanic students met or exceeded the ELA proficiency standards. Just 3% of English Language Learners exceeded the standard. As expected, the drop in student scores has fueled resistance to the standards among educators and parents.
In July 2013, meanwhile, politicians in Georgia and Oklahoma decided not to adopt the standardized tests created to measure student outcomes in relation to the Common Core standards. The reason cited for the defection: cost. Lawmakers in a number of other states are also seeking to withdraw from the testing consortium, and legislators in Maine are considering a total repeal of the standards.
Cost is a legitimate concern. In July, the Washington Post published a piece that focused on the costs of administering the Common Core tests—as much as $29.50 annually per student for the math and reading tests. There are also costs associated with training teachers and purchasing new materials to support the new curriculum. Opponents fear that school administrators may be unable to locate the additional funding needed for the Common Core changes without dipping into programs such as the arts, music, and library media services.
But here is another point of concern: two-thirds of respondents to an annual PDK/Gallup Poll admitted they don’t even know what the Common Core standards are. Furthermore, many educators responsible for teaching and implementing the new standards don’t fully understand them, as a dearth of resources has led to a lack of training for teachers and administrators.
In response to the opposition, supporters of Common Core remain steadfast in their efforts to uphold the standards and dispel the myths that they feel surround them.
Distinguishing myths about the Common Core from reality will be a chief function of this column, as we explore the issues and opportunities of the new educational standards. Readers of this magazine—including publishers, librarians, and booksellers— will be impacted by the development of the Common Core. We’ll not shy away from controversy, and we hope to keep you informed and enlightened, and to help you figure out what the Common Core means for you as it rolls out, and what you can do to get involved.
Libraries in the Lead
Among those who see promise in the Common Core standards, are librarians. For a little more on that perspective, we recently caught up with the new ALA president, Barbara Stripling, to talk about about the library’s role in supporting the Common Core State Standards—and what’s needed from publishers. Here's our Q&A:
Congratulations on beginning your term as ALA president. At the ALA conference in Chicago, your 2013–2014 presidential initiative, Libraries Change Lives, was revealed. Do the Common Core standards have a role in this new initiative?
Absolutely, but it is not a one-to-one connection. ALA is doing a huge advocacy campaign for school libraries—the piece on the Common Core will be to emphasize how librarians can help teachers integrate the literacy skills of the Common Core. Children in America should not be deprived of the right to learn the skills that will help them succeed in college, and for the rest of their lives.
How do you think the new standards will affect librarians?
There will be an impact on the way they serve youth in their libraries, and also the way they assist parents who are looking to help their children succeed. What I see for public librarians is some emphasis on their skills, but more emphasis on the type of resources and books that they provide.
I was on a breakfast panel hosted by Publishers Weekly back in April, and part of what Marc Aronson and I were trying to get across is that there is a shift in the kinds of books that libraries must have available and will need to acquire. For example, [they will need] more high-quality nonfiction, excerpted texts, exemplary speeches, and other pieces that aren’t generic textbooks or watered-down generic nonfiction books. Kids need to probe more deeply, they need multiple perspectives, so I think public libraries are trying to understand what they need to order now, what kinds of resources they’ll need to make available.
What aspects of the Common Core standards do you think will have the most positive impact on student achievement?
First, the Common Core has raised the expectation level for the kinds of critical-thinking skills expected of our kids. The Common Core does not define literacy as just being able to read and write, but as being able to produce information as well as to consume it. That is one aspect that I hope really takes hold.
Teachers are still struggling with the fact that [under the new standards] literacy is the responsibility of every teacher in the school. That is why librarians should have such a vital role, since these are the skills that we teach. For example, a librarian helping a social studies teacher integrate critical thinking and literacy skills into a lesson on the Civil War would be a great collaboration. The Common Core shouldn’t just open the door to greater collaboration between educators and librarians—it should force it wide open.
At the recent ALA conference, many representatives from publishing companies were looking for information on how to best support the implementation of the Common Core standards. Do you have any advice for publishers?
One thing I know is that the quality of the writing matters. So, the generic, cookie-cutter approaches are less valuable in this new environment. [Publishers] should know that more and more teachers are turning away from generic textbooks and moving to trade books.
It seems to me that publishers—if they are equipped to do this—might want to give guidance [to educators and librarians]. It is not helpful for publishers to just declare that all of their books are now aligned with the Common Core. Also, it is helpful when publishers take the time to include controversies, multiple perspectives, and different points of view about the same topic. Those kinds of things are what teachers are going to be scrambling to find.
Some think that the Common Core standards present a great opportunity for librarians. Do you agree with this view?
I think the Common Core is an opportunity for librarians to step into the instructional leadership role in their schools. Their role needs to go way beyond just what they do in the library. The librarian has a chance to collaborate and connect with every teacher in his or her school and to strengthen the teaching that happens in the classroom. It is about the instruction that librarians do, the integration of technology and social media, the research aspect, the strand that runs through K-12. It is about the teaching of critical-thinking skills. It is a golden opportunity. There has never been a better time for us to step up and take a leadership role.
The Common Core Toolkit
Just starting out with Common Core? Want to keep up on the latest news, trends, controversies and successes? Check out our Common Core Toolkit.
There’s plenty there to get you started if you’re new to Common Core, and plenty to chew on if you’re already involved. And we’ll post a new toolkit with each monthly column.
You can e-mail us with any questions, comments, or with any resource suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to hear from you.