Letter: Why the Common Core is wrong for our kids

To the editor:

Barrington’s schools and teachers are among the finest in the state.  So there is something terribly wrong when a group of parents turns out for a School Committee meeting and one after the other describes heart-wrenching stories about their kids being stressed out by school, frustrated by rote worksheets, and feeling inadequate because they’re confused by convoluted methods for solving math problems that they used to do with ease.  There is something terribly wrong when Barrington Kindergarteners come home crying, saying they hate school, or getting assigned homework.

Yet this is exactly what happened during our last School Committee meeting.  And these stories are not the only ones – just those that have been told so far.

How do we make sense of something so out of place for a place like Barrington? As a parent with two children in the public schools, and having experienced some of the same disturbing incidents described above, I joined with others in town and we started asking questions and doing research.  The results of that research can be found at www.StopCommonCoreRI.org.

What we found is disturbing and consistent across many communities in Rhode Island, and in fact, consistent across virtually all the states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards Initiative (Common Core for short).

This national set of standards for grades K-12 sounded either good or benign to a lot of people at first.  What could be wrong with setting high standards for our kids? As it turns out, quite a lot, much more than can be told here.  But three points stand out:

First, the so-called standards are far more than that – they’re actually curriculum masquerading as standards.  You may think that standards provide general descriptions of what children should know by a certain grade level.  And in fact, a PowerPoint presentation delivered last December by the Barrington director of curriculum states: “Common Core is not a curriculum but a set of standards that define what students should know and be able to do at the end of each academic year from K-12.”

So take a look at just one of the national Common Core standards for Kindergarten math, labeled as “K.CC.B.4”:   “When counting objects, say the number names in the standard order, pairing each object with one and only one number name and each number name with one and only one object.  Understand the last number name said tells the number of objects counted.  The number of objects is the same regardless of their arrangement or the order in which they were counted.”

Even if this were written in clear English, it isn’t a standard.  It’s a requirement to teach very specific and granular information.  Last I looked, that was called curriculum.  This type of specificity is persistent through the Common Core standards, and is literally its reason for being.

Apparently our school agrees, despite presentations to the contrary.  When I asked the Barrington School Department for a copy of our curriculum, they pointed me to the Barrington Curriculum Maps (not easily found on the website).  Those curriculum maps, it turns out, are verbatim identical to the national Common Core Standards.  (The particular standard above is in the Barrington Curriculum Maps, Module 1 – K.CC.4a.) Our curriculum maps in Barrington are identical to the national Common Core Standards themselves – and are coupled with materials such as worksheets that teach the specific standard.  So how are our great teachers going to apply their creativity and uniqueness when they’ve been given this script?  The question, as the Common Core designers well know, is rhetorical.

Second, we are now teaching developmentally inappropriate standards and curriculum to our youngest learners, grades K-3.  These are the very kids who establish a love of learning at this age and who should come home full of excitement and wonder – not stressed out and crying that they hate school.  Yet the wizards who designed the Common Core simply ignored the fact that young brains are different from adult brains.  Not one single early childhood education specialist was included on the Common Core writing panel, though this panel had lots of room for corporate executives from high-powered textbook and testing companies.  (One gets the sense from reading the K-3 standards they would have supported requiring Kindergarteners to swap their backpacks for briefcases if they had the chance.)

A large group of early childhood health and education experts issued a statement in 2010 urging these authors to stop writing the standards and change course.  They wrote that the standards: “…conflict with compelling new research in cognitive science, neuroscience, child development and early childhood education about how young children learn, what they need to learn and how best to teach them in Kindergarten and early grades.”  To the detriment of my daughter and young learners everywhere, their advice was tragically ignored.

Third, we don’t have a single shred of evidence that the new set of standards, accompanying curriculum, high stakes testing and teacher evaluation will produce the results the Common Core believers say they will.  That’s because the standards were not field tested in a single school district or classroom anywhere in the country before being pushed upon us.  That is an omission bordering on the criminal.

How would we feel if a large pharmaceutical company were allowed to develop a drug, in secret, with minimal input from real chemists, explicitly excluded the researchers who know the science behind the drug, failing to heed their warnings that it would have disastrous effects, and were then allowed to release this untried drug to the general public without a single clinical trial to see if it worked or hurt people? We would be outraged and rightly so!  Yet that’s exactly what has happened with the Common Core.  We are the lab rats, our children the subject of this radical experiment.

Here’s how Diane Ravitch, one of the nation’s leading education experts, described the Common Core in a recent speech:  “This is nuts.  We have a national policy that is a theory based on an assumption grounded in hope. And it might be wrong, with disastrous consequences for real children and real teachers.”

If you’ve read this far, you’re now wondering how anything this bad got this far without someone doing something about it.   Money had something to do with it, but   not everything.  Ideology played a role, but wasn’t the driving force. In my view it has gotten this far because those who were most involved in its creation and dissemination – all good people with good intentions – simply forgot one of the cardinal lessons from Kindergarten – just admit when you’ve made a mistake or done something wrong.

At that same School Committee meeting, four out of the five members voted in favor of a resolution announced only two days before supporting the Common Core.  The only dissenting voice was Committee Member Scott Fuller who should be applauded loudly for standing steadfast as the lone voice of reason, responsibility and moderation.

I know for a fact that those four Barrington School Committee members are good people with only the best intentions for our children.  But in the face of the stories they heard that night from the parents of children in real pain, and what we know about the background of this initiative, I cannot fathom why they would vote in favor of a resolution that states they support the Common Core “unequivocally and without reservation”.  We know enough now to pause the implementation of Common Core and PARCC testing.

Tad Segal

Barrington

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