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How the Common Core Became a Misbranded Buzzword Used to Define Federal Overreach


President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently addressed concerns that her past ties indicate she’s a supporter of the highly polarizing Common Core State Standards.

Said DeVos at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan: "It’s time to make education great again in this country...This means letting states set their own standards and finally putting an end to the federal Common Core."

DeVos’ intentions to end the Common Core mirror Donald Trump’s early campaign promise to get rid of the Common Core when elected.

"[As president, I'd] end Common Core. Common Core is a disaster," he said, even releasing a rare video to support his claims.

What DeVos and Trump both haven’t said is how they intend to follow through with their intentions.

As many policymakers, journalists and other education experts have noted, the new education legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), makes it impossible for the federal government to interfere with state standards—either for or against.

"The Secretary cannot require a state to add to or delete from its standards, or interfere with state standards, as dictated by section 1111(e)(1)(B)(ii) in the new law. In section 8527(d), there is an explicit prohibition on any federal approval or certification of standards," says the new education legislation. 

In other words, while states were pushed to implement Common Core through an incentivized program called Race to the Top, the Department is no longer able to push for or against any set of standards in such a way thanks to ESSA.

This makes it particularly challenging for Trump and DeVos to act on their promises to repeal the Common Core Standards as well as indicates a grave misunderstanding of a central component of education by two people who will ultimately be education’s highest leaders.

So how did we get here? How are two of the country’s most important officials perpetuating a myth—and why are people buying it? Education World analyzes how the term Common Core has become synonymous with federal overreach—and why people don’t care that it would take federal overreach to now get rid of it.

Prior to implementation, the original intent of the Common Core State Standards was to set high standards for America’s children to learn in order to best be prepared for life after graduating from the K-12 system.

Bill Gates, who himself has spent millions of dollars on Common Core through his foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, described his ultimate vision for the standards in 2015 to PBS. The ideal objective of the standards, he said, was to ensure that no student has to take a remedial class after graduating from high school, which many students currently do. When a child is determined ready to graduate high school, they are without question ready. Additionally, Gates noted that the standards were intended to ensure that a child moving from state to state does not get left behind and instead can pick up where he or she left off prior to the move.

Inarguably, these intentions are good ones designed with the best interest of American students and their futures at heart. 

More recently, the Gates Foundation conceded through Sue Desmond-Hellmann, foundation chief executive officer, that Common Core’s rushed and under-supported implementation resulted partly in the ideological war against national standards that is being waged today.

"Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards. We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators—particularly teachers—but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning," Desmond-Hellmann wrote.

"This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart. The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers." 

Even Common Core supporter Hillary Clinton acknowledged during her failed presidential run that Common Core implementation resulted in its downfall.

"I think the way they rolled out the Common Core and the expectation you can turn on a dime ... They didn't even have, as I'm told, they didn't even have the instructional materials ready. They didn't have any kind of training programs. Remember a lot of states had developed their own standards and they'd been teaching to those standards. And they had a full industry that was training teachers to understand what was going to be tested. And then along comes Common Core and you're expected to turn on a dime. It was very upsetting to everybody," Clinton said in a conversation with Long Island’s Newsday.

So Common Core implementation failed to provide states with the bare minimum to be successful, and thus the irreparable damage to Common Core’s reputation as the evil, misguided intention of Washington’s bureaucrats was cemented.

Teachers revolted, parents opted-out, and they both, well they both looked to those who said they would make it stop by redirecting education from Washington’s power.

Earlier this year, researchers determined through a national survey of K-8 math teachers that although they believed in the standards and thought the adjusted math curriculum would do a better job helping their students succeed, several critical problems were interfering with total success.

Although the survey found that teachers across all grade levels believed their students were relying less on memorization and more on understanding while acquiring a better overall number sense, it also found parents were having a harder time helping their students while at home because they didn’t understand.

According to the survey, 85 percent of teachers believe that "reinforcement of math learning at home is declining because parents don’t understand the way that math is being taught."

Indeed, more than a few parents have taken to the Internet to express their frustration with their inability to explain the unfamiliar math techniques to their children. Some expressions have even went viral, like this father’s attempt to use Common Core’s "ten frames" to write a check.

The post was picked up by many-a-Common Core opponent, although ten frames have actually been determined to be an effective way to teach number sense. To the untrained eye, however, it agreeably looks like a bunch of nonsense—therein explaining the major disconnect.

The fact of the matter is, no parent was prepared to not be able to help their child learn basic math. The Common Core was painted as a saving grace that would help their students achieve more, not less because they couldn’t help them.

From a teacher’s perspective, it didn’t take long to realize that the standards were crafted without a genuine consultation of the K-12 community. While educators are said to have been included throughout the standards’ development process, only "[o]ne K-12 teacher was found to be in the entire process and any other K-12 teachers associated with the products were brought in after the fact mostly to endorse and legitimize them," reports U.S. News.

The result? A national community of K-12 teachers that found the standards’ proposed implementation to be impractical and extremely difficult to integrate into their classroom without extensive training that was nowhere to be found.

But this lack of engagement of both parents and educators doesn’t change the problems that the standards tried to solve. U.S. students do need to be held to higher standards—if they want to compete with their international peers, that is. International assessment after international assessment shows that U.S. students are consistently lagging behind their international peers. Singapore’s students, however, are routinely leading the pack of international students, a main reason why the Common Core Standards are modeled, in part, after Singapore’s curriculum.

And American students are too frequently being caught in the trap of remedial education after graduating high school—costing them both time and money and delaying their opportunity to lead successful careers. 

There will always be an argument against federal overreach when it comes to education, but the existence and implementation of Common Core Standards go far beyond the simple argument that Washington should not get involved.

As always, there’s a reason to look beyond every buzzword and generalized thought—and in this case, the success of America’s students depends on it.

Behind the buzzword that has now all-but-lost its original meaning, there's a long record of hard-fought, well-meaning education reform that should not go ignored. 

Simply calling for the repeal of the standards, as Trump and DeVos continue to do, does not give the argument the complex justice it deserves. 


Nicole Gorman, Senior Education World Contributor 

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