The Common Core Shift: Misunderstanding and Misrepresenting by Jesse Bluma

The Common Core Shift:  Page 3/5

According to Achieve Inc., the problem in American schools is that the curriculum was not rigorous and that solution is to make it more rigorous.  Pearson and other educational companies jumped on board offering curriculum, seminars, and textbooks based upon the principles of Common Core.  This is one more example of how profits are made from educational “reforms”.

Common Core, Project Self-Esteem, Whole Language, Race to the Top, State Standards, and many other “reforms” sound good.  After careful analysis, implementation, and billions of dollars spent, each has shown to be a false-messiah.  That does not mean none of these educational reforms has merit.  Project Self-Esteem encouraged students to think about emotions affecting actions, PLCs encourage teachers to work together to enhance learning, and group work gives students an opportunity to learn leadership and communication skills.  

As each of these had benefits, each failed to take American students to number one in the world.  The origins of Common Core is based upon the belief that schools across the country lack rigorous standards, thus more rigor will improve the skills and knowledge of students.  A false narrative is painted in the minds of parents, grandparents, voters, politicians, and many more with these kinds of misleading studies.

An assumption is made that teachers, after years of college and post-college training and education, do not utilize strategies such as annotating reading materials, slowing down when needed, and modeling for students how to find and use evidence.  Thus, Common Core does not require a “shift” in teaching practices.  Most, if not all, of these and other strategies are were already used in classrooms before the federal Common Core standards were implemented.  Common Core merely restates educational standards and adds specific pedagogy.  Secondly, an assumption is being made that somehow the few teachers that do not utilize these strategies, did not after previous reform programs, will somehow utilize these strategies under Common Core.  

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) led the Common Core State Standards Initiative.  The groups worked with representatives from participating states, a wide range of educators – including Chuck Pack – content experts, researchers, national organizations, and community groups.  The Common Core standards are also informed by the standards of other high performing nations, including Finland.

The CCSS and similar state standards in the United States are very similar to the core curriculum expectations articulated in countries like Finland, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea.  Finland is the favored son of Common Core backers.  David Coleman, co-author of Common Core, often refers to the education system in Finland as a model for America and others.  Curiously what is not mentioned is the vast differences between Finland and the United States.  The population of Finland is 93.4% Finn, 91.2% of the population speaks Finnish, the country also has 0.62 migrants/1,000 population.  In contrast, the United States has a population of 79.96% white, 12.85% black, and 4.43% Asian.

Note: a separate listing for Hispanic is not included because the U.S. Census Bureau considers Hispanic to mean persons of Spanish/Hispanic/Latino origin including those of Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican Republic, Spanish, and Central or South American origin living in the U.S. who may be of any group (white, black, Asian, et cetera); about 15.1% of the total U.S. population is Hispanic.  In America, there is a wide variety of languages:  English 82.1%, Spanish 10.7%, other Indo-European 3.8%, Asian and Pacific island 2.7%.  The Unites States has a net migrant rate of 3.64 migrant(s)/1,000 population.

Absent from the extolling of Finland as a model, is the contrast of cultures and populations.  One country more monolithic and one country more heterogeneous.  The United States has its own qualities and characteristics that must be addressed and recognized.  America does not have a bad education system, we have a different manner of educating students.  Accepting and honoring those differences is valuable and we must make considerations for students that are English Language Learners and the continual stream of new immigrants.  According to the Unites States census, from 1980 to 2007, there was a 140% increase in the number of people speaking a language other than English at home.  The largest increase was in Spanish speakers (about 79% of the increase)

In California, there are approximately 1.4 million English Language Learners in public schools (85% of which speak Spanish).  Yes, American students can do better in school.  Do American students lag behind other nations?  Yes.  Although when broken down by ethnicity on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, Asian students in America do as well as Asians in Asian countries, and Caucasian students do as well as other students in Europe.  Those of Hispanic and African origins do as well as students in Austria, Sweden, Norway, and the Ukraine.

If educators in Finland can recognize the contrasts, why don’t Common Core experts?  Henna Virkkunen, Finland's Minister of Education, was interviewed about the education system in her country by Justin Snider, a news editor and advising dean at Columbia University in the United States.  

"Teachers in Finland can choose their own teaching methods and materials. They are experts of their own work, and they test their own pupils.  Our educational society is based on trust and cooperation, so when we are doing some testing and evaluations, we don’t use it for controlling [teachers] but for development.  We trust the teachers.  We haven’t had so many immigrants in Finland, but we are going to have more in the future—and we need more because we have an aging population. In some schools, in the areas around Helsinki, more than 30 percent of the pupils are immigrants. It seems that we have been doing good work, also with the immigrants, if we look at PISA results.

Normally, if children come from a very different schooling system or society, they have one year in a smaller setting where they study Finnish and maybe some other subjects.  We try to raise their level before they come to regular classrooms.  We think also that learning one’s mother tongue is very important, and that’s why we try to teach the mother tongue for all immigrants as well.  It’s very challenging. I think in Helsinki, they are teaching 44 different mother tongues.  The government pays for two-hour lessons each week for these pupils.  We think it is very important to know your own tongue—that you can write and read and think in it.  Then it’s easier also to learn other languages like Finnish or English, or other subjects.

Educators must serve the local community, and it’s very much tied to a country’s own history and society, so we can’t take one system from another country and put it somewhere else.  Our students spend less time in class than students in other OECD countries.  We do not think it helps students learn if they spend seven hours per day at school because they also need time for hobbies, and of course they also have homework."

If we reread her statements carefully a few items stand out to us.  First, Finland does not seek to control teachers, turn teachers into robots, nor force them to follow scripts.  The attitudes and words of respect for the teaching profession matches the actions of officials in Finland.  Secondly, Finland does not hide its immigrant population.  Those that do not speak the language are acknowledged, educated in a systematic manner, and teachers are not blamed for the “failure” of these students on tests.   

In addition to David Coleman and others misunderstanding and misrepresenting the Finland model, another characteristic of Common Core is troubling.  The Common Core standards and literature do not address parents.  This is a significant flaw, as parental aspirations for their children has a larger impact on student learning than feedback from teachers, study skills, homework, testing, and teacher education.  Other important factors in school:  self-reported grades--students predict their performance  1.44, reinforcement 1.13, instructional quality 1.00, testing .30, and teacher education 0.11.  Student characteristics:  prior cognitive ability 1.04 and disposition to learn .6.  Home influences:  parental aspirations for children’s educational achievement .80, home factors .67, home environment (socio-psychological) .57, parent involvement .46, transiency/mobility -0.34 (that is a negative).  Social influences:  peer .38 and television -.12 (that is a negative).

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