Common Core: a national cop-out, not a national curriculum

A cautionary tale...

In the 1980’s, the combination of banking deregulation and lack of oversight allowed a breed of banks known as Savings & Loans to embark on a scheme of making risky loans using depositor funds.  If the loans worked out, the S&L’s stood to profit, but if the loans failed, the deposits were insured by a federal insurance company (the FSLIC).  For the S&L’s, it was a ``heads I win, tails you (the insurance company) lose'' situation.

But it was even worse than that.

When enough loans went bad (of course they did, otherwise it wouldn't be a story), the FSLIC was depleted and went bankrupt, taxpayers footed the $100 billion bill, and (although we are not presenting the entire history lesson) these events contributed to an economic meltdown that is commonly known as the ``S&L crisis''.

What can we learn from history?  For us, it is when someone hands you a ``heads I win, tails you lose'' proposition, be very, very careful before signing on the dotted line.


In the introduction to the CCSSI, a paragraph reads, in part,
[T]he mathematics curriculum in the United States must become substantially more focused and coherent in order to improve mathematics achievement in this country. To deliver on the promise of common standards, the standards must address the problem of a curriculum that is `a mile wide and an inch deep.'  These Standards are a substantial answer to that challenge. (CCSSI, p.3)
Before we continue, we must be clear on the difference between ``standards'' and ``curriculum''.  The terms are often used interchangeably (this blog included), but they are not the same.  We agree with CCSSI when it defines standards as ``what students should understand and be able to do in their study of mathematics.'' (p.4)  Whether CCSSI will successfully ``address the problem of a curriculum that is `a mile wide and an inch deep''' (p.3) is part and parcel of what this entire blog is about, so we will limit our discussion here to the significance of the following inconspicuously-placed nine word statement:

``These Standards do not dictate curriculum or teaching methods.'' (p.5)

While CCSSI ``endeavor[s] to follow'' (p.4) William Schmidt and Richard Houang's notions of coherent ``content standards and curricula'' (p.3), it fails to mention a more critical part of the same 2002 report by Schmidt and Houang:
A new analysis of data...provides evidence that American students and teachers are greatly disadvantaged by our country’s lack of a common, coherent curriculum and the texts, materials, and training that match it. (emphasis added)
CCSSI's introduction has its readers believe it will lead us to a coherent ``standards and curricula'', but in reality, CCSSI avoids the curriculum and only sets forth standards. Why one but not the other?

This distinction is fundamental to understanding CCSSI's scheme, and the underlying agenda of the power elite: the myriad legislators, agencies, institutes, NCLB, book publishers, and the highly-paid so-called experts and education reformers that contributed to the development of CCSSI, and who now support it.


Before we get to the heart of the matter, why CCSSI or its proponents do not proffer a completely formulated curriculum, first we must address the predominant ``controversy’’ that continues to swirl around CCSSI's supporters and opponents.

We have read the oft-cited excuse that federal law specifically proscribes a national curriculum.  United States Code, 20 USC §3403(b) reads:

No provision of a program administered by the Secretary [of Education] or by any other officer of the Department [of Education] shall be construed to authorize the Secretary or any such officer to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, over any accrediting agency or association, or over the selection or content of library resources, textbooks, or other instructional materials by any educational institution or school system, except to the extent authorized by law. (emphasis added)

Many opponents of CCSSI have latched onto the anathema of federal control, but ironically, the supporters of CCSSI are not compelled to disagree.  They can both cite this law as the basis for their actions.

Are the writers and proponents of CCSSI, by omitting the curriculum, in fact buckling under the pressure of libertarians and the like, who oppose a national government on principle?  This ``controversy’’, which diverts attention from the central reason, does not fool us.  We know that CCSSI was not written by the Department of Education or its divisions, but was in fact a state-led initiative.

We also know that another related issue further fuels the controversy: although CCSSI is repeatedly cited as ``voluntary’’, Race to the Top funding is contingent on adoption of CCSSI, which pressures states to adopt.  This connection strengthens the argument that although a state-led initiative, the funding precondition makes CCSSI tantamount to a federal law.

This tricky ``skirting’’ of the law has also been often cited by opponents of CCSSI, but the supporters of CCSSI, with no need to quiet these distractions, have not refuted them. The creators and supporters of CCSSI are content to led this controversy swirl; it creates a diversion.

These muddled issues have many people confused, but we are not.

We know that education reformers are not really interested in improving mathematics education, but are primarily interested in the public relations aspect: seeming concerned and looking good in the process.

So now let us recognize the real outcome (and underlying intent) of setting standards without providing the accompanying curriculum.

Under CCSSI's thinly veiled guise of giving flexibility and independence to teachers with double-talk language like,
just because topic A appears before topic B in the standards for a given grade, it does not necessarily mean that topic A must be taught before topic B. A teacher might prefer to teach topic B before topic A, or might choose to highlight connections by teaching topic A and topic B at the same time. Or, a teacher might prefer to teach a topic of his or her own choosing that leads, as a byproduct, to students reaching the standards for topics A and B, (p.5)

but in reality avoiding the heavy duty work of writing the curriculum, CCSSI has passed the buck and relegated the arduous task of curriculum development back to states, school districts, schools, and math teachers.  In reality we are back where we started: everyone is on their own, except that educators’ hands are tied tighter than ever by controlling standards (and the accompanying tests).

That most elementary teachers were not math majors or minors in college, and were not trained specifically in mathematics education but rather in common branches, and by putting the onus on the teacher, CCSSI's standards-only directive perpetuates the endless cycle of poor mathematics preparation.  Secondary teachers may fare better, when they aren't remediating incoming students who lack basic skills.  Teachers don't necessarily want the flexibility that CCSSI brags it is empowering teachers with.  Teachers, particularly in the elementary grades, want adequate guidance.  We read blogs, too; we’re not missing the buzz; many teachers are concerned, and rightfully so.

The content, order and pacing should be set nationally.  One of the many advantages to having national standards (and curriculum) is that if a family has to relocate mid-year from State A to State B, when the child arrives in State B, the class will be fairly close in terms of its topic area to that of State A where the child was before.  If teachers following CCSSI’s ``empowerment’’ language teach topics in any order they wish, the mobile family’s child may end up missing some topics and learning others twice.

So what is CCSSI really avoiding by creating a standard, but not a curriculum?  In law, the nine word sentence quoted above would be nothing more than a ``liability disclaimer''.  By setting standards, CCSSI and its supporters say to states, school districts, schools and teachers: These are the standards you must attain.  How you do it is your problem, not ours.  If you adhere to the standards, and your students pass the tests, then our standards were well formulated and you're just doing your job.  But if your students fail the tests, then you and your curriculum and your teaching skills must be to blame.

Heads I win, tails you lose.


  1. This is a brilliant analysis and does a lovely job of looking through the baloney to what's behind the curtain. It pains me no end to see people in mathematics education I long considered as friends, colleagues, and allies not only drinking this Kool-Aid, but greedily leading others to the same trough in order to personally profit thereby. The betrayal of American students and teachers by organizations such as NCTM, NCSM, and NCTE in this regard seems on a par with the betrayal by teachers' union leaders of their members. Avarice and mendacity appear to be the order of the day.

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