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Will new Common Core standards succeed in centralizing student learning?

December 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
One of the most significant and controversial changes in U.S. education this year was the growing adoption of new academic standards known as the Common Core. Jeffrey Brown talks to Claudio Sanchez of NPR, Amanda Ripley, author of "The Smartest Kids in the World," and NewsHour Special Correspondent for Education John Merrow.
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GWEN IFILL: Next, another in our series of year-end retrospectives on issues in the news. This one is a look at the big battles playing out over the future of public education.

Jeff taped this conversation yesterday.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the more significant stories of the past year is the growing adoption of new academic standards for math and reading known as the Common Core. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have moved toward implementing them, but there is still plenty of pushback as well, ranging from anger over the role of the federal government to worries about our tests set to begin more widely next year.

The battles come amid larger tensions over testing and teaching, accountability, and how American students are faring overall.

We look where things stand with three people covering education, Claudio Sanchez of NPR, writer Amanda Ripley, author of “The Smartest Kids in the Worlds,” and the NewsHour special correspondent John Merrow.

And welcome to all of you.

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Claudio, I want to start with because you just, I understand, came back from a reporting trip looking at Common Core. What is the most important thing you’re finding now about it?

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, NPR: Well, first of all, it was a yearlong effort to gauge how the public feels about the Common Core. And, not surprisingly, most people don’t know what it is.

JEFFREY BROWN: They just don’t know what it is?

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: The polling shows that 60 to 70 percent of Americans, certainly parents, are kind of in the dark about it.

During these visits, though, I also found that it’s educators and administrators who are also the most anxious about it, because they don’t know what the implications for them are going to be, all in the name of raising academic standards in this country so that we can compare them internationally.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Merrow, what — how does that jibe with what you have been seeing in terms of understanding, acceptance, and some of the pushback?

JOHN MERROW: Well, think Claudio is right. Most people don’t know about the Common Core. There’s a huge education effort required.

I mean, after all, this is a national experiment. It’s like testing the depth of the water with both feet. And I think the pushback is — the concern is about the tests. There will be — we already test a lot. Are these going to be more tests, and what will they be like?

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Amanda, you have of course looked at this through the international comparisons, so what do you see happening?

AMANDA RIPLEY, “The Smartest Kids in the World”: It’s hard to find a top-performing country in the world that doesn’t have something like the Common Core, where at some point everyone got together and said, let’s make a list of what kids should know at each grade level. Let’s make it more rigorous and more coherent than what we had before.

But there are a lot of really poorly performing countries that have something like the Common Core, too. So, it’s kind of like a prerequisite. And they are more aligned. Certainly, the vast majority of states, it is closer to what — particularly in math — closer to what the — really the smartest countries in the world are doing.

So, that is on paper a really good idea. In the execution, as the other gentlemen have pointed out, that’s where you run into trouble.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so execution, what have you seen so far, Claudio, in terms of where it’s already sort of settled in a little bit?

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Well, of course, the Common Core was adopted pretty much in 2009, when the National Governors Association and chief state school officers said, this is what we need.

Since then, though, we have an enormous amount of disarray. We have now five states that are not participating at all. We have eight states that have pulled out of the testing consortia that were created, in part with federal aid, to make sure that we have tests that are comparable.

So, there is this dissension, and certainly a lot of political opposition to centralizing — that’s what the term that often critics use — to centralize the decisions about what kids should know and be able to do. And so the implementation is really at risk, because by the 2014-’15 school year, this is supposed to be in place.

And what is not guaranteed is that you’re going to have the kind of cooperation from states. States have dropped out of the testing consortia. And that means that they’re going to come up with their own tests.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, John Merrow, where — well, pick up on that. I mean, where are we then? Are we still moving ahead, or is this — all this a question mark again?

JOHN MERROW: It’s a question mark, and money is a big issue.

We test more than anybody, but we use cheap tests, Jeff. A state will spend somewhere between $9 and $25 per kid on tests. These Common Core tests are going to cost $30 or more. They’re better, more complicated tests. But states are saying, well, we don’t want these. Kansas just dropped out. And they said, well, we will develop our own tests at the University of Kansas.

Well, that will allow Kansas to compare kids in Topeka and Wichita, but, as Amanda said, it’s not going to be much use making international or even comparisons across states. It’s going to be very chaotic.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do that — Amanda, do the — we talked about your book recently on the show. And then I also talked to Andreas Schleicher recently about the PISA evaluations.

Do those have much of an impact on this debate that we’re talking about in this country?

AMANDA RIPLEY: I think it was those kinds of comparisons that helped really motivate some of the governors and local school officials to try to make more rigorous standards, because we saw year after year, despite all the fights we have and all the money we pour in to education, that at least at age 15 on the PISA test, which is a fairly sophisticated test of critical thinking, you see the kids just flatlining.

So, we’re right in the middle of the pack and slightly below average in math for the developed world. So, that’s a point of some anxiety, because these — these PISA scores in particularly are pretty predictive of college completion and other things, especially again in math, where we have a clear weakness at every socioeconomic level.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Jeff, I think it’s worth saying that — that teachers, especially classroom teachers, don’t dispute the need to raise the rigor of these standards and what kids are learning.

I think that what often gets mixed up in this is how the test scores are going to be used. That’s a huge issue. And that means ranking schools, rating states, certainly making decisions about whether a kid should be advanced another year or not. And most — the most controversial use is, of course, whether these tests are going to be used to decide how much a teacher is — should be paid…

JEFFREY BROWN: Teacher accountability.

(CROSSTALK)

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: … or whether that teacher should keep his or her job.

And I think that it’s that really that has poisoned the well for many educators.

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead, John, yes.

JOHN MERROW: Yes, if I could weigh in, that a fundamental distinction between the United States and most other countries is, we — we test teachers. Now, the kids take the tests, but we’re testing teachers.

Most countries are assessing kids to figure it out. I was looking at a PISA sample test and an Oregon high school math test. The high school math question was, a certain valley has six snakes. They double in number every year. In how many years will there be 96 snakes? Well, that’s just counting on your fingers.

A PISA test, by a comparison, says, a hike up to the top of Mount Fuji is 18 kilometers. You can — a boy can — a man can go 1.5 kilometers an hour on the way up, three kilometers an hour on the way down. The down — the park closes at 8:00. At what hour in the morning does he have to leave to be back before the park closes?

Now, it’s not multiple choice. There’s a whole lot of mathematics. The Oregon test was a multiple-guess question. We simply don’t ask enough of our kids. That’s a huge part of the problem…

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: But, John, let me ask you, because — because all these things we’re talking about, you have reported on the program for many years. I mean, the Common Core questions are things that go to whole school reform generally, teacher accountability, evaluations, all kinds of things.

JOHN MERROW: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where do you think we are, more generally speaking, now with the school reform movement? Is it — is it still going ahead? Is it stymied? Is it — where are we?

JOHN MERROW: You know, that’s a great question.

I — it’s possible that in 2014 we might see a fraying of the coalition between the test accountability people, which is Republicans and right-leaning Democrats, and the civil rights groups. They have supported test-based accountability because they recognize that, when you disaggregate data, you saw how poorly black kids and brown kids were doing.

But now we have had — since No Child Left Behind, we have had 12 years of this test stuff, and although there have been some gains, there really hasn’t been much significant process — progress. So, it’s very possible we may see a fraying of that coalition, which would lead to more pushback against testing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Amanda, where do you think we are in this larger picture of school reform?

AMANDA RIPLEY: I think the testing fatigue is so intense, among kids especially.

I hear a lot about this from kids. They feel like their time is being wasted because they spend so many days taking dumb tests in so many states, and parents as well are — and, so, I fear that the Common Core, which is a very legitimate effort to try to raise the standards so kids — so the work is more interesting and more relevant to their lives, that that’s being conflated with the larger sort of fatigue with testing.

And I understand why that’s happening. But it is — it’s like everything is kind of — kind of coming together. And it may not be the same thing. So the idea of behind the Common Core was to try to have smarter tests that are more like the Mount Kilimanjaro question, and less like the dumb multiple-choice questions. We don’t have those yet. They’re coming out next year.

So, there’s — in the void here is a lot of anxiety, a lot of distrusts, which is built upon years of fighting.

JEFFREY BROWN: And does that mean that the larger — the whole school reform movement, politically speaking, as well as culturally speaking, has slowed in some way?

AMANDA RIPLEY: I think, in some places, it certainly has, if you look at New York City, for example.

I think it’s going to take a very savvy politician to continue on some of these tracks, but adjust, adapts them. Instead of having more tests, have fewer, smarter tests to try to get some buy-in from people who are understandably just leery of all of this and to try to get the trust back in the system.

One encouraging thing I do see that is happening that we haven’t talked about is more focus finally — and you can tell me if you agree or not — but finally more focus in the United States on really starting from the beginning, and trying to make teacher training colleges, education colleges more selective and more rigorous, which makes it then possible to maybe pay teachers more, give them more autonomy and expect them to teach higher-order skills.

That’s something we have never done. No state is — has really, really seriously raised the bar like that. And if you look around the world, the top-performing countries have done that at some point, and they get big returns on that in many, many ways.

JEFFREY BROWN: Claudio?

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: That’s a reminder, I think, of something very clear, which is, a lot of pieces have to come together.

And as big as Common Core and testing pieces are, Amanda is perfectly correct. There is a huge issue about how we prepare teachers in this country. And that conversation is barely getting started. And it’s already having its own fireworks.

One thing to point out, though, in our pieces about the Common Core, we asked experts who have advised the consortia who know about testing, have spent years on this, what they would predict would happen in 2014.

And Robert Brennan of the University of Iowa, who has been consulting with some of these consortia, was saying, look, you can still have an enormous amount of dissension, maybe even a lot more states pulling out of all of this, as John McCain just said, the fraying of these coalitions, but he says, one thing that’s not going to happen, we’re not going to go back in this country, no matter what states do, to the weak and mediocre testing, as well as standards, that we have had in place for a long time, because the message is clear. We need to do something.

Whether it’s going to be part of Common Core or not is not the issue. The issue is, this nation is now recognizing that it has to do a lot more to get our kids up to speed.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, a lot to watch for in the next year.

Claudio Sanchez, Amanda Ripley, and John Merrow, thank you, all, very much.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Good to be here.

JOHN MERROW: Thank you.

AMANDA RIPLEY: Thanks.

 

This story is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.