Question: Does Common Core’s focus on skills and test results hurt teachers?

Answer: It could—in a couple different ways.

First, there’s the cost and work of implementing Common Core (the Pioneer Institute has researched the cost, and shares some numbers and statistics on its website). The standards require a level of time and work to implement that, at least temporarily, may frustrate many teachers. If the resulting changes are good, then teachers will benefit from their students’ improved rigor and enthusiasm for learning. But changes could cause—and already have caused, in some cases—greater frustration in the classroom.

The American Federation of Teachers just announced at this month’s SXSWedu conference in Austin that they will no longer accept money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for its Innovation Fund. Why? The Washington Post reports: “Union members have expressed concern about the poor implementation in many states of the Common Core State Standards, one of the initiatives in which the fund invests.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten went so far as to say the standards’ implementation in recent years was “worse” than Healthcare.gov’s launch:

Fifth-grade teachers, for example, have been told to follow a new, scripted 500-page curriculum pretty much to the letter. It’s an inexcusable information dump that, without time and training for teachers to absorb, adapt and apply the new material, won’t improve student learning. As Linda Darling-Hammond has written, the Common Core standards should be ‘guideposts, not straitjackets.’

Common Core’s creators specify on their FAQ page that they are not in charge of the standards’ implementation, but rather those decisions “are made at the state and local levels. As such, states and localities are taking different approaches to implementing the standards and providing their teachers with the supports they need…”

In an EPE Research Center survey, only 22 percent of teachers said they had fully incorporated the Common Core into their teaching, whereas 65 percent said they had integrated some areas, but not others. Forty-nine percent believe that Common Core standards are of higher quality than their state’s previous standards, while 44 percent believe the standards are of “about the same quality,” and 7 percent said prior state standards were of higher quality.

One New York veteran high school teacher, Gerald J. Conti, retired in protest of the new measures implemented in his school district. He called new testing and evaluation systems “Byzantine at best and at worst, draconian.” Conti fears that classical learning principles have eroded steadily in favor of a top-down, skills-focused approach:

 The development of plans, choice of lessons and the materials to be employed are increasingly expected to be common to all teachers in a given subject. This approach not only strangles creativity, it smothers the development of critical thinking in our students and assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality more appropriate to the assembly line than to the classroom. Teacher planning time has also now been so greatly eroded by a constant need to “prove up” our worth to the tyranny of APPR (through the submission of plans, materials and “artifacts” from our teaching) that there is little time for us to carefully critique student work, engage in informal intellectual discussions with our students and colleagues, or conduct research and seek personal improvement through independent study. We have become increasingly evaluation and not knowledge driven. Process has become our most important product, to twist a phrase from corporate America, which seems doubly appropriate to this case.

For the record, APPR is New York’s Annual Professional Performance Review, a new assessment process rolled out at the same time as Common Core. In New York, reports Ithaca.com, this conflation “has led to confusion and frustration among educators, parents and legislators, and a plethora of sensational headlines declaring Common Core to be a failed experiment.”

But Conti’s comments highlight the “one-size-fits-all mentality” that has many parents and educators concerned with Common Core.

Question: Does Common Core require high stakes testing?

Answer: not directly, in their actual documents. But “more rigorous standards,” paired with a new set of tests (which won’t be released until the 2014-2015 school year) indicate that students will be judged by their quantifiable skills—as will teachers. Additionally, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing points out that “to win federal Race to the Top grants or waivers from No Child Left Behind, most states have adopted teacher and principal evaluation systems based largely on student test scores.” In light of Common Core’s speedy rollout and yet-unfinished tests, many teachers are worried about the impact student struggles may have on their evaluations.

Indeed, after students scored dismally on the first set of Common Core scores, New York teachers “risk being fired because they receive ‘ineffective’ ratings due to student test scores,” according to the Democrat and Chronicle. According to Politico, the New York state teachers union is demanding “major course corrections” before they continue to support the standards: “It wants more time for teachers to review the Common Core lessons the state has been promoting, and it’s demanding more input on whether they are grade-appropriate.”

Of course, many people like the high-stakes testing method, because they fear teacher’s unions will keep incompetent educators in business when they should be fired. However, if teachers are expected to implement an entirely new curriculum effectively, they must have time in order to meet necessary testing standards. It takes time for both students and teachers to grow accustomed to new standards. With time, hopefully student and teacher satisfaction with new standards might improve.

But there’s another concern worth mentioning: a high-stakes testing method may encourage teachers to prioritize grading and test scores over the actual content of learning. For those who believe quality content should be the end of education, and not merely means to a good test grade, this is troubling. In application, the new method could push teachers and students to work merely for the test—especially in light of teacher evaluations’ tight ties to student performance on the new achievement tests. Not only could this create a rather utilitarian model: it could also take away the joy of teaching and learning, as it did for Conti.

Stay tuned for later articles on Common Core fact and fiction, including:

- Will the new Math standards utilize Soviet-era math curricula?
- Is the Common Core initiative truly state-led?
- Could the implementation of Common Core lead to the adoption of a nationwide curriculum?

Previous posts on Common Core: Fact and Fiction—

Fact and Fiction at CPAC Common Core Panel
Common Core and Data Mining: Fact and Fiction, Part II
- Common Core and Informational Texts: Fact and Fiction, Part III