The Science Of The Common Core: Experts Weigh In On Its Developmental Appropriateness
Last April, comedian Louis CK fired a round of disparaging tweets about his kids’ experience in a New York City public school. His particular gripe was with the Common Core standards that have been voluntarily adopted by 45 states. Among his tweets: “My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!” and “It’s this massive stressball that hangs over the whole school. The kids teachers trying to adapt to these badly written notions.” His commentary got a lot of support from other frustrated parents around the country. Of course, it received some mixed reviews from the media and educators.
Some weren’t having any of it. Alexander Nazaryan wrote a response piece in Newsweek, arguing that while testing kids “to hell and back” isn’t the solution to the U.S.’s lag in education, “introducing a set of national standards is a first step toward widespread accountability, toward the clearly worthy goal of having a teacher in Alaska teach more or less the same thing as a teacher in Alabama. And for those teachers to have to account for what their charges learned. Or didn’t, as it were.” He ends by suggesting that the kids subjected to the new standards will probably be ok, and that objecting to the Common Core is mainly a class issue anyway. “For the most part, the complaints against Common Core and the charter-school movement have come from upper-middle-class parents whose objections are largely ideological, not pedagogical. It’s fun to get angry when you’ve got nothing to lose.”
But this is more than an issue of parental pique. Child development experts and early childhood educators believe that there is actually quite a lot to lose. The issue is not at all ideological, they say – it’s partly pedagogical, and partly psychological. According to experts, a poorly conceived set of standards has the potential to be, at best, fruitless and, at worst, detrimental to the youngest kids who are on the frontline of the Common Core. In the long run, the argument goes, it might be associated with a lot more cost than benefit.
Pushing the Little Ones Further
Last year, two educators, Edward Miller and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, wrote anessay published in the Washington Post, which expressed serious concern about the advisability of the Common Core, particularly for the lower grades. “The K-3 standards,” they wrote, “will lead to long hours of direct instruction in literacy and math. This kind of ‘drill and grill’ teaching has already pushed active, play-based learning out of many kindergartens.…There is little evidence that standards for young children lead to later success. The research is inconclusive; many countries with top-performing high-school students provide rich play-based, nonacademic experiences—not standardized instruction—until age six or seven.”
It’s not clear exactly where the current trend – of pushing more information on kids earlier – came from, but it seems to be a response to the idea that the U.S. needs to catch up to other countries’ education systems. The problem with this strategy is that there doesn’t appear to be much evidence that “more sooner” is the most effective strategy. “The real school starting age is 7,” says Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, faculty at Weill/Cornell Medical School and author ofHyper-Parenting and The Over-Scheduled Child. “It may be 8 or 6, depending on the child. This is all based on what we know about child development, starting from Piaget. Your brain isn’t sufficiently wired to do it before then. And you also have to keep in mind, all kids are different, and it’s very hard to predict what will happen with age. Some kids who were reading Harry Potter at 4 end up as career baristas. Others can’t read till they’re much older, and they turn out to be highly successful as adults.”
David Elkind, long-time child development expert at Tufts University and author of The Hurried Child, says that a related problem with the Common Core standards is that “children are not standardized.” Between ages 4 to 7, he says, kids are undergoing especially rapid changes in cognitive ability, but this neurological and psychological development occurs at all different rates. “Some children attain these abilities—which enable them to learn verbal rules, the essence of formal instruction—at different ages. With the exception of those with special needs, all children attain them eventually. That is why many Scandinavian countries do not introduce formal instruction, the three R’s until the age of seven. In these countries children encounter few learning difficulties. Basically, you cannot standardize growth, particularly in young children and young adolescents. When growth is most rapid, standardization is the most destructive of motivation to learn. To use a biological analogy, you don’t prune during the growing season.”
Ekind and Rosenfeld were two of hundreds of child development researchers and educators who signed a joint statement back in 2010 expressing serious reservations about the impending rollout of the Common Core. The appropriateness of the curriculum at each grade level has been an ongoing source of concern and frustration to researchers and educators, who argue that it often pushes too much too soon. Diane Ravitch, education historian at NYU and vocal critic of the Common Core, says that in particular, “the early grades are developmentally inappropriate. Children of 5 and 6 and 7 need time for play, not a forced academic march. They will have 6-hour, 8-hour tests. That is nuts…. The American ideal was always a well-rounded child prepared for citizenship and life. Now it is all test prep.”
Argument #1: Standardized Testing Is the Real Problem
Ravitch brings up an interesting point: The Common Core may be one problem, but standardized testing has become such a part of education, that it’s hard to tell the two apart. Some, like Howard Gardner, of Harvard University and developer of the theory of Multiple Intelligences, have even argued that it’s not so much the Common Core that’s the problem, but its conflation with standardized tests. “We are seeing, all over the world,” he says, “the ‘costs’ of too much testing, and especially too much high stake testing.” He stresses that the country’s reliance on testing is the much greater offender than the Standards themselves.
It’s hard to deny that testing has gotten out of hand, as students may spend months of the year preparing for the tests. Many have argued this point, and some have responded by joining the growing “Opt Out” movement. But it’s hard to separate testing from standards, and others argue that it’s even impossible. Mindy Kornhaber, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who’s been studying standards-based reforms for 20 years and the Common Core’s implementation, funding, and media portrayal since 2011, says that the two – the Standards and testing – go hand-in-hand. It makes little conceptual sense to let one off the hook and hang the other – they’re just two sides of the same coin.
“The argument that the Common Core Standards are somehow conflated with standardized testing is a wholly misleading rhetorical turn,” she says. “The Common Core standards are in fact supposed to be tested with the Common Core tests that are being produced by the testing consortia… A perceived threat to the Common Core reform (and I have this from a Common Core insider) is the willingness of a number of states to abandon those testing consortia tests.”
Of course, it’s hard to get a valid measure of whether the Common Core is helping kids “catch up,” if it uses its own tests as a measure. Kornhaber says that new standards typically lead to a drop in test scores and then an uptick as schools figure out how to teach to them. “The usual course of standards-based reform testing shows what the psychometrician Robert Linn called ‘a saw tooth pattern’: every time a new test comes in, student achievement drops. As teachers and students get familiar with the new standards and tests, scores go up. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean students’ understanding or skills increase—tests of the same content but external to the actual reform commonly show students’ knowledge and skills haven’t grown nearly as much as the reform’s ‘official’ test. So, will the Common Core show increases in scores on its own tests? Almost certainly. Does this mean students really mastered the content and skills? Probably not, but the audit tests of NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] or other external indicators will be the actual indicator of any real change.”
Gene Beresin, Executive Director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, adds that the link between standardized tests and life success isn’t particularly clear. “The powers that be need to realize that there is not always a great correlation between high achievement on standardized tests and brilliant achievement in the workforce, in academics and in life,” says Beresin. “Some people, myself included, are notoriously bad multiple choice test takers… Good test takers know what is expected for an answer and give the test what it is looking for. But the most successful individuals may well do better on other measures of achievement, for example, writing, journaling, verbal expression, creative productivity, and group interaction. I can tell you as a medical educator there is notoriously poor correlation between results on standardized multiple choice tests and being a good doctor!”
Argument #2: It’s the Schools’ Fault
The other argument, which some have written passionately about, is that the even larger offender may be schools’ interpretation of the Standards, and the curricula they choose. Schools are still free to choose their own curricula and textbooks, and which may or may not be “Common Core-aligned.” Some schools, after all, manage to stay with their previous “progressive” models, leaving room for play, music, and drama; while others are more “traditional,” and forgo these “extras” in favor of double periods of math and ELA.
Sue Pimentel, a lead writer of the ELA/literacy Standards, says that it’s important to remember that not only are schools free to choose their own curricula, but the Standards are actually designed only to be a portion of a child’s experience at school. “I have heard early childhood educators say, ‘they’re inappropriate as a whole.’ I have not heard anyone point to a specific standard and say, ‘this standard is developmentally inappropriate.’ For some, it is standards as a concept they seem opposed to. There’s also concern that the Standards don’t reach the whole child. Indeed the Standards were designed to define the literacy and math skills and concepts students need to learn, and were never intended to encompass all of what students need to study and learn. The Standards state that students require wide-ranging, rigorous academic preparation and, particularly in the early grades, attention to such matters as social, emotional, and physical development, and approaches to learning. Stating that doesn’t obliterate the concern, but it is important for teachers and administrators to understand what the Standards are designed to cover so they are implemented appropriately.”
Pimentel adds that people forget the latitude for which the Standards allow: If the impression is that students have to come out of Kindergarten reading advanced texts, this just isn’t the case. “There are some misunderstandings – kids don’t have to read complex texts in Kindergarten and 1st grade. It’s the same with writing: Writing can also mean drawing and dictation.” She adds that some people just don’t like standards, period. And the very idea creates the knee-jerk reaction of more desk-based learning and less play-based learning. “The thing to keep in mind—and I know this myself from other projects—there are some Early Childhood educators who worry about standards at all. If you put down what students need to be able to do, somehow a teacher will take that very seriously, and the students won’t play. And that if a student doesn’t do everything they’re ‘supposed’ to, he or she won’t be promoted to first grade.” This is just not the intention, she says.
So is the real problem with the schools rather than the Standards? Carol Burris, who’s written extensively on this issue (see one of her Washington Post pieces here and here) and was named 2013 NY High School Principal of the Year, doesn’t buy that argument at all. “It’s the Standards, not the schools’ implementation of them. The first standard in Kindergarten Math, for example, is ‘count from 1 to 100.’ It’s unrealistic. An average 4 or 5 year old is able to count to 20. If that’s the average, this means that some can do more, some can do less. Some kids can count to 100. What’s really funny is that Massachusetts’ state standards, which were supposed to be the most rigorous in the country, only has them count to 20. So it’s unclear where this research is coming from.”
The main issue Burris points out is that having kids learn stuff they’re not ready for can take a lot of time – more than it would if it were done, say, a year later. “If you have goals that are developmentally inappropriate, so much time is spent getting students to achieve what they’re supposed to, that there’s very little time left for music, social studies, science. Young children should be doing science. They should be watching chicks hatch and planting seeds – hands-on activities – and learning the concept of experimentation. There’s no longer time for this, because they’re doing ELA and math all day.” In other words, even though the Standards may not explicitly preclude play-based learning, there may not be any time for it when kids are trying to master material that’s above their heads.
Burris also objects to the pressure on schools to get kids to exactly the same point. “If I’m asked, ‘what would you like 9th graders to be able to do when they enter high school?’ I could come up with a long list, and then wag my finger at the 8th grade teacher for not getting them there. But good schools take kids where they are, not where they’d like them to be.”
Will the Common Core Work?
Which takes us back to the logic. If the Common Core came to into existence as a solution to America’s apparent lag behind other countries, there seems to be very little consensus that having children learn the three R’s earlier is the best way. The issue may be partly due to the fact that the primary goal of theCommon Core writers was college- and career-readiness; 12th grade graduation standards were apparently created first, and then the other grades “staircased” down. Which not everyone supports: “Who said that the finding that we’re behind in Math and Science is solved by throwing stuff at kids when they’re young?” asks Rosenfeld. “It’s so presumptuous… Homework assigned in lower grades is negatively correlated with success. This was all done with good intentions; but we know what the road to hell is paved with.”
Burris adds that exactly which countries to which the Common Core is benchmarked remains a mystery. “What’s so fascinating is that many of the high-performing countries children start much later. In some countries, like Singapore, there are two years of Kindergarten. In Finland, another high performing nation, students start much later. In Canada, which uses provincial standards, the early years are a time for play and exploration. No one can find to what country these Standards are benchmarked.”
So having kids learn to read and do math at four and five years old may be uncharted territory. Burris is particularly concerned about the potential fallout for the youngest grades who are going through it now, and what their relationship with education will be in the future. “I’m worried,” says Burris. “If this continues the way it’s going, my prediction is that by the time they get to high school, they will not like learning. We’ll see tremendous academic push back, over-anxious kids, and school phobia issues. Kids are supposed to enjoyelementary school. There’s never been a time where we’ve had the need for psychological and social support services as we do now, and the Common Core is only going to exacerbate the crisis of over-stressed students, who struggle emotionally day to day. The other problem I see is purely academic: As students push through it, they’ll learn the material, but they won’t learn itwell.”
Beresin also expresses concern about the long-term ramifications of a too-early push. “If kids are pushed to work on material too far above their intellectual level, it could be highly demoralizing, and some may simply give up…. When toughness or standards are simply set by a system in a one-size fits all manner, such as the Common Core, for some students, dislike of school and learning may follow…. I would prefer to see it as appreciating that all kids and adults have different learning styles, that the educational system needs to promote and foster the most innovative and flexible curricula for its students, and that by doing so, we can still have the same, if not better, outcomes.”
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that not everyone agrees that standards are necessary to begin with. Rosenfeld argues that some of the brightest, most creative minds in technology, literature, science, and the arts have come out of the country, so we must be doing something right. “No one has questioned the premise,” says Rosenfeld, “but I’m not sure the premise is accurate… Singapore, which has an excellent system, wants to emulate the U.S., because we’re creative! We’re bad at some things and good at others. Steve Jobs wasn’t educated abroad. Neither was Steven Spielberg. Neither were any of the 89 or so American Nobel Prize winners in the last 15 years. We’re very good at some things. Sure, Google needs engineers – but we also need people to startcompanies like Google. This takes creativity. So I question the fundamental assumption. In the most individual country in the world, we try to make cookie cutter kids. It makes no sense.”
So what will happen with the Common Core going forward? Burris predicts it will be modified by the states over time as more educators realize its serious drawbacks, and long-term risks that may come with it. “It won’t just go away over night,” says Burris. “What will happen is that the individual states will modify standards over time. They’ll create their own tests. The Opt Out movement is getting stronger every day, which is part of the fallout of the Common Core, and it’s a very good thing. We may stray away from standardized testing, as school success is measured in new ways.
“The Common Core will never become the National Standards with National Tests that its creators wanted. It will go away like the world ends in the TS Eliot poem, the Hollow Men: ‘Not with a bang but a whimper.’”
Time will tell if this prediction proves true.