With reading and writing, the Common Core digs deeper. Where a lot of class time in the early grades has, until now, been spent encouraging students to express themselves and use their interests as a starting point for learning new skills, the Common Core is designed to have students think critically, gathering evidence to make arguments, skills they’ll eventually need in college. (The standards, for example, push nonfiction texts over fiction, reasoning that there isn’t nearly enough nonfiction reading in the lower grades to prepare students for college-level work.)
“It can change the quality of teaching,” says Shael Polakow-Suransky, the DOE’s chief academic officer, who has marshaled the curriculum’s transition. He argues that if implemented correctly, the Common Core will eventually help student scores on standardized tests improve without the need to overload class time with test prep. “Here’s a chance to actually push how rigorous the assignments are that we’re giving kids every single day. How much are kids actually thinking? How much are we seeing kids defend their ideas? What kinds of teacher behaviors do you have to create so the planning goes into a lesson?”
The early challenge of any new curriculum, however, is how it’s absorbed by the people who have to teach it and the kids who have to learn it. Changing standards takes time, and in the schools, that process can take years. Massachusetts went through a similar transition a generation ago, flushing additional money into the system in exchange for higher testing standards. It took several years, and there was a lot of pushback at first, but now around 90 percent of Massachusetts students meet those standards—and the state’s students rank at the top of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the commonly recognized yardstick all school systems use to compare themselves to one another.
After the shock of last spring’s new state tests, the Common Core was formally rolled out in New York State classrooms this fall. There were the expected bureaucratic snafus: new textbooks arriving late to classrooms and teachers not getting enough training. Then came complaints that the curriculum is developmentally inappropriate. Carol Burris, a high-school principal in Rockville Centre, has noted how it expects first-graders to know the meaning of words beyond their reading level, like cuneiform, sarcophagus, and ziggurat. Standards like that, critics say, will lead to the exact drill-and-kill problem the Common Core is trying to avoid.
Established educators complained that the standards weren’t created with enough of their input—not one of the 135 people on the Common Core panels was a K-3 classroom teacher or early-childhood professional. The unions turned on it, too: American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten recently quipped, “You think the Obamacare implementation is bad? The implementation of the Common Core is far worse.”
At forums across the state, parents and teachers have blasted Andrew Cuomo’s education commissioner, John King, about the Common Core. One teacher even claimed that children are being “diagnosed by psychologists with a syndrome directly related to work that they do in the classroom. If that is not child abuse, I don’t know what is.”
In response to the growing criticism, Arne Duncan, the White House’s Education secretary, this month said it was “fascinating” that some of the Common Core’s detractors are “white suburban moms who—all of a sudden—their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” There was an uproar among parents and administrators. “Did he really say that?” wrote Long Island superintendent Joseph Rella in an open letter. Duncan later “regretted” his phrasing, but what was most telling about his comment was that it seemed to acknowledge that support for the Common Core is being derailed in part by how it plays into the culture of anxiety often associated with high-stakes testing.
Oscar’s parents held tight as they waited for the superintendent to review his BLM and make a final determination. It took until late August—just days before the start of the new school year—for Oscar to be promoted to the fourth grade. But the process proved illuminating: Oscar’s mother realized that, aside from the wait, there were no immediate consequences to Oscar’s opting out. So last spring, when it came time to take the ELA again in the fourth grade, Andrea and Oscar decided he would opt out for a second time. And he had more company.
According to the DOE, New York City had 320 opt-outers in 2013, nearly triple the number of the previous year—and all because of the city’s decision to roll out a test that was way too hard for most students. Locally, Time Out From Testing and Change the Stakes worked together to show families how to opt out. Across the state, the movement was even bigger. Buffalo, Rochester, and Long Island all boasted support for their opt-out movements. Jeanette Deutermann, alarmed by her child’s panicked reaction to the tests, started a Facebook page called Long Island Opt-Out Info that now has nearly 13,000 members. “People got onboard so quickly,” Deutermann says. “Even if their kid got fours”—the highest scores—“every parent had a story about how the test had negatively affected them.” One mother in Levittown told the group that she and others were making shirts for their kids to wear: On the front, I AM NOT JUST A TEST SCORE; on the back, NO MORE COMMON CORE.