08/12/2014 12:02 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2014

Common Core's War Against Science and Children


One of the major arguments made by advocates for the national Common Core Standards and the high-stakes standardized tests that are paired with them is that the validity of the standards and the reliability of the tests are demonstrated by "data" and scientific research. Unfortunately, their claims are just not true, at least according to the latest research on how the human brain operates and how people learn.

The New York Times Sunday Review on August 10, 2014 had a very interesting article, "Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain," on the value of vacations. Its audience was the hyperactive multi-taskers who are afraid that if they take time off they will fall behind. The main point of the article was that constant work undermines our efficiency because our brains have limited capacity and become overloaded with "facts, pseudofacts, news feeds and jibber-jabber." To work its best, the human brain needs time off to think, ponder, and wander. It needs both vacations and briefer time-outs.

This is not just a problem for people who are working. School age children, teenagers, and college students are flooded with a "constant flow of information from Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Instagram, text messages and the like" that prevents them from "sustaining attention on any one thing for very long." They also experience tremendous pressure to perform well on standardized tests to get into the best schools and to have better post-school life opportunities. The author of the Times article, the director of the Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, and his collaborator, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University, call this overstimulation "the curse of the information age."

Essentially, there are two "networks" in the brain's attentional system, task-positive and task-negative. The task-positive network, or central "executive" function, kicks in when we are actively engaged in doing something that requires focus and undistracted attention such as studying for a test. Task-positive is usually in control, or should be, when we work on a job or work in school. The task-negative network is in operation when we pause and allow our minds to ponder and wander, or in other words, we are daydreaming. That is usually when a boss, teacher, or parent starts shouting that you should stop wasting time and get back to work.

But according to the article on brain science and research, both networks need to function in turn for humans to learn and create. Focus during task-positive allows us to concentrate on completing the task. But lack-of-focus during task-negative daydreaming is when the human mind makes leaps and connections and actually acquires a deeper level of understanding. This is when the light bulb goes off in our head and you shout out loud (or to yourself) "Eureka!"

One of the reasons I found the research and article so interesting is that the process they describes works for me as a researcher, writer, and teacher. When I have had enough of work or of the simple problems of life, I get on my bicycle, focus entirely on the road ahead of me, and I ride and I ride and I ride - until my mind clears, I draw connections, solve problems, and simply figure things out. Then I stop for a minute, write down my thoughts in a pad (not an I-Pad) using a pen and I ride some more until the insights build and I feel the desire, not the need, to get back to work.

Another reason I liked the article is that it supports what I know about learning as both a student and a teacher. Maxine Greene, an educational philosopher at Teachers College - Columbia University (whom I have the good fortune to have known as a friend and mentor), focused her research and writing on the power of creative imagination. Creative imagination, as Greene described it, is the human power to empathize with and understand the lives, minds, and consciousness of human beings from the past and our contemporaries in the present. It requires the ponder and wander daydreaming supported by the brain scientists. Greene (1995, p. 14) argued, "Teaching and learning are matters of breaking through barriers -- of expectation, of boredom, of predefinition. To teach . . . is to provide persons with the knacks and know-how they need in order to teach themselves . . . so they can put into practice in their own fashion what they need to join a game, shape a sonnet, or devise a chemical test." Teaching is not drill-and-skill test prep.

Common Core, on the other hand, leaves students and teachers no time for daydreaming or creative imagination. It is all about standardized instruction using publisher prepared workbooks and online material that prepare students for high-stakes common core aligned assessments designed by the same publishers.

One of the big impetuses behind the push for Common Core was the supposed poor performance of U.S. students on international tests such as PISA (Programme for International Assessment). One of the models for successful education has been the performance of students from South Korea, which had the best average score of any country, on these math, science, and reading tests.

What Common Core advocates with their commitment to the aligned assessments leave out is any explanation of why some U.S. students and school districts, but not others, trail students in other countries on these tests. For examples, some states in the United States, including Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Indiana already exceed international norms without Common Core. If Massachusetts were a country, its eighth graders would rank second in the world in science, behind only Singapore, and sixth in mathematics.

But even more damning of Common Core is the failure of Common Core's supporters to honestly evaluate the foreign school systems that they are trying to emulate, especially South Korea. One South Korean critic, Se-Woong Koo, wrote about how his family fled South Korea and moved to Canada because of the pressure put on young children to achieve high scores on standardized tests. He later returned to South Korea where he taught English to 11-year-old children from wealthy families at an expensive hagwon or "cram school." He described his students as "serious about studying but their eyes appeared dead."

Se-Woong Koo decried the hagwons as "soulless facilities, with room after room divided by thin walls, lit by long fluorescent bulbs, and stuffed with students memorizing English vocabulary, Korean grammar rules and math formulas." Because they attend regular school and cram school to prepare for tests, "the average South Korean student works up to 13 hours a day, while the average high school student sleeps only 5.5 hours a night." According to Se-Woong Koo, the entire South Korean school system is a form of "child abuse."

In an unrelated article, The New York Times reported that an increasing number of South Korean families have been sending their children to other countries to attend school, including very young children, because schools in South Korea are "narrowly focused and highly pressurized." These Korean parents want the type of well-rounded educational experiences for their children that stimulate creative imagination and are supported by brain science, but unfortunately are being undermined by Common Core and the American versions of high-stakes testing.

In an online TED talk, my friend and colleague Doris Fromberg compares Common Core standards and high-stakes testing in early childhood education to child labor in 19th century factories. Children should be playing to learn, but American schools increasingly have no room for play, for fun, for imagination, and for genuine learning. Doris calls the standardized tests "sanctioned child abuse" and argues that powerful global publishers are the only ones who benefit from these so-called reforms. She is well worth watching!