09/19/2014 02:16 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

Debating Common Core: Beware Decomposing Numbers and Rinky-Dink Assessments

Intelligence Squared U.S. sponsored a debate September 9, 2014 on the Common Core State Standards. Four participants argued whether American schools should embrace the standards. They included Carmel Martin, a former assistant Secretary of Education and current executive vice president at the Center for American Progress, Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in New York in Rockville Centre, New York, and Frederick Hess, director of educational policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Martin, from the "left," and Petrilli, from the "right," argued in support of Common Core. Burris, from the "left," and Hess, from the "right," were opposed.

The moderator of the debate was John Donvan, an ABC News correspondent. A transcript was prepared by National Capitol Contracting in Arlington, Virginia and is available on The Answer Sheet by Valarie Strauss for The Washington Post. You can also watch a podcast on the Intelligence Squared website where you are invited to vote on the issues raised in the date. In a pre-date tally, 50% of the studio audience was in favor of Common Core; 13% was against; and 37% was undecided. A post-debate poll of the studio audience showed 67% for Common Core; 27% against; and 6% undecided. A breakdown of the voting showed that very few people who had an opinion before the debate actually changed their positions. However, the online voting was decidedly different Only 11% (4,944 voters) supported Common Core while 89% (38,821) voted NO WAY!

I generally agree with positions laid out against Common Core by Carol Burris so I decided to present excerpts from her statements last, although she actually spoke second. Carol did get a little too involved in Common Core mathematical approaches and technical language proposed for early elementary school grades. It seems that children are being asked to decompose numbers, a term I am unfamiliar with from math, but I know from decomposing bodies in television zombie programs. I still have not figured out why it is crucial to know zombie math in the first grade.

The biggest problem in the debate is that the debaters were too nice to each other. I would have rather seen more sarcasm and anger, which is probably why I wasn't invited to participate. Below are excerpts from their opening statements, slightly edited for clarity, interspaced with my comments, questions, and sarcasm, except of course for Carol Burris.

Michael Petrilli (Supporting Common Core): To embrace the Common Core is, first of all, to embrace the idea that our schools should have standards, all right, that doesn't sound so radical, and that the standards that we have should be set at a high enough level to indicate that our students are ready for what comes next. And that means kids graduating from high school, that they're either ready to go and succeed in college or to go and get a good paying job.

[Alan: Petrilli is right, this is not a very radical statement or especially conservative. In fact, it is the same argument made by President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan promoting Common Core. The problem is that neither Petrilli or Obama and Duncan ever bother to tell parents, teachers, or the general public exactly what they think students need to know to succeed in college or what a "good paying job" will look like in the future. We are supposed to accept their arguments on faith.]

Petrilli: Now, what you might have to understand is that this is a radical departure from how we used to do this. States did have standards before the Common Core, but, by and large, they were set at a very, very low level. And so what that meant is that students could meet those standards, they could pass the standardized tests connected to those standards, but it didn't mean that they were ready for success later on. In fact, in many states it didn't even mean that they were at grade level. And so we had a system that was giving a lot of false information out there to students, to teachers, to parents alike. So, to embrace the Common Core is to say, "Let's embrace standards that are set at this college and career ready level."

[Alan: Twice in his opening statement Petrilli referred to existing state standards and assessments as "rinky-dink," either in an effort to connect with his audience or else to introduce some new technical vocabulary to the discussion. I am not sure. What Petrilli leaves out is that most of the states with extremely low standards under the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind policy were Southern and Western states controlled by conservative Republican administrations where White voters did not want to pay taxes to support education for African American, Latino, and Native American children. Raising the bar on the standards without raising the funding for schools in these states is not going to change very much. Neither will imposing Common Core on states that already have high, if not higher, standards.]

Petrilli: It's also to say that we should embrace the idea of moving to next generation assessments, right, tests that measure these standards that are worlds better than the tests that we've been living with for the past two decades. Many of us in this room as parents or as teachers, we know that there has been this huge focus on standardized testing in this country. And unfortunately, by and large, those tests have been terrible, fill in the blank, multiple choice tests, tests that don't do a good job measuring what students know and that encourage very low level kind of teaching and learning in the classroom. But now, after four years, we're finally getting to the point where there are new assessments coming connected to the Common Core that are going to be much more like advanced placement exams or international baccalaureate exams like the ones that Carol [Burris] uses in her school, and this is our chance to move to those assessments. So, if you embrace the Common Core, its high standards, its next generation assessments, that's what we are moving towards.

[Alan: Has Petrilli seen the newer and supposedly better tests? I have and they are seriously flawed. Does Petrilli have children or grandchildren in schools where education has been abandoned in favor of perpetual tests prep? The bonding of Common Core with high-stakes testing is at the "core" of parental opposition to the Common Core.]

Petrilli: Every study that's ever been done on American education comes to pretty much the same conclusion. It's not that our schools are failing, though some are failing, but . . . our schools, by and large, are mediocre when compared to schools overseas. They're in the middle of the pack. They're not the best schools in the world, they're not the worst schools in the world. They're in the middle of the pack.

[Alan: If Massachusetts were a separate country, its eighth graders would rank second in the world in science, behind only Singapore, and sixth in mathematics. North Carolina was a top scorer on the fourth grade math exam, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Indiana were top scorers on the eighth grade math exam, Massachusetts and Colorado were high scorers on the eighth grade science exam, and the United States as a whole scored above the international average, 10th in science and 9th in math. We don't need Common Core. We need the federal government to demand that conservative Republican states allocate sufficient funds to educate their children.]

Petrilli: And it's not just our demographics. It's not just because we have a lot of childhood poverty, though we do. Our rich kids are in the middle of the pack compared to other rich kids around the world, poor kids, middle class kids, high achievers, low achievers.

[Alan: Asserting is not evidence. I need to see the data. Petrilli, show me the Carfax!]

Petrilli: This is our chance to embrace the Common Core, is to fix all of that, to move to a system with much higher standards but also better tests that give better information but that also encourage better teaching and learning in the classroom . . . [T]his is why you should vote to "Embrace the Common Core."

[Alan: On the "Bullshit Meter," Petrilli gets a perfect 10.]

Carmel Martin (Supporting Common Core): "I want to start by telling you the story of Janelle, a young woman from Philadelphia who I spoke to recently. And whose story embodies why I feel so strongly that the Common Core is a crucial step forward for American education. Janelle is an African American woman from the north side of Philadelphia . . . She worked hard. She took honors courses. She got all As . . . She diligently applied to college, and she and her parents ecstatically celebrated when she not only got into college, a public four-year institution in Pennsylvania, but got a full scholarship. But it wasn't very long after going to college before she realized that she had been duped. The As she'd earned in her honors courses in high school seemed to bear little relationship with what it took to succeed in her college-level courses . . . The Common Core is not a silver bullet for all that ails our education system. But it is an essential building block. And for students like Janelle who, for generations, have been shortchanged by the old, failed system, new standards will help ensure they are never left behind again."

[Alan: Nice heart-wrenching story about Janelle. As a teacher for forty years I have met many Janelles and they are a big part of what makes teaching worthwhile. But of course what happened to Janelle is not the real problem and Common Core does not offer much of a solution. Janelles go to college and despite adversity they eventually triumph. But what happens to all the other children in those Philadelphia schools, the students without Janelle's brightness and supportive family. Will Common Core change the quality of their education and lives? Even Martin does not pretend that it will. She acknowledges it is not a "silver bullet." It is only an "essential building block" for "students like Janelle." But will it make a difference for everyone else? That is the question and she has no answer.]

Martin: "The Common Core was not developed in secret and was not developed by the federal government. This was an initiative led by Democratic Governor Markell of Delaware and Republican Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia. Back in 2008, virtually all of the governors, with the exception of Rick Perry and Sarah Palin, were strongly supportive of it. Unlike the previous patchwork of standards, the Common Core was developed with significant input from educators and content experts, like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics."

[Alan: Not much to say here other than it is just not true. I recommend Carmel Martin read Diane Ravitch's blogs "Exploring the Origins of Common Core" and "The Biggest Fallacy of the Common Core Standards" as a starter before she speaks again. She can also read my Huffington Post blogs on Common Core, especially "Common Core, What Is It Good For?" and "Common Core: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."]

Martin: "A Winston poll in early August revealed that two out of three teachers approved of the adoption and believed they are what their students need to be successful. And when implementation is done well . . . teachers feel excited about the standards and believe they have more, not less, freedom in their classroom . . . Teachers will no longer be driven to narrow the curriculum or teach to a bad test. There have always been standards and always will be standards. There have always been tests and there always will be tests. It's time to get them right. For that reason, I ask you to 'Embrace the Common Core'."

[Alan: Carmel, please, this survey was not an impartial scientific study; it was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the main force behind Common Core. Not only that, but in the opening paragraph of the report, the Winston Group notes "this support is soft as 17% said they strongly approve and 44% said somewhat approve." Evidently Ms. Martin needs to work on her "close reading" of non-fiction material skills.]

Fredrick Hess (Opposing Common Core): "The Common Core does not solve the problem that it was designed to solve. The motivation behind the launch of the Common Core was what we called the "race to the bottom," after No Child Left Behind, the concern that states were playing games with their test scores in order to make their schools look better than they were. Common Core was supposed to help address this. It doesn't. It doesn't because in order to get a lot of states to sign on, partly with the inducement of federal money, the advocates for the Common Core brutally compromised the design of the thing. Common Core allows every state to set its own cut score, so every state can decide what is or is not passing."

[Alan: This means that if Massachusetts and Alabama administer the same Common Core aligned reading test, a student in Alabama could pass with a score that would be failing in Massachusetts. Clearly not a national standard for excellence!]

Hess: "The folks sitting on the committees that wrote the Common Core looked at some statistics on the kinds of high school courses that college kids take, and they looked at some surveys of employers and college professors . . . That's not evidence of what needs to be or not be in the Common Core. In fact, I'm not sure what kind of evidence one would point to, to prove that children need to learn to multiply fractions at this grade rather than that grade . . . Common Core ends high school math after algebra 2. Most state standards went beyond that. They included trigonometry and pre-calculus before the Common Core . . . It's hard for somebody to convince me that these are undeniably more rigorous standards when we're jettisoning the last two years of mathematics."

[Alan: Mercedes Schneider examined the credentials of the "folks sitting on the committees that wrote Common Core." She found "only 3 of the 15 individuals on the 2009 CCSS math work group held positions as classroom teachers of mathematics. None was a classroom teacher in 2009. None taught elementary or middle school mathematics." She concluded, "My findings indicate that NGA and CCSSO had a clear, intentional bent toward CCSS work group members with assessment experience, not with teaching experience, and certainly not with current classroom teaching experience."]

Hess: Common Core is also about series of hypotheses about how kids will learn better. These hypotheses are baked into the Common Core, into the tests that have been designed to support the Common Core, and they have received shockingly little debate, given how radical they are. One is a fascination with what Common Core advocates called close reading. This is the idea that students ought to learn to read by deciphering the text -- preferably nonfiction, by deciphering the text without regard to other knowledge and without any personal reaction to the text.

[Alan: Close reading of text without attention to student and teacher background knowledge has produced some disturbing curriculum suggestions. Because readings are assigned based on "text complexity" as determined by a mysterious algorithm, New York State's Common Core website proposes that students be introduced to the European Holocaust using the novel The Book Thief before they actually learn about it in social studies classes. On a lighter note, David Coleman, one of Common Core's major champions, proposed a close and careful reading of Federalist #51, written by James Madison during debate over adoption of the new federal constitution "to teach students and teachers about carefully reading primary sources like Madison's work and how to understand concepts like 'faction' as the authors themselves understood these terms." The problem with Coleman's suggestion is that Federalist # 51 is principally about checks and balances and the separation of powers in the new nation. Its title is "The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments." Factions, what we now call political parties, are actually the major topic in Federalist #10 which was also written by Madison.]

Carol Burris (Opposing Common Core): "This isn't a debate about whether or not we need standards. Of course we do. And this isn't a debate about whether or not schools should improve. That's a given. Rather, this is a debate that asks whether or not the Common Core standards are so remarkable and so sound that we should embrace them as the standards by which every American child is both educated and judged."

"Five hundred early childhood experts, pediatricians, psychologists, researchers, and teachers found the Common Core standards to be so developmentally inappropriate that they called for their suspension in grades K through 3 . . . Louisa Moats, one of the few early childhood experts that were on the team that created the literacy standard, is now one of their most outspoken critics. Why? Because the Common Core standards disregard decades of research on early reading development and instead yank up difficulty levels at every grade."

"The Common Core standards were built backwards from grade 12 down to pre-K. But kids don't grow backwards, they grow forward, and their development is unique and uneven. The Common Core requiring that kindergarteners count from one to 100 by ones and 10s, even though we know that most five years old can count to 20, is as silly as expecting all two-year-olds to be potty trained . . . This is why parents and teachers are rebelling. In one year, in the bluest of states, California and New York, the Common Core has moved from majority approval to majority disapproval. In one year, teacher support for the Common Core has dropped 30 points."

"There is no evidence, none, that the Common Core standards and its tests will actually increase student learning. And as we engage in this experiment, we may very well hurt the kids who need our support the most. And so I urge you to vote no at the end of this debate, because if we embrace the Common Core, we are embracing a set of flawed standards that will mark as failures more than half of our kids."