Recently, we began our Common Core State Standards alignment project. Basically, we asked content experts to review our materials and record the instances where our materials "align" with the standards. By publishing these alignments, we are providing time-saving assistance to our customers who wish to use our materials to design lessons that support the standards. When we began our Common Core State Standards alignment project, I never imagined it would generate anything more than an occasional "thank you."
I was wrong.
"Thank you for the list of books I will not be ordering due to your conformity to Common Core."
"I'm disappointed that your company now supports a national one-size-fits-all curriculum. How sad."
"By aligning to Common Core Standards, you are dumbing down your materials."
A Little Background
The CCSS are a set of rigorous performance standards for mathematics and English language arts that have been adopted by 45 states. Although the standards are challenging for most students, they need to be modified to meet the needs of advanced and gifted learners. Such modifications are de rigueur for those of us in gifted education—we've been modifying general education requirements for many years, and Common Core State Standards are no different. In fact, over the last year, Prufrock Press has released five professional development titles designed to help teachers make the necessary modifications to the standards for gifted learners.
So ... why all the brouhaha? Why does CCSS seem so polarizing?
Below, I'm going to address four myths that some (including those in gifted education) hold about CCSS. However, before I do, let me address a problem that is no myth: high-stakes testing. CCSS and high-stakes testing are unfortunately paired in the minds of many CCSS opponents, but they shouldn't be. Long before CCSS, we had high-stakes testing, and if every state legislature rejected CCSS tomorrow, we would continue to test student performance with standardized measures.
In my opinion, high-stakes testing does more harm than good, regardless of students' ability or skills. For gifted kids, the trouble with high-stakes testing is that if a school's funding or teachers' jobs depend on students passing a performance test, the school's money, time, and energy will go toward making sure students who are on the verge of failing a test pass it. Administrators describe students on the edge of failing as being "on the bubble," and the efforts of entire schools go toward supporting their success. Gifted students, who are likely to pass high-stakes tests without much help, get little or no attention under such conditions, but while high-stakes testing has a negative impact on gifted learners, it is a separate matter from the Common Core State Standards.
Having said that, let me tackle some of the myths about CCSS.
Myth #1: CCSS Are Dumbed Down Performance Standards
Normally, I hear this from people who have never actually reviewed the standards. The Common Core State Standards are more rigorous than most of the state standards they replace. In fact, many states have started campaigns to prepare parents for the large number of students who will initially be unlikely to meet the more rigorous CCSS.
Do you remember, back when you were in fourth grade, when you were asked to ...
Apply the area and perimeter formulas for rectangles in real world and mathematical problems. For example, find the width of a rectangular room given the area of the flooring and the length, by viewing the area formula as a multiplication equation with an unknown factor.
No? Me either. However, that is a fourth grade mathematics standard from the Common Core. The CCSS are tough, rigorous standards that many schools will struggle to implement.
When you hear opponents of CCSS criticize the standards as lacking rigor, it is important to ask, "Compared to what? The less rigorous standards they replace?" Could CCSS be improved? Sure. Nothing as complex as CCSS is perfect, but they are an improvement over the disparate state standards they replace.
Are some of the standards too lax for gifted learners? Yes. They need to be modified, just as we had to modify the less rigorous state standards they replace.
Myth #2: CCSS Is a National Curriculum
CCSS isn't a curriculum at all. It is a set of performance standards (i.e., standards for the skills students master). CCSS doesn't prescribe the books students read, the activities in which they engage, or the projects they develop. For example, in an eighth grade English class, the CCSS asks that students "cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text," but it doesn't require that a specific text be used.
Want to challenge gifted students with that standard? Ask them to apply that skill set to Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov ... or some other challenging piece of literature. My point is that while CCSS does offer examples of quality reading material, it doesn't prescribe the reading material that must be used in classrooms. It only prescribes skills. The teacher, school, or local community determines what students read.
Furthermore, CCSS only applies to mathematics and English language arts. Given the diversity of views in this country about civics, history, and politics, the chances that we will one day have a set of Common Core Standards for social studies is just this side of zero. Likewise, science represents a hot potato that the CCSS initiative avoided. For science standards, you need to look to the Next Generation Science Standards.
Myth #3: CCSS Is Unproven and "Dangerous"
This kind of drivel always comes from writers with little education background, a big political axe to grind, or both. For someone who has been in education for many years, CCSS is, to be honest, mundane. When I taught high school 25 years ago, we aligned our curriculum to the standards established by such organizations as the National Council for Teachers of English and the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics. Does CCSS differ from those 25-year-old standards we used back then? Sure, but the variation is pretty limited. For the most part, CCSS is more specific, includes updated skills, and pushes some standards into earlier grades ... but it is not a radical departure from the older standards.
Performance standards are nothing new to education. They are only new to the political junkies who have stumbled upon education as their latest bogeyman. We've used performance standards for years, and they've proven more effective than no agreed-upon standards at all.
Myth #4: CCSS Hampers Creativity in the Classroom
Remember what I wrote at the beginning of this blog post? "We asked content experts to review our materials and record the instances where our materials 'align' with the standards." We are not changing a word of our creative, engaging materials and curriculum, and they align with CCSS quite nicely. We didn't have to remove the creative aspects of our materials in order for them to align with CCSS because nothing about CCSS is incompatible with creative teaching strategies. We've always built our products with an eye toward addressing rigorous performance standards, and we've never needed to compromise on the creativity we infuse into our materials.
Likewise, we are excited about some new projects we have in development that are created with CCSS explicitly in mind. We've taken to heart the principles we've learned about modifying CCSS for gifted learners, and we have lots of creative, engaging products in development that apply these principles to lessons, activities, and curriculum. I can assure you that these new products are academically challenging and creatively engaging. They are consistent with Prufrock Press' ongoing mission to support the education of gifted learners without compromise.
An Unnecessary Distraction
Dumbing down expectations ... a one-size-fits-all national curriculum ... unproven and dangerous ... a chokehold on classroom creativity? Nope. These claims are just misunderstandings about what the standards are, how they fit into a historical context, and what they hope to accomplish.
In the end, the real trouble is that the brouhaha surrounding these myths often distract us from the discussion we ought to be having about how to modify the standards and build a full range of differentiated curriculum, instruction, and assessments designed to support advanced and gifted learners.
Joel McIntosh, the publisher at Prufrock Press, can be contacted on Twitter at @joelmcintosh.