Every year, I would get the test results in the mail, telling me my daughters “met state standards” on the required exams in Illinois for reading, math, science and writing. I guess I was supposed to feel reassured, but it’s hard to celebrate when your kid clears a bar that is set artificially low. A bar I knew would be much higher if we lived in Massachusetts, or even lower if we lived in Mississippi.
As a mom who believes that my daughters’ struggles shape their character far more definitively than their successes, I embraced Common Core. As an education reporter who spent a lot of time in classrooms watching fidgety children slog through another fractions-memorization worksheet, I welcomed Common Core. As a federal communications director who had to unpack the research driving the push for higher standards, I witnessed a movement among states to replace the crazy patchwork of state expectations with a shared yardstick called Common Core State Standards.
Now, four years after the standards were written, released and adopted by more than 40 states, we learn that the Common Core has a… branding problem. It’s no longer a wonky policy dissected and debated in education blogs, curriculum conferences, and political speeches. It’s in our school newsletters. Our teachers are discussing it during open houses. It’s finally real, and yet so many parents don’t really know what the heck it all means.
They think it’s a federal mandate… or a scheme to send our children’s personal achievement data to DC. It’s not. They think it will dictate the lessons our teachers will teach and the textbooks our local school board will buy. It won’t. They think it will force our best teachers to quash their creativity and lower their expectations. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s why the leader of one of the nation’s most powerful teacher unions said her members “believe the Common Core State Standards is the best opportunity in a generation to put American students on a path to personal and professional success.”
So how do the myths get perpetuated? Headlines that misbrand Common Core and in the same breath call for a re-branding. Biased poll questions that seem calculated to tap fears of federal overreach and gin up knee-jerk opposition to a policy that has become a political punching bag in the past year. Or stories in a respected mainstream media publication that present sham allegations from opponents as undisputed truths.
The general public still doesn’t know a great deal about Common Core, but what people are learning, about half are getting it from traditional media. I spent 20 years in a newsroom, and I know why journalists sometimes take shortcuts in headlines and seek quotes from the most predictable, polarizing figures in a national debate — because it’s easier. But education writers have an obligation to seek a truthful, thoughtful middle ground and not hand torches to the flamethrowers.
Yes, the rollout has been rocky and rushed in a lot of schools, but no one expected this game-changer to be a cakewalk. And a lot of folks, especially teachers, are understandably wary about how the assessments tied to Common Core will be used in their evaluation ratings. But we can have meaningful dialogue about these issues without poisoning the promise of shared high standards.
Strip away the polemic on both sides of the political spectrum, and what it comes down to is this: Americans — at least two-thirds of them — want clear, consistent guidelines for what students should know and be able to do in math, reading and writing from elementary through high school. Maybe they don’t like the name, but they want what Common Core offers. They know we must expect more from our children.
As a mom, I don’t rightly care what we brand this movement, but I know we should not stand still — and we cannot retreat. I don’t want to go back to that time when “meeting standards” was an empty promise that offered no peace of mind that my daughters were really, truly learning.