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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2014

A Hack Education Project

The Common Core State Standards

Part 6 in my Top 10 Trends of 2014 series.

Last year, I opened my look at the trend I then called “standards” by looking at the number of edits to the Wikipedia entry for the Common Core State Standards. This is what I wrote in November 2013:

The "edit history" and "talk" pages of Wikipedia entries can be pretty interesting, particularly when it comes to controversial topics. The entry for the “Common Core State Standards Initiative” is a great example of this. The Common Core isn’t new (the standards were released in 2010); nor is the entry (it was created in 2010 as well). But this year, there’s been a vast uptick in the number of changes to that entry, and discussion about its content and tone. 26 edits in 2010. 65 in 2011. 40 in 2012. 127 up through November of this year.

So far in 2014, there have been 382 edits.

In other words, attention to the Common Core continues to grow, as does the controversy surrounding it. That the Wikipedia “talk” page includes debate about whether or not the Common Core’s symbol is the hammer and sickle gives you some idea of the level of discourse we saw this year on this topic. And that’s not even the best example of how zany things got…

Take, for example Arizona State Senator Al Melvin who said of the Common Core: “Some of the reading material is borderline pornographic,” he said during an education committee meeting. Even worse? The math portion substitutes letters for numbers." (Sorta like, um, algebra?)

CCSS in Popular Discourse

As the Common Core State Standards began their rollout last year, the process quickly became politicized. This year, the standards were central not only to ongoing political fights but appeared in pop culture as well.

In April, comedian Louis C.K. took to Twitter to complain about his daughters’ struggles with math homework: “My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!” He then tweeted a series of photos from their homework asking, “Who is writing these? And why?” (Thankfully I storified these tweets as Louis C.K. has since deleted his Twitter account.) The tweets hit a nerve and were retweeted and favorited tens of thousands of times.

Newsweek’s Alexander Nazaryan was one of many who responded, “Sorry, Louis C.K., But You’re Wrong About Common Core”“: …”What’s dismaying about Louis C.K.’s anti-Common Core rant is that he is neither a shill for the unions nor a far-left conspiracy theorist who thinks that Education Secretary Arne Duncan (and perhaps the president himself!) is in the pocket of Pearson and the Princeton Review. He is, instead, a New York City public school parent who has the ears and eyeballs of millions across the nation, not to mention his 3 million Twitter followers."

Whether you agree with Nazaryan or not that Louis C.K. was “wrong” about the Common Core, he does get at precisely what made this criticism so powerful, I think. Louis C.K.’s comedic persona is that of a “regular guy.” As such, his observations were as a “regular parent” and they resonated with a lot of people. And his comments were, arguably, one of the most damaging blows that the Common Core received this year.

Louis C.K.’s tweets were hardly the only time that math homework went viral this year. Photos of math worksheets posted to Facebook were widely shared. One of the most popular involved the “Letter to Jack,” which was referenced in this Colbert Report clip.

The “Letter to Jack” involves a number line, one of several “new ways” of doing math that seem to cause frustration and derision. (All this assumes, of course, that the “old ways” make sense.)

The image was posted to a conservative Facebook page and picked up by the conservative media, helping to fuel the argument from the Right that the Common Core is an attempt to nationalize – and destroy – public education. Oh, and to help sell books. Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck published a book this year Conform: Exposing the Truth about Common Core and Public Education, and in July he sponsored an event he claimed was simulcasted to some 700 movie theaters, We Will Not Conform.

It’s hard to not see some of the furor around the Common Core as pure opportunism. Heck, even Louis C.K.’s tweets were conveniently timed around the premiere of the fourth season of his TV show.

That’s not to negate or deny the experiences of parents and students who find homework and testing incredibly stressful. That’s not necessarily about the Common Core though. It is a reflection of long, long, long-running concerns about the direction of American education.

Who Supports the Common Core? (Or Not)

A month-by-month playbook of support (or withdrawal of support) for the Common Core State Standards would look a little like this:

January: Alaska, which hasn’t actually adopted the CCSS, pulled out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (one of the two testing consortia set to deliver the new CCSS tests).

February: The New York State Board of Regents announced that it plans to delay full implementation of the Common Core State Standards until 2022. Missouri’s proposed budget included billions of dollars for schools, millions more for scholarships and $8 for tin foil hats for those paranoid about the Common Core.

March: Indiana became the first state to ditch the Common Core. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley announced he wanted to defund the Common Core. The Tennessee House voted to delay the state’s implementation of the Common Core. The American Federation of Teachers announced it would no longer accept money from the Gates Foundation due to concern from its members about the Common Core. Wyoming became the first state in the US to block new national science standards – not the Common Core, but still scary apparently.

April: The Oklahoma State Senate passed a bill to repeal the Common Core there.

May: The Chicago Teachers Union passed a resolution opposing the Common Core. Arizona left PARCC, the other CCSS testing consortium.

June: South Carolina governor Nikki Haley signed a bill requiring the state to develop new non-Common Core standards. Louisiana governor (and perhaps presidential candidate?) Bobby Jindal issued orders to withdraw his state from the Common Core. But it wasn’t a smooth move, as the state Superintendent insisted that Jindal didn’t have the authority to do so. Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin signed the bill repealing the Common Core in the state. Tennessee quit PARCC.

August: The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education sued Governor Bobby Jindal over steps he took to sever ties with Common Core-related vendors. Jindal filed a countersuit because that is how you roll in the USA. Tennessee’s Department of Education announced it “is moving toward standards that would reinvigorate the teaching of cursive handwriting.” Because patriotism. The Department of Education revoked Oklahoma’s NCLB waiver in response to its ditching the CCSS. Iowa left Smarter Balanced.

October: Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the head of Chicago Public Schools, indicated that she wants to delay the use of PARCC Common Core tests in her district, a move counter to the state's plans.

November: Midterm elections found opponents of the Common Core winning superintendent races in Arizona and Georgia.

Real Clear Education has several maps about the current status of the Common Core – which states still support the Common Core (the majority) and which tests they’re using – and the states in which it thinks the CCSS might face repeal. Former Florida governor (and likely Presidential candidate) Jeb Bush still supports the Common Core. So onward into the next election cycle we go, I guess.

That's a quick look at what politicians thought about the Common Core this year. What about parents and teachers? A Gallup poll published in October found that “parents of U.S. public school students in grades K–12 are about evenly divided over the Common Core State Standards. Thirty-five percent view them negatively and 33% view them positively, while another third aren’t familiar with them or don’t have an opinion. This reflects a slight shift since April, when parents were slightly more positive (35%) than negative (28%)."

Similarly, a Gallup poll of teachers found they were also split on the topic: “41% view the program positively and 44% negatively. Even in terms of strong reactions, teachers’ attitudes are divided, with 15% saying their perceptions of the initiative are ‘very positive’ and 16% saying ‘very negative.’”

Opposition to the Common Core doesn't come solely from the right or solely from the left. Nonetheless, as with almost every political issue, Americans are divided on the issue.

Common Core-Aligned (Or Not)

The Common Core has become shorthand for a number of things: the federal government’s takeover of public education, the privatization of public education, the failures of public education. With all these competing narratives from those pro- and con-CCSS, it’s a little difficult to tell what exactly is Common Core.

So many of the examples of terrible math homework, for example, are teacher-created worksheets; they aren’t publisher-created ones. And even then, how much of publishers’ textbooks or exercises are really “Common Core-aligned”?

According to research by USC education professor Morgan Polikoff, textbooks aren’t that well aligned at all. And Stanford math education PhD candidate Dan Meyer has looked at how well aligned Khan Academy is to the Common Core, something that it not only boasts but that it's expressly received funding to do. Meyer's findings, much like Polikoff's: it's not really that well aligned at all.

The Business of Common Core Alignment

I love this question posed by the Education Writers’ Association: “Is Common Core a tainted brand?”

I love it because it highlights that the CCSS is very much about branding. Political messaging. Corporate marketing. Branding. And oh my, the brands that are involved with the Common Core. “Common Core aligned” is frequently used in ed-tech press releases and product updates (watch for key phrases like “an adaptive Common Core practice app with game-like features,” for example). With pushback against the CCSS, there’s also a growing market for non-Common Core aligned materials, and a growing demand for those who can write press releases for Common Core-aligned materials without ever mentioning the Common Core.

Despite the political fallout, many major educational organizations do remain committed to the Common Core. The College Board, for example, announced in March, its plans for a redesigned SAT that would be “Common Core-aligned.” (The new head of the College Board, David Coleman, was one of the key “architects” of the Common Core.) The College Board also said it would partner with Khan Academy to offer free SAT test prep, arguing that this will enable a “future determined by merit, not money.” (As it currently stands, students whose parents have higher incomes score higher on the SAT. I've got a whole post on ed-tech and equity coming up, but trust me: Khan Academy plus SAT test prep ain't it.) The new GED (administered by Pearson) is also “Common Core-aligned.”

The Business of the Common Core

As I indicated in the second post in this series, the Common Core is a major driver of new education and education technology purchases. New textbooks. (Districts are poised to spend about $8 billion on new CCSS-aligned textbooks, although there were some efforts this year to build OER alternatives.) New curriculum. New applications. New assessments. New hardware. As Stanford education history professor Larry Cuban noted last year, the Common Core, along with its mandate for computer-based assessments, might finally be the thing that puts computers in the classroom. Whee. A victory for ed-tech.

In news that should surprise no one, “Common-Core Testing Contracts Favor Big Vendors.” That is, Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and ETS.

In May, Pearson was awarded the highly lucrative contract to develop and administer the Common Core tests for PARCC. (At the time, the states that were part of PARCC collectively educated about 15 million students. So let’s see: 15 million times $29.50 per test… Politico estimates that Pearson will earn a minimum of $138 million in the first year of the contract.) Pearson was the only organization to bid for the contract.

The American Institutes for Research (AIR) later filed a lawsuit arguing that the PARCC contract was awarded “in a process that was illegal, and structured in a way that wrongly benefited one company — Pearson.”

So, Are We Ready for the Common Core?

The Common Core tests have begun. So now what?

Are students ready for the Common Core? “Test scores are going to go down next year. Blame the Common Core,” warns Vox. And this question isn’t simply about students’ math and language arts skills. Are students ready to be tested on their writing skills using computers and not pen and paper?

Are teachers ready for the Common Core? Will it mean that they have to teach differently? What support is being offered to them?

Are schools – schools’ infrastructure – ready for the Common Core? The Michigan Department of Education announced in October that it was letting schools request waivers if they weren’t technologically prepared to offer assessments online. These schools will be allowed to use pencil-and-paper exams for one more year. Those technological preparations include the right hardware and adequate Internet connectivity.

I plan to look at some of the major ed-tech failures this year in an upcoming post in this series. (LAUSD, that’s you.) But I think one of the biggest failures, particularly around the Common Core, isn’t that a digital content provider isn’t aligned or an assessment won’t upload or that all this is lining the pockets of companies like Pearson or pundits like Glenn Beck. Yeah, the biggest failure isn’t that the Common Core is going to introduce a socialist agenda (LOL) or make you re-assess the way you learned math when you were 7.

The biggest failure is that the Common Core, while touting its “future readiness” is simply re-packaging and re-inscribing the following sentiment, as expressed by Bill Gates, who said he supports not only the Common Core but a common curriculum:

Because “kids should be taught what they’re going to be tested on.”


Special thanks to Frank Noschese and Christopher Danielson for help with the math homework. First published: December 13, 2014.