Guest Host: Tom Gjelten

In 2010, a coalition of state governors and education experts developed the “Common Core,” a set of uniform guidelines for what American students should know and be able to do by each grade. When the federal government offered incentive grants as part of the stimulus, 45 states and the District of Columbia signed on to adopt the new standards. Now, many of those states are reconsidering their support. Critics say the standards are too rigid and confusing for students and teachers. And 11 states have pulled out of the Common Core testing, which is supposed to begin in 2015. Guest host Tom Gjelten and a panel of experts discuss renewed debate over Common Core standards and testing.


  • Catherine Gewertz Associate editor, Education Week; co-author of blog, "Curriculum Matters."
  • Michael Cohen President, ACHIEVE, an independent, non-profit education reform organization; former special assistant to President Clinton for Education Policy
  • Carol Burris Principal, South Side High School, Rockville Centre, NY; New York State High School Principal of the Year (2013); author of the forthcoming book, "On the Same Track: How Schools Can Join the 21st Century Struggle against Resegregation" (2014)
  • Jim Scheer State Senator in the Nebraska unicameral legislature; former president of the Nebraska School Board
  • Annice Brave National Board Certified Teacher of English and journalism at Alton High School in Alton, Illinois; named Illinois Teacher-of-the-Year in 2011


  • 11:06:54

    MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm today. Since 2010, 45 states have adopted Common Core educational standards. The new guidelines establish benchmarks for what each student should learn at every grade. Now, several states, ones led both by Republicans and by Democrats, are reconsidering the new guidelines. And some have pulled out of the testing planned for 2015.

  • 11:07:20

    MR. TOM GJELTENJoining me in the studio to discuss this new debate over the Common Core is Catherine Gewertz of Education Week. And joining us by phone from his home on this snowy day is Michael Cohen of ACHIEVE. That's a non-profit educational reform organization. Also joining us by phone from Rockville Centre, N.Y., Carol Burris of South Side High School.

  • 11:07:43

    MR. TOM GJELTENNow, many of you, when I tweeted this morning that we were going to be talking about this, I got tons of responses. Clearly, many of you parents, teachers, board members are familiar by now with the Common Core reform effort, and we'd like to hear from you, your thoughts, your questions. You can call us at 1-800-433-8850. You can email us. Our email is And of course you can join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, Catherine. Good morning, Michael. Good morning, Carol.

  • 11:08:18

    MR. MICHAEL COHENGood morning.

  • 11:08:19

    MS. CATHERINE GEWERTZGood morning.

  • 11:08:19

    MS. CAROL BURRISGood morning.

  • 11:08:21

    GJELTENSo, Carol, since you're -- Catherine, since you're here with me in the studio, I want to go to you first. And just for all of our listeners who are not familiar with the Common Core, give us an example of what it is. I mean, you know, in the old days, it was reading and writing and arithmetic. We did have standardized tests. But the idea of the Common Core curriculum goes beyond this sort of quantitative measurement of what students should be learning. Give us an example of what the Common Core says should be -- students should be learning at particular grades.

  • 11:08:55

    GEWERTZRight. And your comment brings up one thing right away, which is that the folks that wrote the Common Core would be jumping in here saying it is not a curriculum. It is standards. And the difference is that standards are a higher level more spare outline of a set of expectations of what kids are supposed to know. In between the standards and the tests comes curriculum that you write, the daily lessons. But, that said...

  • 11:09:21

    GJELTENOkay. Important distinction, right.

  • 11:09:23

    GEWERTZRight. And one that many people argue about.

  • 11:09:25


  • 11:09:26

    GEWERTZSo -- but to answer your question, an example of a couple of the key changes in the Common Core, these cover just English language arts and mathematics, by the way. And on the English language arts side, you have things like they don't want kids reading and then writing about their personal experience or the way they relate to a text.

  • 11:09:51

    GEWERTZThere's something called writing to evidence and text-based questions that are designed to get kids to read text more deeply and in a more complex nuanced way than schools have typically expected and then go back into the text to find evidence to build arguments for certain points of view, fact-based, evidence-based interpretations. That's one example of an ELA shift. On the math side, it really emphasizes knowing how you reached an answer, habits of mind of mathematics, not just getting the right answer.

  • 11:10:25

    GJELTENBut those seem like good ideas.

  • 11:10:28

    GEWERTZTo a lot of people, they are. But there's not universal agreement on this.

  • 11:10:29

    GJELTENWell, Michael Cohen, thank you for not jumping in when Catherine says you probably should have to defend your position because you, in fact, were one of the organizers, creators, of the Common Core. Fill in from where Catherine Gewertz said and give us your explanation, the history, of why these standards were adopted.

  • 11:10:53

    COHENSure. Thank you, Tom. And Catherine is right. The standards are a set of learning outcomes, goals. They are not the curriculum. And one thing that's very important to understand about them, in terms of where they came from, you know, about two-thirds of jobs that are going to be available to today's students require some kind of post-secondary education, technical training, two-year degree, four-year degree, something beyond high school. Diploma's not enough.

  • 11:11:25

    COHENBut about 40 percent of first-year college students are required to take some kind of remedial course in either mathematics, writing, or reading because they don't have the skills they need to succeed. By the way, that number in New York State is 48 percent of the students in community college have to take remedial courses, 13 percent of those in four-year colleges. These students are paying full-time tuition for, you know, college tuition.

  • 11:11:55

    COHENThey are not earning college credit. They're half as likely to ever complete a college program. And the reason that many of them need remediation is because we haven't set our expectations in a way that reflects the real-world demands they need to face. That is the fundamental starting point for the Common Core is to make sure that the expectations that are set for student achievement in fact reflect what post-secondary faculty, what employers in particular need, the skills they need in order for students to be well-prepared and able to succeed.

  • 11:12:33

    COHENAnd we learned that the skills that are needed for college success or for success in jobs that pay well and have advancement potential are essentially the same. They revolve around critical thinking, around problem solving, about the ability to think your way through an issue, to make a coherent logical argument based on evidence. That's what the anchor for the Common Core standards is.

  • 11:12:59

    GJELTENNow, I want to bring Carol Burris into the conversation. But, first, I want to get sort of this background taken care of, so we really are clear about what we're talking about and what has happened. Catherine Gewertz, as we said, 45 states adopted the Common Core standards. That's a pretty impressive number. And yet now there is, as we said, all these second thoughts. What has happened that a program that seemed at the beginning to be so popular and widely accepted now has generated all these concerns?

  • 11:13:29

    GEWERTZThis is complicated. But one of the things that's happened goes right back to what you just noted. Forty-five states adopted the Common Core. Never before in the history of this country have there been shared academic standards. This is huge. How did it happen? One of the ways that it happened has proved to be part of the controversy, which is that the federal government, in its Race to the Top competition to improve schools, laid out certain conditions what it wanted states to do, if they were going to successfully apply for Race to the Top grants.

  • 11:13:54


  • 11:14:03

    GEWERTZAnd remember this happened during a recession when states were very poor. Everybody needed money. One of the things that would give them an edge in their Race to the Top competition is to have adopted "college and career-ready standards." And I believe there was some phrasing in there about common college and career-ready standards, but I'd have to double-check.

  • 11:14:23

    GEWERTZThis particular set of standards was not specified. States could also adopt a good solid set of college and career-ready standards that had been blessed by their university system, for instance. But what the overwhelming majority of states did is they raced to adopt the Common standards as a way to get Race to the Top funds.

  • 11:14:43

    GEWERTZAnd, lo and behold, couple years later, there's a lot of opposition about federal overreach and the federal government using incentives to pretty much coerce states into deciding things that have historically been strictly local education decisions. And there are, in fact, federal laws that bar the federal government from mandating or dictating curriculum and education decisions. And there are plenty of people who feel like that's what happened here.

  • 11:15:09

    GJELTENWell, Michael Cohen, correct me if I'm wrong. But, actually, these standards were not drawn up by the federal government but by governors and state education chiefs, state school chiefs. Is that not correct?

  • 11:15:20

    COHENThat's correct. And the process of developing Common Core standards began well before Race to the Top was announced, in fact, well before the Obama Administration took office. This has deep roots in work that states have been doing for quite some time. ACHIEVE worked with 35 states that committed in 2005 to develop college and career-ready standards. And we helped the states work, one by one, to do that.

  • 11:15:50

    COHENIn 2008, we looked at what about 15 states that had completed the process had done, and it turned out that there was literally a Common Core of expectations that you could identify, if you looked across the states, because when you ask the question, what's the evidence about the real-world skills that students need, the answer doesn't depend on what state you're in.

  • 11:16:13

    COHENI would just add one other point. Catherine's right about the incentives in Race to the Top. But it's worth noting that many more states did not win Race to the Top grants than did, and they're still implementing the standards. There's no doubt there was a federal incentive. But this effort began independent of the federal government.

  • 11:16:31

    GJELTENUm-hum. Right. I want to go now to Carol Burris who's principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y. She was named New York State High School Principal of the Year last year. And she's written a book, which is coming out soon, "On the Same Track: How Schools Can Join the 21st (sic) Struggle against Resegregation." Carol, what Catherine laid out at the beginning sounds to me like it makes great sense. I mean, we want students to learn critical thinking skills, to learn problem solving skills, and not just engage in rote learning, correct?

  • 11:17:04

    BURRISOh, absolutely. Before I talk about that just a little bit, I think there are two important corrections to be made. One was the figure that's 40 percent of our kids need remediation in college. That's not true. It's 20 percent. And it varies depending upon whether they were in a private school or whether they were in an open enrollment two-year college. And the other piece that was very important is that the Common Core standards were also tied to the ESEA waiver.

  • 11:17:29

    BURRISSo in order to be able to get away from some of the more onerous parts of NCLB, they were also adopted. Look, the vision of all students being prepared for college and careers is one that I wholeheartedly embrace. My entire principalship has been about that. The question really is, how do we actualize that vision?

  • 11:17:49

    BURRISAnd from my practice and research, here are the components. You need a great curriculum that challenges kids to use and develop their talents. It has to lend itself to differentiation. We have to worry about our kids who are English language learners. We have to worry about our kids with disabilities. And you need to have a lot of support.

  • 11:18:07

    BURRISIf you're going to have high expectations for all students, you need to find ways to bring the floor up and support them. Now, what's happened in New York State is the Common Core was rolled out. The implementation was occurring in exactly the way that it could -- that we've argued that it could not work, with heavy-handed testing, sanctions for teachers and students, and with really ignoring school funding in the process.

  • 11:18:36

    GJELTENOkay. Carol, I want you to hold that thought. It's a very important one. We have to take a short break right now. When I come back, we'll go right back to you, allow you to finish your thought. I'm Tom Gjelten. Stay tuned.

  • 11:20:00

    GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten, of NPR, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And today we're talking about the Common Core Standards and why they have become so controversial in recent months. And just before the break we were hearing from Carol Burris, who is principal of Southside High School, in Rockville Center, N.Y. And Carol, I think you were saying that the implementation of this program has been -- at least in New York, at the state level that you're familiar with -- I think you said it was heavy-handed; is that the term you used?

  • 11:20:32

    BURRISYes. It was heavy-handed and it was rushed. And what started happening for me -- because originally I was a great supporter of the Common Core Standards. I wrote a book in support of them -- is that my teachers, who are also parents, started coming in and complaining and telling me how their kids were starting to hate school, how they were crying during homework. My niece, who teaches Common Core algebra, started expressing some very, very serious concerns about gaps in learning.

  • 11:20:58

    BURRISAnd then what happened in New York State was they rolled the tests out last year. And while the tests are not the PARCC Tests, they were created by Pearson, which is one of the vendors that are actually going to create the PARCC items. And what we saw was we saw our proficiency rates drop like a stone. In fact, it was actually predicted that proficiency would drop to 30 percent. But what really concerned me even more than that was that the achievement gap started to bloom.

  • 11:21:28

    BURRISSo that in 2012, for example, there was a 12-point black/white achievement gap between average third-grade English language arts scores and a 14-point gap in 8th-grade ELA scores. Last year the gaps under the Common Core tests grew to 19 and 25 points. We had large, large shares of students with disabilities, with students who are ELL, students who were disadvantaged suddenly being rated below standard. Now, I don't think anyone expected that the tests were going to close the achievement gap, but there's no reason why they should have widened it as they did.

  • 11:22:07

    BURRISAnd you start to wonder, you know, what are we measuring? Are we measuring the experiences of affluence? And what's the effect of telling the majority of students in our state with disabilities, English language learners, or minority students beginning at age 9, year after year, you're not on the road to college readiness?

  • 11:22:26

    GJELTENWhat does that do to a student, Carol?

  • 11:22:27

    BURRISI think what will start to happen over time -- and this is my biggest worry -- is that they're going to start to internalize a message. And that message is going to be that college is not for them. And, you know, there is nothing that is perfect about any of these standards. And it also is going to cause some other problems, because the state tests are used in a lot of high-stakes way for kids. Schools use them to determine who gets accelerated, who gets into honors programs, who gets retained.

  • 11:22:57

    BURRISYou know, I think that as those gaps widen, you're going to see fewer of the kids who really need access to good instruction and to classes that are honors classes actually being denied. I think it's going to work in the opposite way.

  • 11:23:11

    GJELTENWell, I'm sure that Michael Cohen will want to weigh in on that question. But first I want to go to Lincoln, Neb. State Senator Jim Scheer is on the line. He represents legislative District 19 in the Nebraska legislature. And he's a former president of the Nebraska School Board. And, of course, Nebraska is one of the five states that did not adopt the Common Core Standards. Good morning. Thanks for calling into "The Diane Rehm Show," Jim.

  • 11:23:38

    SEN. JIM SCHEERGood morning.

  • 11:23:39

    GJELTENSo why did Nebraska not opt in to the Common Core program?

  • 11:23:43

    SCHEERWell, ours was more of a logical standpoint. In listening to the earlier part, one thing that I would note is the process of the Common Core were started literally, I think, in February or January of '09. And it was an agreement by, I believe, all 50 states and the territories -- at least one of the territories -- that they would help produce the Common Core Standards, but they wouldn't necessarily adopt them. That was the starting point for this process.

  • 11:24:20

    SCHEERAnd that worked well through October of '09. And then at a meeting in Chicago in October of '09 we were told -- and this process was started by the Governors' Association and the State School Chiefs' Association, as well as the Gates Foundation. And at that point in time in October, they then determined we're not going to finish the process, letting the states be actively involved. It would be a unilateral group of individuals that would finish the standards.

  • 11:24:53

    SCHEERAnd that we were first informed of the race to the top at that point in time. And that funding would be available for race to the top, but as the incentive, if you had adopted the Common Core Standards you got more points. And so the more points, obviously, the more chance you would have of winning that competition. When it went from a state-driven process to more of a unilateral decision, that's when Nebraska sort of took pause to look at them.

  • 11:25:23

    SCHEERHaving said that, we also have -- at least in Nebraska -- a statute that says we have to review and reform our standards every five years. And as we were looking at the Common Core Standards, the other question then, if you're going to have standards, you have to have an assessment. And we were told in 2009 that the assessments probably would not be out until 2015. If that was the case we would be negligent in our part as a state board because we have to redo them every five years, and that would be past the five-year window.

  • 11:25:58

    SCHEERSo consequently we didn't feel as though we had the opportunity to adopt them because our statutes wouldn't allow that large a gap between setting the standards and having an assessment.

  • 11:26:08

    GJELTENNow, Senator Scheer, Michael Cohen made the point earlier that we are one country. And the skills that American students need to compete in this society are essentially the same skills countrywide. Do you reject that? I mean, you keep complaining about the unilateral nature of the planning here, but…

  • 11:26:30

    SCHEERI think there would have been a better buy-in if all the states had had the opportunity to work through the process. But having said that, no. I don't necessarily say that having a commonality in standards is not of benefit to the United States to the extent that we have too mobile of a society. As students move from Florida to New York or New York to California or Oklahoma to Nebraska or vice versa of any of those, certainly it would be nice to know that those students are not going to lose educational time simply because different states are in different points with the standards. So no, I don't have a problem with that all.

  • 11:27:04


  • 11:27:05

    COHENTom, can I weigh in on this a bit?

  • 11:27:06

    GJELTENOkay. Michael, you've been very patient.

  • 11:27:08

    COHENThank you. So, Senator, with all due respect, the timing was a little bit different than what you described and the process was a little bit different. The Common Core got started in 2008 before the election. That meeting in Chicago, which I attended -- there was actually several of them. But the meeting that started this, there were 48 states whose governors and chief state school officer agreed to participate in the process to develop the standards and then decide whether in fact to adopt them or not.

  • 11:27:41

    COHENAnd there was widespread participation in the states. There were thousands of comments that were received on three or four different drafts of the standards that were released. Most states had teams of mathematics and English language arts teachers who reviewed the standards and provided comments. The NEA and AFT provided comments and drafts along the way. There was lots of involvement, lots of participation.

  • 11:28:09

    COHENThere was a small writing team, because it would be impossible to produce anything coherent if it was done by an enormous committee, but there was lots of opportunity for input and lots of feedback and lots of changes that were made in the...

  • 11:28:23

    SCHEERAnd I don't dispute that at all, but I think if we're going to be honest with ourselves, Michael, there was a distinct change in the pattern in October of 2009. You and I may see that differently, but from my perspective, as the board member from Nebraska being at that meeting, there was a pretty large change in the process. And I guess I would even go forward to the extent that as they were becoming finalized and we could have that input, Nebraska, being in the Midwest region, our input was supposed to be in March of 2010.

  • 11:28:58

    SCHEERAnd the final version of those standards came out in February, or else the very first part of March, before we were ever given an opportunity to look at them or suggest changes in a final format. So there was a little difference, but I'm not going to dispute…

  • 11:29:15


  • 11:29:16

    SCHEER…those nuances.

  • 11:29:17

    GJELTENAll right. Senator Jim Scheer was the president of the Nebraska School Board at the time when Nebraska opted out of the Common Core Standards. Thank you very much for joining "The Diane Rehm Show," this morning, Senator.

  • 11:29:29

    SCHEERThank you.

  • 11:29:30

    GJELTENYeah. Let's see, Catherine Gewertz, you heard Senator Scheer talk about this perception that this program was top down. And Michael Cohen defended the design of the planning process. Is there still a perception out there that this is excessively top down? I mean we also had Carol Burris saying that she thought that the implementation of it in New York was heavy-handed.

  • 11:29:59

    GEWERTZYes and yes. I mean, I think there's still a perception that it's top down, but not in the way that Senator Scheer was referring to. There's still a stripe of concern about that, that the states weren't sufficiently involved, that there was this, as Mike put it, a small writing team. But then the way my reporting has borne out, that these drafts were actually circulated through State Departments of Ed. for review. So the states were participating, but not at the origin point. More at the review and feedback and the iteration point.

  • 11:30:31

    GEWERTZSome states more than others, also. But the perception of top down, I think, is largely driven by concern about the federal government. And that's a significantly different question. The role to which the federal government has incentivized and encouraged the adoption also has permitted states to opt out of key provisions of No Child Left Behind through the waiver program, as another guest mentioned, also is financing the development of the assessments. This has really concerned a lot of people. And that's the top down stripe of opposition that I hear the most about as a reporter.

  • 11:31:07

    GJELTENCarol Burris, there's a real important issue to be clarified here. And that is whether the problem with Common Core is just a problem of implementation. And, you know, if you look at Obamacare, implementation problems can be pretty serious. But from your point of view, is this just an issue of implementation, or at this point, after living with this program for four years, do you think that there are deeper problems with this program?

  • 11:31:34

    BURRISYeah, I'm really afraid at this point that there are deeper problems with it. If you look, for example, at the Common Core math standards, they're most closely aligned with the math curriculum of Singapore. Now, Singapore is this small, extraordinarily wealthy nation state. It actually has the world's highest percentage of millionaires, 1 in 6 households. Students begin there with one year of preschool, followed by two years of kindergarten.

  • 11:31:59

    BURRISIt's a real shift in the way we think about mathematics and teaching mathematics, though some aspects of Singapore may have been in a lot of districts. And we're finding quirks in the system that I think are deeply concerning. For example, as a high school person I'm looking at Common Core algebra. Well, part of Common Core algebra is something called piecewise functions, which is part of calculus.

  • 11:32:26

    BURRISSo now we're putting part of calculus inside of algebra. There's a de-emphasis on trigonometry, which frankly is very important for success in calculus, which 60 percent of my students take later on. We've actually had very, very high standards in the district all along. There's concerns about an over-emphasis on close reading, to the exclusion of critical reading. There's concerns about Lexile levels and some of the techniques being used, in terms of ELA, not being aligned with what we know about good reading instruction.

  • 11:33:04

    BURRISBut there is a very, very serious problem that's happening in New York. And I suspect it's probably happening across the country. When the math standards were put into place, in New York a lot of our New York State standards were pushed down a grade level. So, for example, what used to be taught in third grade, now into Common Core is taught in second grade. Well, when they were phased in they were not rolled in by grade level, which is really the way you should do this kind of change.

  • 11:33:34

    BURRISThey were smacked in across the board. And what's happening is we're seeing kids with huge gaps in learning. Now, what we hear is, oh, ten years from now -- well, all that's going to be worked out. Well, that may be so, but you know children get to be first graders once.

  • 11:33:49


  • 11:33:53

    BURRISAnd between the differences in philosophy, as well as the change in alignment and curriculum, it's really been a problem. It's just too much, too fast.

  • 11:34:01

    GJELTENCarol Burris, is principal of Southside High School, at Rockville Center, N.Y. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And I want to bring in another teacher now, Annice Brave. She's an English and journalism teacher at Alton High School, in Alton, Ill. And she was named Illinois Teacher of the Year in 2011. Annice, thanks for joining us in this conversation.

  • 11:34:25

    MS. ANNICE BRAVEThank you for inviting me. It's about time a teacher gets to say something.

  • 11:34:31

    GJELTENThis is your chance. What's been your experience with Common Core?

  • 11:34:35

    BRAVEWell, I've had a very positive experience with Common Core. Several years ago I took part in this College Boards workshops and I learned a lot of great techniques that just fit right in with Common Core. But those techniques were pretty well reserved for our honors or A.P. kids. And so I started wondering, well, I wouldn't this work with my other students? And so last year my district gave me an extra hour a day, just to plan and work with Common Core. I got to read all I could get my hands on. I spent a lot of time on Engage New York.

  • 11:35:17

    BRAVEAnd I'll tell you, if you want to learn a lot about Common Core, that's a good site, but there's just too much on it. But another colleague and I got to spend a lot of time working together and getting materials ready for Common Core and just thinking about it. So now I use Common Core every day in my classroom. I teach American Lit., which is an REI classroom, Regular Education Initiative classroom.

  • 11:35:47

    BRAVEAnd I have Special Ed students in there with my opti-moderate learning disabilities, behavior disorders, we have English language learners in that classroom. And I find that the techniques I'm using with them, which are Common Core aligned, are having very positive effects on them.

  • 11:36:03

    GJELTENAnnice, I want to ask you one thing. You said that your district gave you -- I think you said an hour a day to prepare for this Common Core. I'm wondering whether that partly explains the good feeling you have about the program and whether one of the issues that have occurred in other school districts is that teachers have not been given the adequate time and training to prepare for this program.

  • 11:36:29

    BRAVEYou've hit the nail on the head. You're exactly right. I do lots of workshops for Common Core. And when I talk to teachers they tell me two things. One thing they say is we're drowning. There's so much material around Common Core that we just don't have the time to take it all in. And the second thing that they tell me is that they need to know what Common Core looks like in a classroom. And so I try to hook them up with videos from the teaching channel.

  • 11:37:06

    BRAVEAnd I worked with Georgia Public Broadcasting on some Ignite videos that just show Common Core in the classroom. And so teachers need some time to process this. People don't understand how much time teachers are with kids all day. They don't have time to prepare, grade papers.

  • 11:37:26

    GJELTENAnnice Brave is an English and journalism teacher at Alton High School. She was named Illinois Teacher of the Year in 2011. Stick with us. We're going to continue this conversation about the Common Core Standards and go to some more phone calls from listeners. Stay tuned.

  • 11:39:58

    GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about the Common Core Standards. Tons of comments, questions from our listeners. We have a number of people with us in this conversation, all of whom have different and really important and unique perspectives. We just heard before the break from Annice Brave. She's an English and journalism teacher at Alton High School. And Annice made the point that she thought that these techniques which were previously, in her experience, associated with gifted and talented students could actually work for a broader population.

  • 11:40:32

    GJELTENAnd on that particular point, before you go back to work, Carol Burris, I want you to respond to that. What do you make of Annice's point that actually some of these techniques are not necessarily only for gifted and talented, but if done carefully can work for a broader student population?

  • 11:40:49

    BURRISYou're talking to a principal in which every student in our high school is taking international baccalaureate English. And that's with a population that's 16 percent free and reduced price lunch, 21 percent minority. You know, techniques are different than Common Core Standards. Are some of the techniques around close reading excellent? Sure they are. I mean, we teach IB language and lit which is a course that is very supportive of the use of informational text.

  • 11:41:18

    BURRISBut that's very, very different -- you know, I think that the teacher was -- and she was looking at the tree and not necessarily at the forest. She's also in a state that hasn't had the testing yet. So, you know, where I think all the different places on the path I would say that when we were where Illinois was a few years ago, I probably would've been in four square agreement with her comments.

  • 11:41:44

    BURRISThe Common Core -- not everything about it is terrible or awful. What has happened though is that it's been very, very rushed. It's far too detailed. It speaks too much to (unintelligible) you know, it's twin is the testing. And all of that put together, along with evaluating teachers by test scores has really turned it into a lethal mix.

  • 11:42:10

    GJELTENCatherine Gewertz Annice said something else which I want you to pick up on. And that is that we just heard from Carol Burris, some of her problems with this issue, but she said that there's many different experiences and many different perceptions of this program. As far as the opposition to it is concerned, how do you sort of analyze the opposition to it? Is it appearing sort of on different fronts in a sense?

  • 11:42:33

    GEWERTZIt is. Three are a number of stripes of concern and opposition to the Common Core. And it's not an analysis that can be simplified, nor should it be. I mean, I see distinct chunks of concern about it, very little of which, by the way, has to do with the content. There is certainly concern about the content in some quarters. The things like is the balance of fiction to nonfiction that students are now expected to read more nonfiction by the way than previously? Is that appropriate?

  • 11:43:07

    GEWERTZIs there sufficiently rigorous math to prepare kids who plan to major in math, science and STEM fields? Questions like that do arise but the largest chunk of conversation I hear about the standards has to do with how they're being implemented, as Carol and Annice have said, to quickly without enough support for teachers, without enough time for them to plan, for them to adapt. And bingo, suddenly the tests are coming. And some of teachers' evaluations are increasingly hinging on test scores. That's one chunk.

  • 11:43:37

    GEWERTZThe other one is this local control and federal overreach issue that we touched on earlier. Another wave, which is getting a little more prominence now of concerns has to do with folks who really don't like the whole emphasis of testing in schools. They view it as a drumbeat of increasingly high expectations. And while that's idealistic and maybe even well-placed, we want a lot from our children. How we do it, how we push them, how we measure that can create problems, can set up schools and children for failure.

  • 11:44:10

    GEWERTZSo -- and a lot of that drumbeat puts profits in the pockets of the testing and publishing industries. This is another wave of concern that's often coming from parents and quote "anti-corporate reform people."

  • 11:44:23

    GJELTENWell, I want to go to the callers but first, Michael Cohen, again you've been very patient as you've heard a variety of criticism to the program here. And I want you to have an opportunity to respond. It seems like the strongest criticisms have to do with the implementation of this program, whether it's heavy-handed, whether it's moving too quickly, whether the standards are appropriate or not. Do you acknowledge there have been implementation problems that have plagued the rollout of Common Core?

  • 11:44:52

    COHENOh, of course. I think that -- a couple things that are important here. One is, I think, in most places we need to double down on providing support for teachers. That means professional development. It means time to collaborate with their peers on implementation. And it means making sure they've got the curriculum and instructional tools to implement the standards well. And all of those are in short supply to some extent or another depending upon the state or district. So that to me is a top priority. That's where we all ought to be focusing now.

  • 11:45:26

    COHENSecondly, in that context it's, I think, actually fine to slow down on the stakes that are being applied. Teacher evaluation is important. There are lots of components to evaluating teachers. At some point they would be evaluated in part on their contribution to student learning. But in the meantime, right, we don't have to rush that. We can spend time making sure they have the support they need, making sure that they are in fact -- their classroom management and instructional practices are sound, the things that we're supposed to be evaluating them on all along. So we don't have to rush the high stakes here and add to the anxiety that is already there.

  • 11:46:07

    GJELTENWhat about the testing?

  • 11:46:09

    COHENWell, I think testing is important and it's, you know, full disclosure achieve -- my organization helped one of the two federally funded consortia develop tests -- the PARCC tests that Carol mentioned. There's a lot of work that's gone into making sure that those are much better tests than students are taking now. As just one example, there are hundreds of teachers that are reviewing every item that the testing companies, including Pearson developed. And they've not been shy about sending the questions back and saying they're not good enough.

  • 11:46:42

    COHENThere's a real significant emphasis on a different kind of test and a higher quality test than has been the case before. Now, once those tests are in place, the New York experience, the results will look worse initially. The topic our students have gotten dumber or schools have gotten worse, it's because we are holding students to a higher standard and being very transparent about where they are.

  • 11:47:07

    GJELTENOkay, okay.

  • 11:47:08

    COHENKentucky has done this without the difficulties that New York has experienced.

  • 11:47:12

    GJELTENInteresting. Let's go now to Ben who's on the line from Valdosta, Georgia. Good morning, Ben. Thanks for calling.

  • 11:47:19

    BENHow are you doing? Thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:47:21

    GJELTENYes, sir.

  • 11:47:23

    BENMy girlfriend is a third grade teacher. And if it wouldn't have been for the difference in the voice, I would've thought that the lady from New York, the principal you had calling in, I would've thought that they were the same two people expressing the same -- the very same...

  • 11:47:46


  • 11:47:47

    BEN...concerns, yes sir. It is too much too soon. How it is being implemented is rushing these kids and turning a lot of them off. Just about all of the same concerns that the lady from New York listed I have heard overtime. And I have actually looked at some of the things that my girlfriend has been -- supposed to teach some of these kids. And I was actually shocked.

  • 11:48:21


  • 11:48:22

    BENAnd as a 3rd grade teacher -- only in 3rd grade. And the -- one of the other bigger problems that you have is -- I heard the gentleman mention that this was -- Common Core was started in 2008. There was another thing that started in 2008, which was an economic downturn. So now you have board of education's pushing people and pushing their teachers almost like they're running a corporation. And the children are a product. And it -- I'm sorry, go ahead.

  • 11:48:55

    GJELTENNo. I wanted just to get you to wrap up your point. I mean, what I heard you say is you're very much reinforcing the concerns that Carol Burris had. But I did want to go to some other callers now and get their point of view. For example, let's see, Andy is on the line from Syracuse, N.Y. Andy, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:49:19

    ANDYThank you for taking my call. I'm the parent of a 5th grader in a public elementary school here in Syracuse, a school where many, many of the children are failing far short of these standards. And while I see a good deal of positive things in the curriculum itself, I think that the implementation and the ties to teacher accountability have been terribly, terribly problematic. And that that threatens to get the whole thing tossed out. That the baby -- you know, the positive aspects of this core curriculum may be tossed out with all the problems resulting from too fast implementation and tying it to this high stakes testing, which really is a poor measure for children.

  • 11:50:05

    GJELTENAndy, your concerned that this might be thrown out -- throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You think that there's some things here that need to be kept and you're worried that they'll be lost?

  • 11:50:15

    ANDYYes. I think that, you know -- and I haven't heard much discussion of it yet but my understanding -- and I'm seeing this in my child's classroom, that teaching critical thinking skills is a highlight of the Common Core curriculum. And this is very, very important as we move forward. We need people to be able to take in information, whether it's written or verbal or online, and to be able to process it and understand it and to judge what is accurate and what's not accurate. And that's a really important piece of the Core curriculum, which I hope continues to be implemented.

  • 11:50:49

    ANDYAnd I've also seen a real effort to broaden the presentation of history that's connected with the Core curriculum to be sure that we tell our children about the true history of the founding of this nation, what happened to the native people who lived here before Europeans arrived, about the contributions of women, of people of color. All of those are very important.

  • 11:51:10

    GJELTENCatherine Gewertz, what do you see happening from here on? So we have these states that are opting out of the testing. We have states moving away from this. Where is this going?

  • 11:51:20

    GEWERTZGood question, but that's what I spend my days writing about and pursuing. I -- that's an open question. There is certainly some up cropping of concern in state legislatures. However, it is worth pointing out that while many, many bills have been introduced of one stripe or another in state legislatures, none has gotten traction from both houses and made it to governors' desks.

  • 11:51:44

    GEWERTZThe closest we've seen is in Indiana which just last week did get a measure through both houses -- it still has to go to conference committee -- but that is the state that's out front with opposition. The extent to which this will come unraveled in the states is anyone's guess. I mean, academic standards are typically approved by state boards of education, not state legislatures. However, state legislatures hold the purse and there's politics and it can come unglued at that point. But it hasn't really yet.

  • 11:52:15

    GJELTENCatherine Gewertz is associate editor of Education Week. She's also co-author of the blog Curriculum Matters and she's been following this issue very closely. We have emails, Michael Cohen, many of whom express a similar point, which is that it's easy to set standards and just sort of expect education improvement will happen.

  • 11:52:35

    GJELTENThis is Matt who's writing this from Michigan. He says, "Politicians and corporations are really good at setting standards and then fighting any real effort to financially support schools to meet those standards. Until they abandon this magical thinking, real improvement in education will not occur." Was it naïve to implement this very ambitious program at a time when financing for public education was so strained?

  • 11:53:00

    COHENNo, I don't think it was naive. And the reason I don't is because the standards essentially set the expectations that students are going to have to meet in order to be able to make their way successfully once they complete high school. So, you know, it's not like a committee sat down and made this stuff up, right. This would be standards reflect the real world demand students need to meet. So I don't think it was naïve to proceed when we did.

  • 11:53:23

    COHENI do think it is important to make sure that the investments are made in supporting teachers and students. It has been a tough difficult -- tough economic time. But, you know, last year California appropriated about $1.25 billion to support implementation of the Common Core. And I think other states are going to have to make those kinds of investments or reallocate dollars in some way in order to support it. And I think we need to see this as a long term proposition, same as they're not a silver bullet. Lots of other things need to change to support teachers and students, but we need to move forward on this.

  • 11:54:02

    GJELTENOne other question for you, Michael, and then I'm going to go back to the phones. Stephanie writes -- she's an educator who has spent quite a lot of time getting to know the Common Core. But she has a degree in child development and when she sees the rigor of the homework being given to grade school students, she's wondering whether anyone who worked on these standards took into consideration the cognitive development and abilities of young children.

  • 11:54:26

    GJELTENAnd this of course is something that Carol Burris said earlier, she's concerned about the effect on kids who don't do well, you know, against these standards. And that may begin to affect their self image.

  • 11:54:39

    COHENSo I think, yes, there was lots of discussion with child development experts when the standards were being developed. And the important thing I think is to make sure that we equip teachers to provide what experts call the scaffolding to bring students up to these higher standards, to meet them where they are, to give them the support, the time, the instruction that will help them go from where they are to these higher expectations.

  • 11:55:05

    COHENAgain, it will not happen overnight but if we don't get started, we can assume that we will continue to see large numbers of students complete high school ill prepared for what they need to do next.

  • 11:55:16

    GJELTENI think we have time for one more call. This is Sarah. She's on the line from Louisville, Ky. Hello, Sarah.

  • 11:55:22

    SARAHHello. Thank you. I wanted to make the comment that Common Core is difficult, but one thing that I haven't heard that has been addressed is that you can work to implement Common Core by putting -- one thing that our school does is we have a professional learning communities, (word?) professional learning community. And by putting PLCs into place, instead of teachers working in isolation, teachers going to a district professional development, a teacher coming back in her classroom and trying to incorporate Common Core, again in isolation.

  • 11:56:06

    SARAHWhat we have done at our school and what Jefferson County is working towards is professional learning community. And in that stance teachers meet together and it becomes a team.

  • 11:56:18


  • 11:56:19

    SARAHSo the team works to break down the Common Core Standard and the team works to create documents and the team works to create enrichment activities or to provide differentiation. And as a result what happens is you keep on working with the standards this way and that way and this way. And essentially students get -- they get it.

  • 11:56:44


  • 11:56:44

    SARAHThey start to understand it.

  • 11:56:45

    GJELTENAll right, Sarah. Well, this is certainly one thing that we have heard this morning that if you want to make this work, you need a lot of support. We've had a number of guests, Catherine Gewertz from -- associated editor of Education Week, Michael Cohen, the president of ACHIEVE, Carol Burris, a principal in New York. Earlier State Senator Jim Scheer from Nebraska was on the line with us. Annice Brave, an English and journalism teacher at Alton High School in Alton, Ill.

  • 11:57:11

    GJELTENWe've been talking about the Common Core Standards. You can read a transcript of this program on our website. Thanks for listening.

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