Teachers and the Common Core

An intriguing poll by Education Next was released this week that shows declining support for the Common Core. While a majority still support the math and literacy standards now in place in 43 states, the size of that majority has definitely shrunk from a year ago (65 percent support in 2013 vs. 53 percent support in 2014).  Interestingly, the decline in support seems largely a case of the Common Core as “a tainted brand,” to use the term of the survey authors. How do they reach this conclusion? Well, respondents were randomly divided into two groups, with one group asked about their support for “Common Core, which are standards for reading and math that are the same across the states” and the other asked that same question, starting with the word “standards.” Among the first group support was 68 percent, among the second support dropped 15 points to 53 percent.

But what fascinates (and worries) me most about this survey is that teacher support for Common Core standards has plummeted. In 2013, over three quarters of teachers (76 percent) supported them. A year later the level of support is less than half at 46 percent.  A thirty point drop in 12 months!  What are we to make of this fall off?

I’m sure there are many reasons, not the least of which is that now that teachers have begun the really hard work of dissecting the standards and transposing them to their daily lessons, they have a deeper appreciation for the challenge of, in many cases, transforming their teaching. At first, they were largely eager for change. Now that change is upon them, the enormity of what this really means is hitting. And who among us doesn’t have some anxiety over large-scale change in our lives?

Yet, I do wonder if there is another force at play here. Not so much the realization of the challenge of shifting instruction per se, but rather resistance to or discomfort with requiring students to achieve to higher expectations within the same basic school structure in which they have always operated. The problem, as I wrote many years ago in Education Week, is one of mismatched systems.

With the advent of high education standards, modern students are expected to know and do so much more than previous generations, yet, stunningly, they are required to achieve these objectives in the same allotted time. We would never expect a long-distance runner to complete a 10-kilometer race in the same time he or she runs a 5-kilometer one, but today’s students have essentially been challenged to do just that.

And here’s a piece of evidence to back up this admittedly speculative conclusion. I recently had the opportunity to do some analysis of responses to the Massachusetts Teaching, Empowering, Leading, and Learning survey (MassTELLS) conducted in 2014. I took the responses and grouped them into two categories: responses from teachers in expanded-time schools and those from teachers in the much larger group of schools with traditional schedules. I found a substantial gap on the degree to which respondents agreed with the following statement: “Teachers have sufficient instructional time to meet the needs of all students.” Among teachers in traditional schools, 55 percent agreed, but in expanded-time schools that figure jumped to 77 percent. Apparently, having more time in class has the real effect of helping teachers feel like they can educate all their students successfully.

So, is educator skepticism of the Common Core growing because of possible problems with the standards themselves or with the fact that these higher standards do not easily fit within the conventional educational structure? Honestly, I don’t know, but it seems to me that before we go assuming that the standards are being “unfair” to students, we must take a hard look at what else about the education system might be responsible for the challenges posed by the Common Core. And surely, the lack of adequate learning time to reach these rigorous standards has to be high on the list.