A Veteran’s View of Choices Facing Teachers in Implementing Common Core Standards (David B. Cohen)

David Cohen has been teaching since 1993. He completed a B.A. in English at U.C. Berkeley (’91) with Phi Beta Kappa honors, and earned a Master’s degree in Education through the Stanford Teacher Education Program (’95).  After achieving National Board Certification in 2004, David served for two years as a support provider for National Board candidates.  As one of the founding members of Accomplished California Teachers (ACT), he helped author the group’s first two policy reports.This post appeared in the ACT group blog on January 24, 2013.

The implementation of the Common Core State Standards is underway, and the imminent transition that will affect most American public schools is sparking a wide variety of reactions among educators I know and interact with, or whose writing I read online.  At the extremes are the enthusiastic adopters and the active resistors, and in between, a wide swath of teachers who are still sorting out their reactions as they learn more about the content of the standards and the implications of their adoption.

In my blog, I haven’t focused on the Common Core at length, but the posts I have written remain some of the most viewed here at InterACT.  Looking back at “Common Core Confusion” – written nearly two years ago – I see many of the fundamental issues are still driving the conversation.  The argument for the necessity of the standards has never been convincing to me.  The inclusion of a “recommended” reading list in the ELA standards still irritates me.  Additional problems include the likelihood of excessive testing and the money gushing out of schools and into publishing and testing enterprises.  In that post, I quoted or linked to many of the same key players in the debate right now, including vociferous critics such as P.L. Thomas, Yong Zhao, Susan Ohanian and Stephen Krashen.

Shortly thereafter I revisited my concerns in a post written in response to a conference I attended: “Common Core Confusion – ASCD Edition.”  In that post, I found myself increasingly skeptical, and linked to other blog posts that I still think are worth revisiting, by Mary Ann Riley and Alfie Kohn.

So, for anyone familiar with those authors and their perspectives, it may come as a surprise that although I agree with their assessments of the key problems in the Common Core, I actually disagree with some of their more recent writing regarding what teachers should do, or not do, as the transition unfolds.  The divide I’m seeing is revealed in the comments and links that have arisen in Larry Ferlazzo’s recent blog post at EdWeek, “Response: Best Ways to Prepare Our Students for CCSS in Language Arts.”  In that post, Ferlazzo offers viewpoints from a number of teachers who are doing exactly what the title suggests, and offering advice to their colleagues.

Like me, and the above named critics, Ferlazzo maintains doubts about the Common Core.  His post begins:

I have been no fan of the Common Core standards (see The Best Articles Sharing Concerns About Common Core Standards). However, one of the key lessons I learned in my nineteen year community organizing career was that, though we should always recognize the tension inherent in “the world as we’d like it to be” and “the world as it is,” living in the former seldom leads to success in the latter. The Common Core is the reality for most of us, and I’ve begun collecting the most useful resources for implementing them.

 And like Ferlazzo, I have reached the conclusion that teacher leaders need to seize this initiative, engage in the transition efforts of our schools and districts, and do the best we can to make the implementation work for our students.  We should also continue to express concerns and criticisms of the standards, and remain hyper-vigilant regarding the problems to follow in developing curriculum and assessing learning.

That pragmatic compromise smacks of collaboration and submission for the most outspoken critics of the standards….Krashen and Thomas responded in the comments on Ferlazzo’s post; Krashen did concede to a small extent, “Yes, if the common core is instituted, help teachers and students deal with it. But that does not mean accept it. The train has left the station but it has not arrived.”

That sounds like a statement I could agree with, but he goes in more forceful terms: “The arguments against the common core are very strong and clearly indicate that the common core will be the greatest disaster ever to hit education. Please see Yong Zhao’s articles and books, Anthony Cody’s blogs on edweek, susanohanian.org, and of course the first few articles at http://www.sdkrashen.com/index.php?cat=4.  Accepting the common core as inevitable has the effect of making it inevitable.”

Thomas rejects any compromise: “I cannot endorse any efforts or arguments regarding how to implement CCSS; that is the wrong question.  CCSS is a cash-cow for textbook and testing corps, as well as paid consultants and their professional organizations.”  The “cash-cow” argument concerns me as well, but I think our best antidote is to keep excellent teachers engaged in understanding the standards and … expanding our own capacity to work with them creatively, and more independently, reducing the demand for huge and costly purchases of curriculum-in-a-box, some of which is the same shoddy material we had before with “Common Core Aligned!” slapped on the packaging.

Ferlazzo responds to the comments:

I can think of no realistic political scenario that would stop Common Core from being implemented for at least ninety percent of millions of teachers and students in the United States. I have also not heard anyone else share one, though I am all ears….

Given that political reality on the ground, I think the political capital of teachers, students and their families is better spent on other issues that also affect the working and learning conditions in our schools and the living conditions in our communities — teacher evaluation procedures, adequate funding for schools, class size, parent engagement — just to name a few. In my political judgment, teachers and their allies are much more likely to be able to influence those issues.

In his own blog post responding to Ferlazzo, Thomas writes, “If implementing CCSS is inevitable as Ferlazzo claims and if school, district, state, or federal mandates will continue to support those standards and the related high-stakes tests, teaching is reduced to an act of fatalism, and in effect, teachers are de-professionalized and students are similarly reduced to passive recipients of state-mandated knowledge, what Paulo Freire (1998) labeled as ‘the bureaucratizing of the mind’ (p. 102).”

And I might agree with Thomas (and Freire) in the abstract, but here’s the problem: such a transformation of public education could not happen in a vacuum, could not happen solely by the willpower of teachers even if we all agreed with each other, and could not happen quickly – maybe not even in one generation.

Meanwhile, Ferlazzo and I both teach in high schools with over 2,000 students apiece.  I work on a staff of over 100 teachers, and interact with many others around the district.  I help to direct a teacher leadership network with over 300 California teacher members.  The conversations I’m hearing in my school and among peers do include CCSS concerns and criticism, but in my observations there is simply no groundswell of teacher resistance to the Common Core, and I have seen a number of teachers who have favorable opinions of it despite some reservations.  (Thomas points out there is resistance to standardized testing that’s building around the country, embodied most recently in the Seattle teachers who are refusing to administer tests.  I support their efforts, and I would caution administrators around the country to look at the conscientious objections raised not only by Seattle teachers, but also teachers in Chicago, and the broader resistance in New York, led by thousands of school principals.  If the Common Core implementation continues down that path, I doubt the grassroots resistance will take as long to develop as it did with the NCLB testing regimen).

And as for the critics I’ve cited, to my knowledge, none of them is currently a K-12 teacher.  That fact does not invalidate their criticisms, but I think it colors their perceptions regarding a realistic, pragmatic approach, here and now, for those of us trying to serve our current students and schools most productively.

True, I could resist; I could dedicate hours and days to finding and sharing articles, holding meetings, building alliances.  In the meantime, someone will be making decisions about the educational program and policies for my school and district, operating with the state mandate to implement the CCSS.  I’d prefer to be part of those decisions.  If teachers don’t engage deeply in that process, I have no doubt that we will be ill-served by whatever is imposed from above without our participation.  I see more to gain for teachers in approaching this process in a “Yes, and” attitude, rather than a flat rejection.  Yes, we will help implement the Common Core Standards, and we will use the occasion of that engagement as an opportunity to educate our peers, leaders and stakeholders, and become more effective advocates for better teaching, better learning, and a stronger teaching profession.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, school reform policies

11 responses to “A Veteran’s View of Choices Facing Teachers in Implementing Common Core Standards (David B. Cohen)

  1. I have linked the longer discussion among Cohen, Ferlazzo, Krashen and me here:


    I address directly Cohen’s comment about critics not being teachers:


  2. Jane Remer

    The lesson from World War 2, in France, is that those who avoided joining the Undergroud became “traitors” and many of them punished….if you kid yourself that you can’t leave it to anyone else to do your job, and you hind behind the kids, you will have compromised yourself and your true ability to say and do “no” —

  3. Pingback: Great Linkage on Common Core, Daring to Innovate, and the Architecture of Creativity | The Learning Pond

  4. Cal

    Maybe it’s because I’m a math teacher, or a high school teacher. Maybe it’s because I rarely use textbooks. Maybe it’s because I find it practically impossible to believe that the assessments will be ready in three years, let alone one.

    But I have no intention of changing the way I teach. I don’t see this as “resistance” per se, and I’m sure the many other teachers who will, upon being told to change, smile and shrug and say “Yeah, you planning on being in my classroom every moment of every class?” don’t see it as resistance of the sort being pushed by the advocates.

    I anticipate that Common Core will run up against the wall of teacher….not resistance. Implacability? Independence? Something.

    Now, do I wish someone would point this out so we won’t waste billions? Sure. But am I worried that the CC will do damage? No. Teachers will just do what they do.

  5. Cal

    “advocates” –that is advocates of resistance.

  6. Toni Badone

    The biggest reason for Common Core to exist is to support our students in their learning across a country where at least 30% of our nation’s students are mobile every year. Whether they are military families, or families who move for a host of other reasons, and regardless of whether they move 10 miles or 2,000 miles, our students need some basis of trust that our public schools are united in their teaching certain core skills and sets of knowledge really well. Attaching all kinds of “accountability measures” such as a common summative standardized set of tests, or teacher, principal and school evaluations only slows down and inhibits our nation’s public schools from providing a common core curriculum. It is done in many other countries with curricula like Cambridge IGCSE, for example, and others. Can we at least agree to support our students in this way?

  7. Being a vetern of viet nam, the common core is socialism and communism. Hitler youth is what or leaders wants our youth to become. Veterns need to stop this for veterns gave the best to save our nation. Contact your friend and senators and congress to stop the common core

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