Is ‘Common Core’ the ‘whole language’ of 2013?

Maybe I should have gone to that anti-Common Core rally yesterday. Maybe I’d understand better what the beef is.

So far, based on news coverage of the event, I can’t tell. As an issue that stirs people’s (at least, a few people’s) passions to the point of marching, it seems lacking.

People seem to dislike it because it’s federal — except that it isn’t. Or they seem to dislike it because it’s a standard, preferring to leave curriculum up to teachers. I think. Or maybe they just don’t like the word, “common.” I got that last impression from the woman quoted in The State today who asserted, “My kids are not common.”

I haven’t been perplexed this way over an education issue since the phonics-vs.-whole language wars.

Remember those? People who favored the teaching of reading and writing by the phonics method were really, really angry that this thing called “whole language” was being taught in schools.

I always thought it odd that this would be an issue, particularly a political issue. Like there was some deep ideological or even moral principle at stake in whether a kid learned to read “cat” by sounding it out or by recognizing it by context, or on sight.

In learning most Western language, the phonic method is useful. Especially a simple, straightforward language such as Spanish, in which letters usually (but still not always) represent the same sounds.

It’s even useful in English, for “cat” and “hat” and “bat” and “rat.”

But then, it’s not useful at all for recognizing, and knowing how to pronounce, “rough” and “bough” and “though” and “through.” There might be some other ways that “ough” is pronounced, but those are four that come to mind immediately.

You just sorta need to know a lot of words on site — I mean, sight. Or infer them by context (which, as I go and look it up while writing this, seems to be more what “whole language” is about). Phonics can be a big help when you’re trying to make out an unfamiliar word (which makes it a good tool to have in your box), but then, it might not.

I remember having a tremendous argument, when I was a first-grader, with a kid in my neighborhood who insisted that there was no way that “said” was the word we pronounced as “sed.” Phonics were all he knew, which limited his ability to come to grips with the language. What he had learned was valuable, but not everything he needed.

I digress. My point is, I didn’t understand why there was such a battle over phonics, and I don’t get the passionate objection to Common Core, either. Can anyone help me out here?

26 thoughts on “Is ‘Common Core’ the ‘whole language’ of 2013?

  1. Rose

    I think that if parents of elementary school-age kids have to attend school-sponsored workshops so they can understand how the “new math” is taught, then something is very wrong with the way Common Core requires teachers to teach. A friend who is a CPA had to go to the workshop because he couldn’t interpret his daughter’s homework. They learn convoluted ways of figuring out basic math.
    here’s a WaPo column on it from a former supporter:

    I’m afraid this is getting us further away from creativity and inventive thinking and just driving us further into teaching to standardized testing. Maybe I’m wrong. But your first grader is talking about “number bonds” and “decomposing numbers” and other terms like that, and is complaining that they are going over “really easy math” he already knows… get worried.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Thanks for the perspective, Rose.

      “Teaching to the test” is a charge thrown at a lot of educational movements. For instance, we heard it a lot in the complaints about the PACT test that arose from the Education Accountability Act.

      Here’s the problem with these things: There are a lot of people who want schools to be held accountable for teaching kids what they need to know. The EAA arose from business leaders complaining that high school graduates were unemployable, and conservative Republicans (back when “conservative” still sort of meant “conservative,” instead of “anti-government”) who wanted to make sure that the money that was spent on schools wasn’t being wasted.

      Testing is the only means anyone has yet figured out for objectively (more or less) checking on the job schools are doing. So if you’re going to hold schools accountable, testing is pretty much necessary.

      And yes, teachers tried to teach kids what they needed to know to pass the tests.

      But “teaching to the test” was a little misleading. The test didn’t come first. First, SC went through a process of deciding “What do kids need to be learning” so that they can get good jobs, and so that lawmakers reluctant to spend on school would be satisfied that the state was getting good value for its money?

      So we came up with the standards — a set of things kids were expected to learn. And the tests were designed to test whether the kids were learning what was in the standards. The point, of course, wasn’t to grade kids, but to grade schools.

      But as years went by, a lot of folks who didn’t know or didn’t care why we had come up with the standards to begin with complained enough that the pressure to scrap the PACT became so intense that…

      Well, I forget what happened after that. Somewhere in there, I ceased to get paid to keep up with all the esoterica and lost track.

      But what I did learn was that any attempt to set standards for education, and to track whether the standards are being met, is bound to meet with a lot of controversy…

      1. Doug Ross

        Did PACT work? Do businesses still complain about students not being adequately prepared for the workforce? I think the answer is NO. We saw no measurable change in the results.

        I keep going back to what was so different when we were kids that we need a new set of standards?

        We need better teachers, not better tests. To get better teachers, we need to pay them more and have a system that allows the worst ones to be fired easily. We need pay for performance, not for degrees or tenure.

        1. Chris

          Pay is only part of the picture. To get great teachers you need to have a student base with parents who are involved in their children’s academic lives. Too many parents view public school as government provided day-care.

        2. Scout

          “I keep going back to what was so different when we were kids that we need a new set of standards? ”

          I think one thing that is different is how thoroughly and completely the achievement level of the entire student population is measured today. I think in the past it was a lot easier to not count the scores of the most difficult to teach.

          Which is not to say the job we are doing today is OK. Just that comparing to yesteryear like it was all perfect then is not exactly the whole story. Some things are and always have been hard. But since we didn’t keep data on it back then, it’s hard to compare and see if we are making progress in these areas. Which I think we are, though admittedly probably slow.

          So if this hypothesis is correct, maybe we need a new set of standards because now we are actually trying to educate everybody?

          Or maybe we need a new set of standards because the world has changed pretty dramatically in a lot of ways since most of us here were kids. The point of the standards is to tell what you need to know to be ready to function in the world, right?

      2. Norm Ivey

        Disclaimer: I taught for 22 years, and now serve as the ITS at a large middle school in Richland 2. What I do now is incredibly easy compared to what I did before. Teaching is the most difficult job in the world. Standards don’t change that. Money doesn’t change that.

        You must have standards in order to ensure that students are getting an approximately equivalent education. Many teachers go into the profession not only because of their love for teaching but also for their love of the content. During the 8 years I taught science, I would have gladly spent the majority of my time on inquiry and studying work, simple machines and energy, but the standards were there to ensure that I also concentrated on other areas as well. I never taught to the test, but I did teach knowing that what I taught would be tested. Without that constraint, the students in my class might receive a very different education from the students in the class down the hall. We can argue about whether the district, state or feds should determine those standards, but surely we can agree that it shouldn’t be individual teachers. The Common Core helps to standardize those expectations nationwide.

        I’ll never argue with someone who wants to pay good teachers more, but that’s not always the best way to spend the money. We have laws that restrict class sizes for Special Education students and for Gifted students, but we don’t have similar limitations on class sizes for the general population. The research on class size is spotty, but if it’s good enough to support limitations for some groups, then it should support limitations for everyone. Perhaps spending money on more teachers would be a better use of funds. Getting rid of under-performing teachers sounds good, but until you live the life of a teacher, you don’t really understand what they’re up against. They’re not all teaching kids like the children of the readers of this blog. And you can blame society, the community or the parents, but the teacher still has to teach who shows up in class. We can’t control what happens beyond our walls. Frankly, really bad teachers have such miserable experiences that most tend to leave the profession pretty quickly after they get into it.

        I have a close friend who served many years in the military (his father taught at West Point) and spent a career at IBM. He retired to become a teacher. A few weeks in I asked him what he thought. His response: The public has no idea what this is all about. He grew to be an excellent teacher, not just in his content, but in his leadership for his students. But it got to be too much for him–dealing with the screwy dynamics of families, kids, politics, and the seemingly endless administrative tasks. He finally chose to leave. I encouraged him to stay, but he told me, It’s not worth the pay. He once told me he was in awe of what we do day in and day out. Thankfully, he is still in the profession, helping to manage a private school in a part of town with a high rate of poverty.

        There’s no easy fix for our education woes. The kids we are successful with, we are remarkably successful with. The ones whom we fail, we fail miserably. Any simple solution ignores the complexities of what it means to be a teacher in a diverse, mobile, changing society.

        1. Doug Ross


          Surely you will admit that there are SOME poor teachers who should not be in the profession? There are lousy doctors, lousy lawyers, lousy IT people. What I found as I spent time as an adult around teachers was that there is very much a “circle the wagons” mentality – there almost seems to be a pact that teachers won’t ever complain about other teachers.

          We’ve all had lousy teachers in our school years and many of us have had children who experienced them as well. They DO exist. All I say is that there should be an easier process to remove them. One year of a lousy teacher can have an impact on a student.

          1. barry

            If they are a lousy teacher as you say- chances are they have a lousy principal and a lousy school district too. But of course one person’s “lousy” teacher is another person’s “favorite” teacher.

            I’ve yet to encounter a bad teacher for my two boys. I’ve yet to encounter anything close to what I’d call a poor teacher. They are in good schools- but not what I’d consider the cream of the crop either.

            Have they had teachers that were hard? yes. Have they had teachers that were sometimes too demanding? yes. Have they had teachers that I didn’t necessarily agree with on some of their actions? yes. But I’ve yet to encounter one that was bad. My advice to my boys when they complain about their teachers? “Adapt, push through, overcome, get it done and quit complaining.”

            Like Norm said above – truly terrible teachers are rare. Most don’t hang around long. Heck, even a lot of “good ones” don’t hang around long.

            The general public simply doesn’t understand what most teachers face. I am not a teacher – but I volunteer at my son’s school a lot and I see what they do face each day and I am often amazed that they show up the next day.

          2. Norm Ivey

            We have 85 teachers on our staff. Not one should be dismissed. The worst teachers I’ve ever known have quit mid-year–one after 2 days on the job. The worst teacher I ever had was a college professor who lasted one semester. And honestly, it’s not that hard to dismiss a poor teacher. Until they work into a continuing contract, the district can simply choose not to renew it. I’ve seen that happen a couple of times.

            Your observation about circling the wagons contains a kernel of truth. We are reluctant to be too critical of our colleagues with people on the outside. We are, perhaps, a bit gun-shy about outside criticism, and so we are careful not to supply the ammunition ourselves. We know that only a teacher understands what another teacher is experiencing.

            Doctors, lawyers and IT people generally grow into their profession. A newly graduated teacher is expected to be able to do on the first day of school the same job that a teacher with 20 years of experience can do. Teachers are expected to achieve the same results with a group of kids from poor or dysfunctional families as are achieved with kids from homes that are well-stocked with resources–academic and emotional. Every teacher has had a bad day or week, or planned a poor lesson, or been blindsided by the myriad unexpected events that kids, parents and other players can throw at you. The working conditions can sometimes be taxing (“lunch” may mean 20 minutes eating standing up watching 150 6th graders scarf down institutional pizza and bathroom breaks are regulated by the bells). The endless demands on teachers’ time force most to carry work home. Before we start dismissing teachers who are unsuccessful, let’s remove as many of these other variables from the mix as we can. Even the best teachers experience periods of exhaustion and burnout.

            Teaching is probably the one profession that every adult has had significant exposure to, leading many to believe they know how to “fix” education. There is no easy fix.

          3. Doug Ross

            My three kids have been through multiple schools in Richland 2 K-12 grades. We have experienced bad teachers. Most of them had been on the job for years. Some are still on the job.

            Bad does not equal tough. Bad is lazy, burnt out, or unable to control a classroom. If you don’t think they exist, you have to have blinders on.

            An anecdote – one elementary teacher was a total dimwit. She had been there at least five years and had been moved from grade to grade each year trying to find the right fit after parents complained each year. I know of what I speak because my wife worked in the school as an aide and I was PTO President for two years.

            At the high school level, if your kids are not in the AP or Honors classes, you get a really mixed bag of teachers. We went through science teachers who did not speak English as their primary language; psychology teachers who thought that watching movies like Forrest Gump and Finding Nemo were useful teaching tools,; math teachers who refused to provide extra help to my kids when they struggled with a topic; English teachers who assigned way too many Powerpoint presentations instead of writing; then you get the classes taught by assistant football coaches that are best described as easy A’s.

            I admire teachers. A good teacher deserves higher pay than they get now. But there are bad ones. They exist.

          4. Doug Ross

            I forgot the middle school teacher who spent a large part of her classroom time on the internet planning her pending wedding. Kids see this. They know what’s going on.

    2. barry

      children are going to complain about school work, teachers, or something regardless. That’s the child in them.

      As the parent of a 4th grader, and 7th grader – whose schools have adopted the common core standards- I don’t have the fear that you have in any way regarding the standards. In fact, I’ve been very pleased with their progress this year.

      and when your 1st grader complains that they are going over stuff he/she already knows- tell them it’s possible not every child in the class understands it yet – but they are learning. That’s another valuable skill for a child to learn.

    3. Scout

      I don’t know enough to know if this is the reality, but they would have you believe that the common core approach would encourage creativity and inventive thinking more and that the nature of the tests would be harder to teach to. The knowledge that is tested for is embedded into more complex multi-step problems that involve more inference and logic and critical thinking. Rote knowledge is not necessarily tested directly but is tested indirectly by whether or not the student is able to use that knowledge in solving bigger more complex problems.

      This is the impression I get anyway. My personal experience with common core is from the perspective of preschool and kindergarten. Kids aren’t formally tested until 1st grade (MAP testing on the computer) so the testing part is a bit removed from me – but that is my understanding from being near professional development happening around me. But my impression of the standards themselves at the early elementary level is that some push the envelope for what is developmentally appropriate. It kind of feels like the standards are so busy focusing on higher level thinking that they skip some important steps. It’s like basics are a bad word because they are not complex enough. But you really do have to learn to walk before you run.

      But again, that is just my impression from a slightly removed point of view.

      I read the Washington Post blog post above. That writer seems to be reacting to several different things, not all of which are necessarily synonymous with common core, I don’t think – but not sure. Grading teachers on standardized testing results, for example. I, like the writer, have reservations about that, but is that implied by use of Common Core – I don’t think it necessarily is. At least right now in SC, it’s not happening, though we have the Common Core.

      I don’t think that having common and challenging standards is a bad thing. Whether or not these particular standards are the best though – I think is still unresolved. I think they probably need some tweaking.

      I don’t really understand the mindset that any common standard would be evil. But that mindset is out there. It’s odd.

  2. susanincola

    My child learned math with the Montessori method, and they had parent nights for that, too. I majored in math in college, and I still found those information sessions useful to understand the different way my child was learning. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but it really worked well for my child, and now his in-depth understanding about how to manipulate numbers is serving him well in high school math.
    All that to say, just because parents don’t get the method doesn’t make it bad. Or good.
    So far on Common Core, I’ve seen things I’ve liked and some I’m not as sure about. For my son’s English class, it seems like it makes it overly boring, while his Algebra book looks pretty much like any other I’ve seen. But a lot of the yelling and FB posts and such that I’ve seen are all so politically motivated, that it’s almost impossible to have a real conversation about it, which is unfortunate.

    1. Mark Stewart

      Montessori rocks for math. And the way students learn to “see” math problems is exactly the way they will need to understand matrixed problems. It’s wholistic. That’s a good thing often overlooked. Top down is the way most of us need to address issues.

  3. susanincola

    One odd thing I’ve heard repeated in multiple places is that kids don’t get wrong answers marked wrong anymore under Common Core. Haven’t noticed that — my son still gets all his papers graded as you’d expect. Wrong is marked wrong.

    1. barry

      I don’t notice it because it’s not true. A lot of people are making up stuff about common care that is a flat out lie.

      As I’ve said before- my son’s elementary school has adopted the standards and I can promise you- he’s had plenty marked “wrong” this year.

    2. Doug Ross

      There was a big issue in Lexington just a couple weeks ago about parents complaining that kids were allowed to fail tests and take them over again multiple times – thus leading to not really trying to learn the concepts the first time.

      From The State article:

      Changes were outlined in letters sent to families Wednesday with reports cards for about half of Lexington 1’s 23,000 students. Changes include:

      • Dropping the lowest grade on major tests, projects and presentations since classes began in August, a step that could transform C’s and D’s into A’s and B’s. In addition, teachers will give three or four such performance measures – depending on the subject – in each grading period, instead of relying on as few as one.

      • Reinstating homework, quizzes, behavior, classroom participation and other work as factors in determining grades, but the 15 percent cap toward the grade seems low to some parents.

      • Limiting students who fail major tests to one or two retakes per period as a way to improve grades, an idea some parents say encourages scholastic laziness and others say lacks guidelines on what lessons are included.

      Read more here:

      1. barry

        sounds like college.

        I had quite a number of professors that would drop or adjust a grade if the student tried, showed interest, and particpated in class. I didn’t have a problem with it.

      2. Rose

        I’m in Lexington District One. In addition to the issues with the new system, the heavy-handed way the school board dealt with parents made the situation even worse. From my own research on “grading for learning,” it seems like the system adopted by Lex. 1 was like a knock-off version. They paid the creator of GFL to come to Lexington twice to promote his system – he runs a for-profit company that sells his materials & exams and he calls himself the “grades doctor” but does not (that I can determine) have an EDD or PhD. Also, from talking with some other educators at the university level, the really crucial component of this kind of grading system is the formation of the cumulative assessments. They told me that university faculty who are shifting to this system have had difficulty adjusting to it.
        A major parental concern is for those students who have testing problems and learning disabilities and who need homework to count toward their grade in order to pull in higher than a C.
        It made things much worse when a parents worried about their kids’ GPAs were told at one of the meetings that colleges don’t look at GPAs any more because they rely on the SAT scores. That was a bald faced lie. Any university will tell you that they look at both. The College Board, which produces the SAT, states that the best indicator of a student’s college success is a combination of GPA and SAT.
        So lousy implementation and poor treatment of the parents made everything much much worse.

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