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Michaud: The Common Core rankles the education status quo

Classrooms across Long Island were empty on Thursday.

Classrooms across Long Island were empty on Thursday. Check our listings of delayed openings, closures and cancellations to see what's in store for Friday. Credit: Daniel Brennan

Two weeks ago, I defended the Common Core -- the new, more analytical way of approaching learning in public schools that's now being rolled out in 46 states, including New York. I think it's worth trying to raise education standards in this country, I wrote, because our students score embarrassingly low in comparison with other developed countries.

It's an understatement to say that I received a lot of mail.

There's almost nothing that riles Long Islanders like an education debate. For reader response, this issue is rivaled only by the recent furor over gun control.

Some people agreed with me; most didn't. (People respond most often when they disagree.) Some of the arguments against the Common Core and the way it has been implemented were so heartfelt that I felt I had to take another look at opposing views.

The one I find most persuasive comes from parents and teachers of kids in third and fourth grades. They feel as though the Common Core methods and tests require abstract thinking from kids who are much too young.

"The mother of one student I am tutoring called me on Sunday morning in tears trying to do a 4th-grade practice test with her daughter," one longtime teacher wrote. "The stress that this is causing families is beyond belief. Imagine an ESL or special ed student trying to do the same assignment without the benefit of private tutoring. They don't even have a chance."

Another teacher said that if parents can't understand Common Core methods, they can't help their kids with homework. That threatens to weaken one of the keys to achievement: parents supporting their children.

A third teacher said the Common Core won't even be fully rolled out into classrooms until December, and therefore we are testing students now on work they haven't yet learned.

I sympathize with these concerns. Change is disruptive, and the Obama administration and New York State education officials have done a terrible job explaining the Common Core. But I'm still hopeful that this change will benefit our country -- that taking a chance to raise standards will have been worth the disruption.

Another persuasive argument is that testing is taking the creativity out of teaching, and draining the classroom of a love of learning. Carol Burris, the distinguished principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, says parents are concerned about classroom time increasingly dedicated to test preparation. Also, students who receive low scores on what she calls this "toughen up" test year, may find that parents lower their ambitions for them. They will cease to dream big. That is too sad for words.

Burris co-wrote a book, published last year, that is supportive of the Common Core. But she argues that the way it has been introduced in classrooms has been so rushed that it sets kids up to fail. And tying teachers' evaluations to test scores creates dangerous incentives.

"There are teachers who will be very concerned about who is in their classes, and that's not healthy," Burris told me.

Advocates of the Common Core say it was developed, in part, by asking business people what skills they need from graduates. Curriculum designers took those skills and worked backward from 12th grade, to build a stepladder toward mastery. This makes sense. An education should move us along a path toward self-support -- from classroom to work.

The Common Core methods also involve every student in analyzing texts, not just listening to the interpretations of the teacher and the top four or five kids who raise their hands in class. That also seems smart.

Perhaps the Common Core will need to be modified, or its implementation slowed. I don't think that debate will be resolved easily. So, let's keep talking.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.