Will Common Core create excellent educational opportunities or will it create Zombie diplomas, education devoid of content?


On a Twitter discussion a parent declared her support for Common Core.  One of her primary arguments was that it must be working as her son’s school was ranked highly in the state and in the nation.  My response was that my school is ranked highly too, but what did these rankings really mean?  Who wrote the assessments?  What do they really measure?  What do rankings mean in light of cut scores?  And why, if my school is ranked so highly, do 23% of students entering Missouri public colleges need remediation?  However, I was a bit off  regarding the remediation rate of my highly ranked (according to US News) school district.  The remediation rate was higher:


kirkwood remediation rate

But I suppose we should be delighted and take solace in the fact the remediation rate was not any higher compared to those suburban school districts surrounding Kirkwood:

It’s a problem even at elite public high schools in affluent St. Louis suburbs, where more than 15 percent of 2013 graduates who landed at the state’s public universities needed extra help. At Brentwood High, that rate was 44 percent; at Parkway North and Rockwood Summit, it was 34 percent. Clayton had 32 percent, and Lindbergh had 31 percent. The only high school in the region with a rate lower than 20 percent was Metro High in St. Louis.

So even if your high school is highly ranked in the state and the nation doesn’t mean there aren’t many students from those highly ranked schools who are struggling.  Conversely, how ‘college and career ready’ are even the highest scoring students?  How many are admitted to the elite universities?  What exactly is being tested and how accurate are the results?  Parents need to understand/research cut scores present in assessments and that they are present in Common Core scoring.

What should you surmise from the glowing reports on how great your school is?  It is imperative to understand who is making the determination of what is being tested and how the results can be skewed based on cut scoring.  Otherwise you might have stars in your eyes like this mother thinking that because your school is highly ranked your student is receiving an excellent education via Common Core for college preparation.  That was her conclusion on why the standards should be supported.

PL Thomas of Furman University writes on what assessments mean and how relying on the assessments for readiness won’t measure what you may think it measures.  From Beware Grade-Level Reading and the Cult of Proficiency:


PL Thomas

Thomas further explores on the type of reading that is measured and what is not:

So who does this grade-level reading and proficiency benefit?

First, lets consider what anyone means by “reading.” For the sake of discussion, this is oversimplified, but I think, not distorting to the point of misleading. Reading may be essentially decoding, pronouncing words, phrases, and clauses with enough fluency to give the impression of understanding. Reading may be comprehension, strategies and then behaviors or artifacts by a reader that mostly represent (usually in different and fewer words) an accurate or mostly accurate, but unqualified, restating of the original text.

But reading may also (I would add should) be critical literacy, the investigating of text that moves beyond comprehension and places both text and “meaning” in the dynamic of reader, writer, and text (Rosenblatt) as well as how that text is bound by issues of power while also working against the boundaries of power, history, and the limitations of language.

In that framing, then, grade-level reading and proficiency are trapped mostly at decoding and comprehension, promoting the argument that all meaning is in the text only (a shared but anemic claim of New Criticism).

This narrow and inadequate view of text and reading (and readers) serves authoritarian approaches to teaching and mechanistic structures of testing, and more broadly, reducing text and reading to mere technical matters serves mostly goals of surveillance and control.

…Text complexity, readers’ grade level, and concurrent hokum such as months or years of learning are the grand distractions of technocrats: “it is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing” (The Tragedy of Macbeth, 5, 5).

Grand pronouncements about grade-level reading and proficiency, then, benefit politicians, textbook companies, and the exploding testing industry. But not children, not literacy, and not democracy.

Leveled books, labeled children, and warped education policy (grade retention based on high-stakes testing) destroy reading and the children advocates claim to be serving.

Thus, alas, there is simply no reading crisis and no urgency to have students on grade level, by third or any grade.

The cult of proficiency and grade-level reading is simply the lingering “cult of efficiency” that plagues formal education in the U.S.—quantification for quantification’s sake, children and literacy be damned.

What can a parent glean from this explanation?  Parents need to ask school districts exactly what is being tested and if cut scoring was used.  When the issue of cut scoring was raised with the parent from the excellent school district using CCSS, she had no idea what that meant.  She was making the argument that she had no concern with the standards because of the excellent ranking of her son’s school.  However, it’s imperative to understand what is being assessed and how it is assessed to determine what ‘excellence’ really means.  That ‘excellent’ rating may not be preparing your student for elite universities and may even mean a substantial percentage of students attending state public universities must take remedial courses.

From comments on the Thomas article:

It seems to me that if the backers of these initiatives really wanted to improve reading levels by third grade (and if they’d be willing to give up their hopeless quest to quantify reading ability) they could try using all the money being funneled into it for providing books and reading support programs for low- to moderate-income parents with very young children. Tutor both together from an early age, and you’ll not only improve the children’s real reading ability, but their overall school performance and their parents may benefit as well. We’ve long known of the advantages gained by early exposure to books and parental reading with children, but the fact is that the execution of this would also require the kind of social supports that too many still don’t support in the U.S. Instead, vast sums get thrown down the money hole of “reform” to stem fake crises and “education” companies are milking it for all it’s worth. They love grade level schemes (or is that lexile levels now?) because, what they can quantify, they can monetize and sell to both districts and charters, the good of the children involved not withstanding.


The parent who loves Common Core stated she trusts her teachers, administrators and school board because they love it, too.  When I pointed out that many of these teachers, administrators and school boards belong to private NGOs who receive financial support for promoting the standards, she brushed it off.  This is the same mother who hates charter schools and the privatization of public school but apparently doesn’t draw the line on the privatization of public school assessments which drive curriculum and ‘data driven decisions’ and take decisions out of the hands of local teachers/districts.  Read this teacher’s comment on the Thomas article  regarding the privatization of education:


Here in Vermont, where I’m currently teaching, and also my home-state of Maine, the proficiency-based diploma is looming in the not-so-distant future, and sadly, no one seems to have any idea of what it means. The concept is fueled by the Great Schools Partnership and full of empty principles, devoid of content:
This sort of Zombie Diploma Program with it’s soulless, mindless series of standards is already sapping the life out of high schools in our region.

My experience teaching in New Zealand suggests that standards-based education can be a valid model if the paths (university, tecnology school, work force) are well defined, but I see no such definition here, beyond some hollow rhetoric about transferable skills. Roughly 65-70% of New Zealand year 11 students finish year 13 and go on to university, while the balance enter the work force with no ‘diploma.’ This may be fine in an agricultural ecomony, but won’t pass the muster in the US, where agriculture and manufacturing jobs are becoming close to non-existant.

Moving forward, we will need to moderate the standards (water them down) in order to maintain current graduation rates, or establish learning paths which move toward realistic vocational or technological qualifications, which do not currently exist in any established form. And we’ll still have a diploma with little to no substantive content or soul. The result of this Zombie Diploma Program is not something I am looking forward to seeing, and I wonder what you’ll see at the post-secondary level.Dr. Thomas, I’d be interested in more commentary on the Cult of Proficiency as it relates to the secondary school proficiency-based diploma programs which seem to be gaining traction across the country.


If what this teacher says is true, if we’ll still have a diploma with little to no substantive content or soul, it really doesn’t matter about your school’s ranking.  You can have the highest ranked school in the state populated by students receiving less than excellent education.  What does a diploma mean if the education is devoid of meaningful content? But if you are like the mother who loves Common Core because that’s what she’s been told by bureaucrats (whose jobs are dependent upon the public system receiving money to adhere to the standards), you won’t research what that excellent ranking really entails.   But hey, if it fosters an air of ‘collaborative thinking’, excelling in questionable assessments/scoring and supporting a non researched based theory that centralized standards will improve education, that’s all that apparently matters.

(The Zombie diploma may be found here and ordered from Amazon.)


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