Common Core + Bungee Jumping Barbie = Epic Fail

Last year, many marveled at how quickly states moved to adopt the Common Core State Standards. Just over a month after the final draft of the standards were released, more than half of the states had adopted them. Barely five months later, 43 states and the District of Columbia had adopted the standards. (Most state standards adoption processes take far longer and incite much more debate.)

Common Core supporters heralded the speedy adoption as a testament to how hard the NGA and CCSSO worked to get input and garner support for the standards. (They did.) But I now wonder whether the lack of debate is more a reflection of the fact that some interested parties may not have known exactly what they signed themselves up for.

Take, for example, the National Education Association. After reading an article published in NEA Today last week, I am certain that Senior Policy Analyst Barbara Kapinus and I are seeing two very different versions of the Common Core standards. In her version, Kapinus explains that implementation of the standards would encourage ?real world? over ?knowledge based? learning.

?Rather than reading drills, we'll ask students to apply reading skills in a broader, ?real world' context.?

So gone are the days of summary book reports ? students will have to analyze the story rather than rehash the plot???

To my eyes, that looks like a gross mischaracterization of how these standards should be implemented. Not least of which because the second College and Career Readiness standard explicitly requires students to ?summarize the key and supporting details and ideas? in texts. To be sure, the standards also ask students to analyze texts, but the standards recognize that, before you can do any kind of deep analysis, you first need to demonstrate a basic understanding of the plot. So I certainly hope that students will continue to be asked to summarize.

A more specific example of a ?common core standard in action? cited in the article is an activity that involves attaching bungee cords (i.e.: rubber bands) to Barbie dolls and dropping them from a ceiling. (For real.)

It is genuinely hard for me to imagine that such an activity is the most effective or efficient way to teach any math skill, but the teacher insists that students will be doing deep data analysis and learning about slope and linear relationships as they toss Barbie around the classroom.

The mastermind of the bungee-jumping-Barbie activity goes on to explain that the ?best part? of the activity is that students will learn to persevere with a problem. ?They don't give up,? he explains, ?because they really want to see if and how it will work.?

Leaving aside the fact that I don't really understand what mathematical problem Barbie is helping them solve, wouldn't teaching kids to persevere even when they don't necessarily want to be an even better lesson? Shouldn't students learn that struggling through problems that are hard?and often tedious?can give you a real sense of satisfaction when you figure it out?

More to the point, however, students learn perseverance by struggling through?and ultimately succeeding on?very difficult problems. And you just simply cannot do that unless you have mastered the content you need to succeed. Empty problem solving skills simply cannot make up for missing content. And so to describe CCSS implementation as requiring a focus on skills over knowledge is to lead students very far astray. And to distinguish between ?real world? and ?knowledge based? learning, as if they were?mutually exclusive, is ludicrous.

We are at a critical juncture with Common Core implementation. While adoption may have been reasonably smooth, the intersection of instruction and assessment is where the rubber will really meet the road. And so all eyes should be on the two assessment consortia and Common Core supporters should work to ensure that CCSS-aligned assessments require students to demonstrate deep mastery of both the essential knowledge and the skills students need to succeed.

--Kathleen Porter-Magee

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