Common Core is coming to your college (yes, college)

When the Common Core state standards for K-12 were rolled out in 2009, few foresaw the impact on higher education. Alarms about the takeover of the entire educational system with the new national standards and tests in math and English language arts were often dismissed. 

But the rewriting of the Advanced Placement U.S. history standards by the College Board under the direction of David Coleman, considered the architect of Common Core, has inspired a spate of reports and op-eds. Their authors object to the dictates to focus on anti-American “historical thinking” and to the scanting of knowledge about important figures and ideas in our country’s founding. 

Those of us who have been following the Common Core debate at the K-12 level are not surprised at the new AP standards. They follow the Common Core emphases on “critical and analytical thinking skills” and such other progressive pedagogies as “deep” learning and collaboration. In spite of the repetition of such buzzwords as “rigor” and “college readiness,” Common Core’s effectiveness has never been demonstrated, as National Review Online writer Jason Richwine recently pointed out. Common Core developers have admitted that they relied on research to identify problems or generate hypotheses—but not to determine what works. There was much reliance on the “professional judgment” of like-minded colleagues, cheerleaders for Common Core.

A few college faculty members are alarmed by the lowered standards that Common Core is bringing. I am one. I taught college English for twenty years and have researched Common Core for the last three years. I know that the project-based learning, the replacement of extensive reading and papers with group discussions on selective snippets, the replacement of literary classics with “informational texts” and videos, and the diversion from writing to “speaking and listening skills” will make students even less prepared to do the work of a traditional English class. 

Some in the sciences are alarmed, too. One professor of nursing at a mid-size college in the Southeast expressed to me her frustration with new Common Core-aligned science standards, which are adopted “voluntarily” and were slipped into her state. They are so lacking in real scientific rigor that she calls them “science appreciation.” But this nursing professor cannot get her colleagues to understand what is at stake. When she asked several faculty members their opinions, they were “strangely silent.” 

Colleges and universities, hitherto slow and resistant to adapting to Common Core, will soon be forced to bring their programs into synch with what the Hechinger Report describes in an unusually candid manner as a “massive overhaul of U.S. primary and secondary education.” 

The imposition of Common Core on higher education has been by stealth. This becomes clear when we examine an August 18 article in EdSource titled “Higher Ed is Embracing Common Core,” by Jacqueline King, director of Higher Education Collaboration at SBAC, one of the two Common Core testing consortia. 

King proudly claims credit for imposing Common Core on college admissions standards and courses. She writes that she was “deeply involved in efforts to create greater academic alignment between K–12 and higher education for almost a decade….” 

In her essay, King notes that Common Core higher education efforts have been little noticed because attention was focused on the standards’ “political backlash.” Common Core K-12 standards have become so unpopular that politicians are distancing themselves from them, often reversing course or appearing to reverse course. All the attention on K-12 allowed higher education Common Core advocates to work with little public notice.

And they have been working. Many college faculty members have spent the summer months learning how to revamp introductory courses to align with the Common Core tests, administered by two consortia, SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) and PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). There are two consortia, not one, in order to bypass legal restrictions against a national test; states under Common Core can choose one of the two testing consortia.   

The term “readiness” in the PARCC title suggests that the Common Core tests measure readiness and thus follow the standards set by colleges. King advances this idea by stating, “Schools will be judged based on the proportion of students who graduate ready for college and the high-performance workplace.”

In the next sentence, however, she switches: “When students meet that bar, they—and their parents—will demand that higher education recognize their accomplishment in a meaningful way, both by guaranteeing them placement into credit-bearing courses and by ensuring that those introductory courses build on what they have learned in high school.” 

The burden will be on “higher education” to “build on” “what students have learned in high school” under Common Core, so that they will be “guaranteed” placement, King writes. The student, as if certified as college-ready, will not have to prove himself, as in the past. The roles are reversed, with the professor having to ensure his course is Common Core-compliant.

In Tennessee, faculty members were taught how to teach courses redesigned to “account for what students now will be expected to learn in the 11th and 12th grades,” according to Jon Marcus, writing in the Hechinger Report.  College courses will now have to emphasize interdisciplinary reading and writing in order to “synch up with Common Core”—a reversal of the advertised synching up to college standards. The Common Core promotional material, until now, explained that emphasis on “informational texts” in K-12 English classes would prepare students for the interdisciplinary reading and writing required in college.

What do college administrators think of this? 

A hint comes from Pamela Clute, assistant vice chancellor of educational and community engagement at the University of California, Riverside. She is quoted in the Hechinger Report as admitting that “it took a lot of politicking” to get cooperation from higher education types, “sit[ting] in their ivory tower assuming that Common Core is a K-through-12 issue.” 

Elizabeth Hinde, director of teacher preparation at Arizona State University, who is coordinating Common Core among educators across Arizona, told Marcus: “The hope is that the students will come not with a new set of information they didn’t have before, but with different types of thinking that really are required for success in higher education.”

Marcus focuses on ill-defined “types of thinking,” sidestepping the issue of curricula.  But it doesn’t take an advanced degree in education to see that time-intensive practices like close reading and group discussions mean that there will be less time for acquiring knowledge. 

A survey by the educational policy research firm Education Policy Improvement Center claims to show that 80 percent of college faculty members teaching introductory courses approved of the new Common Core standards. But the disparity between “surveys” and reality is something with which anti-Common Core activists are familiar.

As is common at the K-12 level, the company doing the survey is not really independent. The “partners” of the Education Improvement Center include pro-Common Core groups, such as Achieve, the National Governors Association, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others.

And how many math professors will approve of the new math standards, even if some college faculty (as King maintains) did help write the standards? The Modern Language Association did not endorse the English standards, although some of their recommendations were incorporated. And as my colleague teaching nursing indicates, few faculty members even know about Common Core. 

Welcome to the new reality, college faculty.