The Common Core Debate: I’d Rather Be Well Than Right

In some future time, historians may write that debates at the dawn of the Common Core Era brought forth a period of unparalleled collaboration and mutual support between parents and teachers. Or they may write that those debates drove a wedge between parents and teachers that made civility and mutual respect a distant memory.

Ironically, what they write probably won’t depend on teachers’ or parents’ positions on the Common Core. There are teachers and parents who support the Common Core and those who don’t. And as my friend Renee Moore comments, there are, “many more of each group who are simply unconvinced it really matters, who still don’t know what it is, or who don’t think it’s worth arguing about.

So, I predict historians will mostly write about the tone of the debate, rather than the issues.

The single clenched fist lifted and ready,

Or the open asking hand held out and waiting.


For we  meet by one or the other.

Choose by Carl Sandburg

I don’t know anyone who strays far from the opinion that one purpose of education is preparation. A Venn diagram showing everyone’s ideas about what students should be prepared to do would have many circles. But I’d wager that parents and teachers filling in their favorite circle with attendant examples would find more overlap with the College and Career Preparation Circle than any other. A natural alliance should exist between teachers who deliver curricula designed to prepare students for college and careers and parents, many of whom went to college and most of whom have careers. So, how should teachers, who may know little about career standards reply to a professional parent who challenges their methods or materials? And how should parents, who may know little about pedagogy, challenge methods and materials that concern them?

A modest proposal? With humility.

“We did not put our ideas together. We put our purposes together.”

Adam Kahane, Solving Tough Problems

I claim I know math and can teach it. I look for practical applications that illustrate the relevance of math to different careers. I try to motivate my students to see math as an exercise in learning to manage complicated and abstract ideas. Finally, I always show students a variety of routes to get to the right answers because it helps different types of learners grasp difficult concepts. I expect my students to be able to explain their thinking because it’s hard to find a list of job skills anywhere that doesn’t include communication.

If a parent working as an electrical engineer wrote that a method I had taught was clumsy and would get someone fired where he or she works, I would want to hear more. Odds are we would reach an amicable solution and may even become partners. I would not claim that a teacher’s math was somehow different that an engineer’s math. Even if that were true, which math would better benefit my students?

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too…

If, Rudyard Kipling

As mentioned above, both teachers and parents support and oppose the Common Core. Additionally, both Conservatives and Liberals support and oppose the Common Core. Yet the argument of many editorials and blogs depends on clumping the opposition into a favorite target, applying the usual modifiers, and assigning imagined motives. So, depending on who disagrees with you, you may be labeled a right-wing zealot set on destroying public education or a left-wing Stalinist set on using public education to indoctrinate our youth with Commie orthodoxy.

Wouldn’t it be better for individuals to determine their own identities and goals?

So I will: I’m a right-leaning registered Independent. I am a teacher, and I’m a parent. I cautiously support the Common Core because of its intention to standardize educational expectations and its emphasis on problem-solving and critical thinking. I worry that the implementation of the Common Core will end up torpedoing itself by instituting a generation of high stakes testing the likes of which we can scarcely imagine and by rushing to market instruction materials that have been poorly vetted. 

By all means, let’s challenge each other, but in a way that pushes our thinking.

But in the push be right, must we lose sight of what it takes to be well?

It’s not what they call you, it’s what you answer to.

Donna Brazile, Vice Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee

God-willing the days when opponents in a policy debate can argue by day and break bread by night will return. But in the Common Core debate, as too many adversaries define the narrative though a toxic mix of aggression and defensiveness, those days may soon be lost. Most painful is when parents, who trust teachers to prepare and protect the children whom they love best, and teachers, who petition parents to respect and reinforce the decisions they make, choose too often to demean then retreat from each other.

In the Common Core debate, the cost of a wrong resolution could be trivial compared to the cost of how the resolution is achieved. Opponents who recognize that adversaries struggle as they do to arrive at defendable, nuanced, and conditional positions will end as partners with refined positions and living resolutions. But those who label and attack their adversaries perish in a house divided against itself.

There is a story in the Talmud about a king who had a son who went astray.

 The son was told, ‘Return to your father.’

The son replied that he could not. The king then sent a messenger to the son with the message…

‘Come back to me as far as you can, and I will meet you the rest of the way.

The Chosen, 1981


  • BillIvey

    Great piece!

    Here’s where I really love this group, and love reading your writing! Here’s my version of your position statement, bearing in mind that the terminology in Massachusets for “not belonging to a political party” is “unenrolled” (go figure).

    I’m a left-leaning registered voter who is unenrolled. I cautiously oppose the Common Core because of its intention to standardize educational expectations, though I support the emphasis on problem-solving and critical thinking. I worry that the implementation of the Common Core will end up torpedoing itself by instituting a generation of high-stakes testing the likes of which we can scarcely imagine and by rushing to market instruction materials that are poorly vetted.

    I’d say we’ve found a fair amount of common ground! And applying your modest proposal, and knowing you, I bet that’s because our purposes make for a highly overlapping Venn diagram. So looking at that, I think there’s a lot of potential in your idea, and the many (far more than you’d think from the media’s depiction, mass, social, or otherwise) people who are trying to listen and bring nuance to this discussion could definitely profit from it.

    Sometimes, though, common ground is harder to find, and that’s when mutual respect can be harder to achieve. I remember a student from the founding year of our middle school program whose mother was a strong traditionalist while I was working to build the foundation of an unabashedly progressive program. We shared the common purpose of wanting her daughter to learn both information and skills, increase her confidence, and feel prepared for the next level. But we never did find any common ground on the means toward that purpose.

    I think an important part of your point is that had we both been able to assume good intentions, we could have at least found a way to co-exist peacefully. Unfortunately, she had a teacher-friend who told her, “No responsible school would do what they are doing,” and she deeply believed we (especially me) were indeed reckless and irresponsible and irretrievably sabotaging her daughter’s future. I like to think I genuinely respected (and still respect) her for trying to act in her daughter’s best interest even if I disagreed with how best to go about that. But I am pretty sure she lost all respect for me – honestly, she has quite deliberately and transparently avoiding speaking to me whenever we’ve seen each other down through the years (for example, at parent functions at the school her son and my son both attended).

    So I guess my little P.S. turns out to be that we can only achieve the goal you set if both parties are willing to work toward it. I share that goal, and applaud your idea and think it has genuine potential. But in the end, we can only control ourselves.