On Monday, Dennis Walcott, the chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education, held a press conference to launch a public-awareness campaign about the new Common Core State Standards currently being implemented in the city’s schools. The standards, which have been adopted by most states, may help schools around the country adopt solid, content-rich curricula. Unfortunately, the event raised serious questions about whether the city’s education officials actually understand what the Common Core requires in the classroom.
The press release that the DOE issued for the event explained the standards this way: “Under the new Common Core standards, students are required to write more, think critically and defend their ideas. Instead of sitting in rows answering questions, they work in teams to solve real-world problems.” That description is wrong in several ways. For one thing, the new standards don’t require students to write more. Rather, students are supposed to learn to write coherently, using the proper rules of English grammar and composition and paying attention to evidence. It was under the ineffective “balanced literacy” approach used in the city’s schools for the past decade that students were encouraged to write a huge amount in journals—basically, whatever came to their minds—and then to rely on their fellow students to help them edit. Further, the standards utter not a word about kids’ “sitting in rows,” just as they don’t suggest that students “work in teams to solve real-world problems.” The Common Core document focuses almost exclusively on academic content in the classroom, not on how teachers arrange their classrooms. It specifically says that “the Standards define what students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.”
Instead of accurately describing the Common Core, the DOE’s press release sounds a lot like a summary of the progressive-education approach that the Common Core was designed to supplant. This isn’t just a matter of one incorrect sentence in a single press release. The phrase about kids’ working in teams on “real-world problems” is repeated in a series of advertisements that the city has placed in subway cars and community newspapers. It’s hard to imagine a worse way of informing parents about what the Common Core means for their children than the ad campaign—which, according to the DOE, an anonymous philanthropist ponied up $250,000 to finance. Moreover, critics of the standards will surely seize on this embarrassing episode to buttress their contentions that the Common Core is just progressive education in a new wrapper and that it won’t usher in the content-rich curriculum that the initiative’s supporters have been claiming.
I became even more concerned after I tried to get an explanation for the language in the ad campaign from the DOE’s press office. I spoke to Andrew Kirtzman, recently installed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as the schools chancellor’s senior adviser for communications and public relations. Kirtzman told me that he had written the press release and based its description of the Common Core on a visit he made to “a Common Core classroom” where he saw students not sitting in rows but rather working in groups on “real-world problems.” The press adviser didn’t seem to know that kids haven’t been sitting in rows in New York City classrooms for the past 30 years. He also told me that a DOE official would call me back to explain how the department justified its characterization of the Common Core in the press release and the ads. But no one did call back, and that makes me wonder whether DOE officials have actually read the Common Core.
I still believe in the promise of the Common Core. I hope that it will be implemented in the city’s classrooms with fidelity to the principles of an academic, content-rich curriculum. But the public-awareness campaign hasn’t been encouraging. At best, it means that the DOE’s communications officials don’t understand how the department plans to implement the Common Core. At worst, it means that they do.