Common Core Standards: Politics versus Reality

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Press coverage of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has been increased in recent months. The political rhetoric surrounding them makes it difficult to understand what they actually entail but publishers that can cut through it will find opportunity for profit.

While CCSS has turned into a political football, much of the public debate about it has little to do with the substance of the standards, or even with education itself. Moreover, if you rely on TV or other news sources to follow debate, you may get the impression that the standards are (to borrow a Washington phrase) “dead on arrival.”

While it’s true that political opposition has slowed some of CCSS’s momentum, the fact is that implementation of the Common Core continues to move forward, creating new opportunities not only for educational publishers but for trade publishers as well.

Why?

In a nutshell, because the new standards encourage teachers to use more non-fiction materials and to expose their students to more “authentic texts” — that is, textual materials that were not originally written for classroom use.

To understand how CCSS might affect your business, you first need a basic understanding of what the standards are -– and what they’re not. The Common Core is not a curriculum; it is a set of grade-by-grade goals, in math and English/language arts, that students need to reach in order to be ready for college or careers by the time they finish high school. Developed five years ago, the standards were adopted voluntarily by 44 states and the District of Columbia after their release in 2010. They were designed to replace a patchwork of individual state standards that had varying degrees of rigor.

The federal government had no involvement in the creation of the standards, but it funded the development of the assessments that will be used starting in spring 2015 to test students’ performance against them –- and that, to some degree, is where the trouble began.

In a political environment in which almost any action initiated in Washington raises concerns about federal government “overreach,” some politicians smelled a conspiracy to impose a national curriculum on schools across the country. Ignoring (or possibly just misunderstanding) the fact that CCSS does not dictate what materials schools should use or what methods teachers should employ to meet the standards, some politicians began a movement to roll back their states’ commitment to CCSS.

While most of this opposition comes from the political right (one less-than-informed Alabama legislator reportedly said that when he hears the “com” in Common Core, he thinks immediately of “communism”), CCSS has also run into resistance from teachers who endorse its goals but object to how it is being implemented.

There are a variety of reasons for this resistance, but the common thread is there hasn’t been enough time for curriculum development and teacher training. As a result, many teachers expect that when students take the CCSS assessments for the first time, they will perform poorly -– which will not only upset the students and their parents but will reflect badly on the teachers as well.

With CCSS facing strong opposition from both the right and the left (if one is willing to characterize teachers’ unions as being affiliated with the left), why should trade publishers pay attention to it? The reason is simple: because despite all the objections, implementation of the Common Core continues to move forward, which in turn is creating new sales opportunities.

Yes, a handful of states may drop out (as South Carolina did just last week), but most of the 44 will stay in. And those that do drop out will find themselves in a conundrum similar to that of Indiana, which reversed its commitment to CCSS earlier this year. Wanting to regain control of its standards, Indiana wrote new ones of its own, only to face continued criticism from CCSS opponents — who didn’t like the new standards because they looked too much like the Common Core.

The lesson here is that some states may try to “rebrand” their standards to appease CCSS opponents, but almost all of them will either implement CCSS or something very much like it. The reality is that the Common Core train has left the station, and the forces trying to derail it aren’t strong enough to keep it from rolling down the tracks.

What does this mean to trade publishers?

We don’t have the space to answer that question here, but if you’d like to find out more, please join us here at Digital Book World on June 12th at noon EST for a one-hour conversation I’ll be hosting with Luyen Chou, SVP of product strategy at Pearson, and Cheryl Dickemper, collection development manager at Booksource. We’ll be talking about an array of ways for trade as well as educational publishers to take strategic advantage of the new standards. You can find more information and register here.

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