Constructive Criticism for Common Core Constructivism Deniers

(Guest Post by James Shuls)

Let me start by saying that I share most of Jay Greene’s reservations about the Common Core State Standards. Over the past couple of years, I have had the opportunity to discuss these concerns with many Common Core supporters. Although I typically disagree with their conclusions or their logic, I believe Common Core supporters are for the most part sincere in their belief that these standards are rigorous and will improve outcomes for students. However, I find claims that the Common Core State Standards will not influence instructional practices downright disingenuous and obviously false.

In a recent Twitter exchange, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education informed me that the CCSS don’t “tell teachers how to teach.” This is a phrase that has been echoing across the country as the Common Core has come under attack from the left and the right.

The fact is that curriculum standards don’t tell teachers how to teach in the same way that a high jump bar doesn’t tell a jumper how to jump. You could theoretically jump over a high jump bar in whatever way you would like; but because of how the jump is structured there is a clear advantage to doing the old Fosbury Flop.

It is clear from documents on the Common Core website and from the discourse throughout the country that these new standards encourage constructivist teaching practices. Take for example these two quotes from a Key Points in Common Core Math document.

  • The standards stress not only procedural skill but also conceptual understanding, to make sure students are learning and absorbing the critical information they need to succeed at higher levels ‐ rather than the current practices by which many students learn enough to get by on the next test, but forget it shortly thereafter, only to review again the following year.
  • Having built a strong foundation K‐5, students can do hands on learning in geometry, algebra and probability and statistics. Students who have completed 7th grade and mastered the content and skills through the 7th grade will be well‐ prepared for algebra in grade 8.

Common Core developers themselves are saying that traditional methods of math instruction aren’t working and students should be learning through “hands on learning.” It is reasonable to assume the tests will likely favor constructivist teaching practices.

I have written extensively about what constructivist teaching looked like in my child’s classroom, where students were supposed to discover how to solve math problems rather than learn to use standard algorithms. My kid’s school is not the exception, it seems to be the rule. Across the country schools are beginning to understand that the Common Core standards will require a more constructivist based form of instruction.

In California, teachers will be “encouraging critical thinking over memorization, focusing on collaboration and integrating technological advances in the classroom.”  We are told that teachers “are attending workshops and training sessions to rethink the way they relay information to students.”

A Virginia newspaper reports, “Discovery, guided math, problem-based learning, project-based learning – call it what you like, it’s here.”

Even in Massachusetts, a state that had arguably better standards than the Common Core, teachers are moving more towards constructivist teaching practices. In the Wrentham School District, “the first and second grade math programs are already implementing new methods for teaching basic math skills that are designed to create deeper understanding of math among the students.” One teacher commented, “Our job as teachers is to guide through questioning.” If that doesn’t sound constructivist, then I don’t know what does.

I am aware that some non-constructivist based curricula, like Saxon Math, are aligning to the Common Core. They are doing so because they have to or they will be at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace. It remains to be seen if these more traditional models will resist constructivist influences. Much of that depends on how the Common Core assessments are structured.

I am also aware that the standards do not dictate which pedagogical approach a teacher must take. Although, to me it feels a bit like when my mom used to say, “You can do what you want.” Which never really meant that I could do what I wanted.

The bottom line is that the Common Core State Standards are built on constructivist principles and are being implemented, by and large, by constructivist means. If supporters like constructivism, which I suspect most do, then they should just come out and say so. That is not such a difficult position to defend. But don’t attempt to tell me these standards won’t tell teachers how to teach.


James Shuls is the education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute

17 Responses to Constructive Criticism for Common Core Constructivism Deniers

  1. Joy Pullmann says:

    What I want to know is, How does one enforce that constructivist bent through tests?

  2. You’re right, Joy. Standards are a bunch of words, but tests more strongly shape school behavior.

  3. Bob Dean says:

    What is true is that the Common Core Standards were hi-jacked by constructivists from the start. While the content of the CCSS matches traditional mathematics fairly closely, the emphasis from the beginning on the Standards of Mathematical Practices portion of the standards. The practices are nothing more than a continuation of the 1989 NCTM practices and principles which have been disastrous for math education in the United States.

    The irony is that the CCSS have been pushed as standards that will unite the nation in math education. However, the emphasis on the nebulous and non-measurable standards of mathematical practice ensure that every locality will do their own thing in their own way. The bottom line is that the CCSS will be a total bust and will not accomplish any of the claimed goals. They will not lead to higher achievement but instead will continue the same nonsense that has lead to the present chaos.

    Additionally, the CCSS are built on the notion that all students will become foundationally sufficient and therefore will succeed at the higher levels. This is just as ridiculous as “No Child Left Behind” claiming that 100% of students will reach proficiency. The truth is, huge percentages of students fall further behind grade level every year and by the time they reach high school they are nearly DOA. As long as we have a system that requires all students to become proficient in Algebra and Geometry but passes students on via social promotion regardless of their achievement we will never a system that works.

  4. Bob Dean says:

    Don’t worry about the typos or language issues in my previous comment…. Under the CCSS it’s the constructivist problem solving that counts not the attention to content details.

  5. CCSSO has the Intasc Model Teaching Standards on their website. How disingenuous to say they are not telling teachers how to teach. is a post I wrote months ago on this very falsehood.

    And performance assessments are not tests although tests are a kind of assessment. They are not what Pearson is developing for STAAR in Texas or SBAC or PARCC. In fact what is being created is tied to open-ended collaborative ill-structured (to make the answer a group project) to assess 21st century skills according to docs I found when I was following up on some unappreciated aspects of the real mandated classroom implementation.

    That’s what I worry with, not the statements of intent. Those are just a political ruse. I have written about the assessments numerous times but I am not putting 2 links up. They are tagged under Pearson though.

  6. […] a powerful incentive to move toward uniform behavior. As James Shuls of the Show-Me Institute wrote […]

  7. […] Constructive Criticism for Common Core Constructivism Deniers ( […]

  8. Jim Infamous Kush says:

    Even if they are telling teachers how to teach, is “hands on learning” really that scary? Come on guys.

  9. Stephanie Sawyer says:

    Jim, seems like you are being intentionally obtuse. No one I know on either side of this particular fence thinks hands-on learning is “scary.” There are many topics that lend themselves to that particular brand of lesson…usually as an introduction to the topic at hand.
    But the one side does think that an overreliance on hands-on-learning lessons is equivalent to just not teaching at all.

    • Dr. Alan Edmonson says:

      I am a Constructivist and I have to tell you the term is used freely and incorrectly by some who are anything but Constructivist. First, the Common Core is nothing more than Bill Gates-Arnie Duncan idea of how to make more money. Second, the early childhood portion included no teachers or early childhood experts. If the authors of the standards thought they were using Constructivist standards they were wrong. Three, Lev Vygotsky created the concept of scaffolding to explain Social Constructivism, which is to say, somebody, teacher or parent assists the learner in moving from where they are to where they potentially are. It doesn’t happen without the adult. I, too, would want my children to learn algorithms. I don’t think they can think about the “why” of math until they have mastered concepts. The real problem, here, is that this is not an ideological issue. A number of “liberal” educators, Diane Ravitch, Alfie Kohn, Jonathan Kozol, and Steven Krashen have opposed the role out of common core. It is a bad idea, period. The NAEYC, a national leader in early childhood, has opposed the Common Core because it is a bad idea. One more time. This is a bad idea.

  10. ssccinfo says:

    Reblogged this on Saint Simon Common Core Information and commented:
    Great information!

  11. […] Tuthill claims there’s nothing to fear because private schools and their parents “value their autonomy. They will oppose government efforts to mandate curriculum or instructional strategies.” But the government doesn’t have to mandate a curriculum to control content. When standards are tied to tests by which a school’s performance is evaluated, schools will have little choice but to conform. The tests will de facto dictate content: what concepts are taught when and perhaps even how. As James Shuls of the Show-Me Institute has written: […]

  12. […] Rather than tackle any of the substantive arguments about the Common Core—Are they rigorous? Do they promote constructivist teaching practices? Was the federal government overly involved in adoption? etc.—the editorial team focused on […]

  13. […] Rather than tackle any of the substantive arguments about the Common Core—Are they rigorous? Do they promote constructivist teaching practices? Was the federal government overly involved in adoption? etc.—the editorial team focused on […]

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