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Common Core: Is It ‘Developmentally Inappropriate’?

Students at McDougle Elementary.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools

Since the beginning of this year, many legislators and critics have dubbed Common Core "developmentally inappropriate."

They argue that the new Math and English standards should be repealed because they are not suitable for some students.

"I know there is some age and grade inappropriateness,” said Republican Sen. Jerry Tillman at a legislative meeting earlier this year. “I’ve talked with teachers.”

Lawmakers, in particular, rarely elaborate on how exactly they're inappropriate, only to say that the standards are confusing and frustrating to teachers, students and parents.

'I know there is some age and grade inappropriateness. I've talked with teachers.' - Republican Sen. Jerry Tillman

Concerns from early education experts

Many content and child development experts express significant concerns with the Common Core standards, but they don’t cast them off entirely as flawed. They point to specific standards and grades, particularly kindergarten and first-grade.

“You wouldn’t want to require children to count to 100, which is what one of the standards does, it’s actually ridiculous,” says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early education expert at Lesley University.

Carlsson-Paige is referring to a kindergarten math standard requiring children to count to 100 by ones and tens. She says it's a good example of how the standards for young children are developmentally inappropriate. 

“Counting is something you could memorize. You could just say names, right? But it doesn’t mean you understand numbers,” she says.

Carlsson-Paige argues that some of the standards in the early grades are just too rigid.

“You could say almost silly in the sense that they’re de-contextualized from children and even from understanding child development.”

Without that understanding, she says kids are expected to know things they simply aren’t ready for, which can make them feel “confused, scared or stupid.”

Sam Meisels, a childhood development expert at the University of Nebraska, describes those same scenarios. He has a problem with a kindergarten standard that requires students to read and understand emergent texts. 

“It’s unrealistic to have an expectation about young children – all young children – being able to read,” he says.  

Meisels points out that most third and fourth graders are even struggling to read.

He says it’s not fair to reject Common Core standards by simply saying they’re developmentally inappropriate. Some standards are laudable as aspirational goals, he explains, but that doesn’t mean they’re all reasonable. 

“My problem is that these standards, which are meant to be benchmarks, which are meant to inform us on what children can learn, can be made into thresholds,” he says.

In other words, if students don’t meet those thresholds, then they’re considered to be failing. 

‘The Standards Are Quite Definitely Developmentally Appropriate’

A few experts argue that the standards introduce too much too quickly for younger students, and then later slowdown in the older grades, particularly in math. But there are many researchers who completely disagree with that characterization and that well-worn phrase "developmentally inappropriate."

“I would say the standards are quite definitely developmentally appropriate,” says Jere Confrey, a math education professor at N.C. State.

Confrey helped work on the Common Core standards and validated them along with a small group of experts across the nation. She says they made sure the standards are internationally competitive.  

“If someone is saying that these standards are not developmentally appropriate… Well, kids all around the world in other high-performing countries are able to learn these ideas, so are people suggesting that our kids in the United States are dumber?” she says.

She also denounces claims about the early math standards being too rigid, explaining that teachers should look at them in the context of other standards and real world models. 

“Suppose I asked you what 11+2 is, what would you say? Well, suppose I told you I was talking about meeting two hours after 11 a.m., what time would we meet? The context that you do mathematics in matters.”

Confrey says it’s also not fair to criticize the kindergarten standard requiring students to count to 100 without looking to related standards, such as one that encourages students to understand place value.

She argues the standards are carefully crafted and organized, but also admits they’re not perfect

'These standards are adaptable, they can be changed. As we developed them, we knew that. And, so, the question is does it merit throwing all of them out or do you go to work on checking, based on real data, expert knowledge and teachers experience, and adjust them appropriately as you need to?' - Jere Confrey

“These standards are adaptable, they can be changed,” she says. “As we developed them, we knew that.  And, so, the question is does it merit throwing all of them out or do you go to work on checking, based on real data, expert knowledge and teachers experience, and adjust them appropriately as you need to?”

Confrey says implementing the standards takes time and is a work in progress. She argues that phrases like "developmentally inappropriate" have become empty slogans in a political campaign to get rid of Common Core.

This week, Governor Pat McCrory signed a bill intended to review and rework Common Core. But it’s still unclear if North Carolina will dramatically transform the Math and English goals or decide to only tweak some aspects of the standards.  

Either way, any changes in the standards will mean changes in the classroom – not to mention more time and resources. Since 2010, North Carolina has invested tens of millions of dollars into rolling out Common Core.

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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