Is There A Case for Common Core State Standards?

October 29, 2013 by Geoff Nixon

Does the Common Core Represent A Step Forward?

The Common Core State Standards are disliked by folks all across the political spectrum. Most conservatives cannot get past the Federal over-reach concerns, while most liberal commentators, including teachers, are opposed to standards of any kind.

To make an assessment as to whether the Common Core can move US education forward we should first examine the motivations for introducing them.

Why were Common Core Standards introduced?

Common CoreThe US education curriculum is over-loaded and out-dated — it is half an inch deep and a mile wide. Children learn mainly how to be professional students — how to memorize superficial facts and then answer multiple choice questions, in rapid succession.

Not surprisingly, US students:

  1. Are in the bottom half of OECD education rankings, mainly because their reading comprehension is superficial.
  2. Suffer from great inequity state to state in terms of educational quality — Massachusetts as a state would be the 18th country in the world on the PISA rankings, Oklahoma and many other states would rank below 80th.
  3. Are not able to think and act independently in the work place.

The Common Core State Standards aim to change this.

They were developed in response to requests from US businesses and State Governors, who were frustrated that the US education system is creating professional students not critical thinking, work-ready 21st century employees.

Here is how the Marzano Center puts it:

It is a shift in the philosophical thinking about the nature of teaching and learning. This shift basically says: We will no longer teach students to memorize by rote, to understand superficial facts and figures without more nuanced understanding, applicable to real-world problems. Rather, we will teach them to analyze, to generate and test hypotheses. We will ask them to think like mathematicians rather than just do math. We will ask them to think like writers rather than just scribble sentences. We will ask them to use complex cognitive skills to analyze the very complex problems they face as citizens in the 21st century.

What are the Common Core State Standards?

This is where the main controversy lies: the standards are a detailed set of skill milestones from 1st to 12th grade that each child needs to reach to be proficient in 12th grade. The standards cover literacy (reading and writing) and math.

However, more than just milestones, these standards represent a shift in educational practice in the US as they are asking schools to move away from memorization and superficial coverage of material. The standards require:

  1. Deep understanding required for reading in early grades
  2. More non-fiction reading — student will “read to learn” in all subjects
  3. Writing using text-based evidence to make arguments

The current end goal of US education is “knowledge.”  The Common Core will endeavor to change this end goal to “deep understanding and critical thinking.”  Facts become a vehicle for practicing deep understanding and critical thinking, not the end goal.

This modernization of thinking is one reason 45 States initially signed onto these standards.

Why the educator hesitation over the Common Core?

There are many concerns among professional educators around standards, any standards:

  • Students are unique, their development path is unique. For many children these standards will result in a label of “below standard” or “failure.”
  • Standards create limited end goals in education versus the preferred open-ended achievement that leads to excellence.  For many children they represent too easy a hurdle, and these children will not feel the need to keep pressing the way they do in a non-standardized system.
  • The Common Core is considered by many educators to be too hard.  In an effort to raise the bar for US education, the standards represent stretch goals for many children, creating added stress for students and teachers.
  • Standards lead to a narrowing of the curriculum.  Teachers will gravitate to material aimed at getting children over the line, crowding out other subjects as well as activities such as exploration projects that spark curiosity and creativity but don’t address a standard.

Another educator concern, specifically with Common Core , is the need to change testing to match the changed priorities.  The old multiple choice questions were fine where rote memorization of knowledge was being tested, but deep understanding (which requires the ability to connect and put in context) and critical thinking requires essay and other question forms.  The new PARCC and other tests are relatively new and so far have had a rocky reception.

Another concern is implementation.  The Common Core State Standards curriculum will take longer to deliver — having children read to learn will take more time than lectures, and discussions on motivations, etc. also take time, and writing arguments for and against based on evidence should not be rushed. And so, schools will have to reduce the amount of material covered.  The unusual number of layers of bureaucracy in US education — Federal, State, County, District, School – makes these kinds of changes notoriously challenging.

What are the non-educator concerns with Common Core?

There has been a back-lash against the Common Core, mainly because it is perceived as a Federal program — “shameless government overreach” — and is not trusted by parents.  Parents overall are against the Common Core, partly out of concerns that the test results will create longer-term consequences for their children. Republican governors, like Jeb Bush, who initially supported the Common Core, have had to back-track.

This has lead to 4 states at last count opting out of the Common Core and developing their own standards more in line with where their local schools stand in the world rankings, i.e., lower than the Common Core expectations.

Where to next for the Common Core?

It seems that the Common Core is here to stay, although issues over the testing represent a potential vulnerability.  It is also possible some of the early standards will need to be reduced somewhat, with the vocabulary expectations of 4-6th graders coming in for significant derision among educators.

Even in states that opt out of the Common Core it seems likely that the higher-order thinking goals and emphasis of read to learn of the Common Core will be carried over into new state standards.

For parents this means that the accelerated reading with comprehension goals of this program, the reliance on “read to learn” in other subjects and the emphasis on writing with text based evidence will remain.  These are tough asks for  struggling readers.  Parents will need to address any reading concerns with their child’s reading as early as possible, using reading programs like Gemm Learning.

  • Lori Lett

    I am disappointed to see GEMM Learning systems promoting the Federally-controlled Common Core Curriculum.
    There are definitely problems in education. However, the answer does not lie in giving the Federal Government even more control in our lives. If state mandates, testing, and other controls have proven to cause more problems in education, I don’t know why anyone would hazard to think that FEDERAL controls would be any sort of an improvement.
    Children all learn differently. Common Core will be an even bigger burden on teachers to meet Federal requirements in their teaching. How will the teachers now prove to the Federal Government that they are doing what they are supposed to be doing through Common Core? One of two ways: either through testing or through having all students do their work online, with their grades and work being sent to a centralized location to be monitored. Neither of these options is good.
    We know how testing effects teaching and learning: most class time is focused on preparing for mandated testing. The option of having children do their work on computers with everything being sent to a central location is disturbing to any parent. The parent loses all connection to their child’s education in this scenario. The teacher must play little more than a facilitator, which is hardly a rewarding teaching career.
    The other problem with mandating a one-size-fits-all education is that every child learns differently. I homeschooled my sons. I started trying to teach them to read when they were 4. But I followed their cues. They each learned differently, and neither was ready to sit down and read a book for a while. At the young ages, they preferred to play while I read to them. The earliest either son learned to read well was eight. However, in the mean time, they were developing motor skills that exceded well beyond their classroom-taught counterparts. I digress with my personal experience.
    I would like to quickly adress rote learning. The method has not been taught for decades–at least not like it was when I was an elementary student in the ’70s. In 1989, My stepsons, who were in 5th and 6th grade at the time, were not memorizing times tables to any extent close to what I did as a child. I recall 3/4s of my third-grade year was times-tables memorizations, which included competitions with other students and against ourselves for speed. That was fun to me, and I never forgot my times tables. Please do not call the methods of teaching employed for the last 3 decades “rote”. Whatever “rote” that is taught is only taught minimally, and thus totally ineffective.
    These are just a few of my thoughts on your article. Please reconsider your support for a national education program of any kind.
    Lori Lett

  • Lori, I wish I could agree with you on rote memorization, but unfortunately it has made a resurgence in US education. Under pressure from an over-stuffed curriculum, teachers have resorted to fast paced lectures of key facts that are then tested in easy to mark multi-choice tests which are largely fact based. I watched in horror as my children went through the memorize test and forget cycle over and over again at a highly rated school (according to NCLB) in Westchester, NY. Memorization (as opposed to deep understanding) is quick and enables students to get through a lot of material quickly — half an inch deep. But it does not teach them anything of lasting value.

    Check out the film “Road to Nowhere” for more information on memorization and US education.

    Re the Federal role in Common Core State Standards, I am squeamish as well. The last Federal intervention, NCLB, was a disaster and set US education on its current frantic but ineffective path. The fact is though that US education is in very poor shape, in large part due to the over-sized role of parents, local (volunteer) school boards and bureaucrats at various levels concerned more about teacher accountability than student outcomes.

    Think of the Common Core State Standards (designed by professionals, following proven overseas trends) as a vehicle for professionals, teachers, asserting themselves back into the curriculum.