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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.