Common Core: a rigorous set of standards for the English Language Arts and mathematics curriculum that has been developed based on the best practices of schools and organizations around the country and the world.
Can we agree that the primary purpose of public education in America should be to enable every child, at every grade level, to approach (or achieve) his or her full potential as a student? Can we agree that the ability to problem solve by reason is as (or more) important than the ability to memorize by rote?
Children progressing through school in one state or region of America should, by and large, be as prepared for the next grade level as children progressing through school in another state or region of America. A child in a Florida public school should compare reasonably well with a child from a Massachusetts public school. Ideally, everyone capable of going to college (or to work) should, upon graduation from high school, have the basic foundation or skill level necessary to succeed.
You get the picture. This, simply stated, is what Common Core is all about, and who could argue with that? Well, as it turns out, quite a few people.
Sadly, something so desperately needed and as promising as Common Core has become as controversial and as divisive as any domestic issue in recent memory — and not entirely without cause.
When it comes to engendering very strong reaction (pro and con), Common Core is an equal opportunity engenderer. There are those at both ends of the political and social spectrum who are wildly enthusiastic about Common Core, and those at both ends of the political and social spectrum who are wildly opposed to Common Core. The praise (and some of the concern) is well founded. While we’ll explore both sides of the issue in this essay, we won’t waste a lot of time addressing concerns from the anti-fluoridation corner who are convinced that Common Core is nothing more than a stealth federal program to take over and control education in America, or promote free love, atheism, aberrant behavior or Sharia law. It is simply no such thing. It is an ambitious program to improve educational achievement rather uniformly and simultaneously throughout the country. We’ll also ignore those who so obviously simply seem to be looking for a cause (to fight).
Perhaps, the strongest driver of opposition to Common Core is the program’s heavy reliance on standardized testing to measure progress. But with or without Common Core, standardized testing is part of the fabric of public (and private) education in America and is certain to remain so. Furthermore, we need sensible standardized testing. We cannot manage, assess and improve what we cannot measure. Here’s what we do know. According to the just-released National Assessment of Education Progress, a majority of graduating high-school seniors score at only basic or below basic levels in math and reading. We live in a very competitive and treacherous world and globalization is here to stay. We underachieve in educating our children at our own peril, and all objective data indicates that we are doing just that –seriously underachieving.
Standardized testing does, however, have its limitations and there are legitimate concerns. A teacher teaching to the test and thereby, in effect, making the test the curriculum is a very legitimate concern. Standardized tests are certainly not a magic bullet or a panacea with which to cure our educational shortcomings. Imagination, comprehension, critical thinking and abstract reasoning skills can be inferred anecdotally but not really quantified with specificity through standardized testing, and this too engenders controversy. A child’s intellectual progress doesn’t blossom on schedule as predictably as, say, a Japanese Cherry Blossom (weather permitting).
Nonetheless, Michelle Rhee, founder and chief executive of StudentsFirst and former Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools (and a heroine of ours) makes a strong case for the ever-controversial standardized tests.
“…Tests serve many purposes: They chart progress. They identify strengths and weaknesses. They help professionals reach competency in their careers. All these measures are critical to improving public schools. After all, the children sitting in classrooms today are going to grow up and compete for jobs with people in India and China and Europe, not just with people in the state next door. It’s our civic duty to make sure these kids are ready. And right now, we’re failing. Out of 34 developed nations, American kids rank 26th in the world in math, 21st in science. Many critics mistakenly argue that standardized tests are designed to pass judgment on students. Quite the opposite. Standardized tests are an indicator of the kind of service taxpayers are receiving — and whether schools, educators and policymakers are doing their jobs. In the United States, taxpayers spend almost $600 billion annually on public education, so it’s not unreasonable to ask what all that money is producing. In fact, it’s irresponsible not to know…”
A recent study shows that three-fourths of high school graduates entering colleges “were not adequately prepared academically for first-year college courses.” We think that’s a travesty. The mission of Common Core is to assure that our young people have the skills in both math and English to do well and to be able to think critically and to solve problems creatively, especially when there are no hard and fast rules to guide them in solving problems. So far, 43 states and the District of Columbia have committed to adopting Common Core. Common Core focuses on what students need to know, and, contrary to widespread misinformation, Common Core does not determine how teachers should teach, or how students should learn. Each state still makes that determination as they always have.
Common Core does emphasize the math that matters most if students are to achieve college and career readiness. Literacy standards are designed to encourage and assist students to make arguments with evidence rather than to merely expound their own (or another’s) point of view.
Common Core is not a DC-hatched federal program. It is the product of an effort by State education chiefs and governors in 48 of our 50 states. They produced a preparatory set of clear college-and-career-ready standards beginning with kindergarten and progressing through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics.
Common Core, contrary to popular misconception, does not provide a federal prescription for what our children learn, and Common Core is not the brainchild of President Obama or any other President, or anyone in any Administration. Common Core has been propelled by the states, and, to date, all but five states have implemented the Common Core standards. The impetus for Common Core far precedes the Obama Administration. In fact, among the greatest cheerleaders for Common Core are business leaders who must compete with producers of goods and services from all over the world.
Nor is Common Core the brainchild of elite northern liberals as some charge. Here’s what Bob Riley, former governor of Alabama has to say.
“Today, 25 percent of students in this country fail to graduate from high school. Only 35 percent of eighth-graders perform at grade level in math. And 30 percent of our nation’s high-school graduates cannot pass the U.S. military entrance exam.
Among students who go on to enter four-year colleges, almost 60 percent arrive on campus surprised to learn that they require remedial courses in English or mathematics. They may have thought they had a mastery of those all-important subject areas, but because standards today differ so wildly from school to school and state to state, they are often wrong.
Among students entering two-year colleges, 75 percent require remedial instruction in English, math, or both. This remedial education imposes as much as $3 billion in costs on students and their families annually, and $7 billion on taxpayers and colleges.
Common Core establishes uniform standards — standards that must be met regardless of the curriculum a state decides to adopt. The standards demand accountability. They give the things that really matter — reading, writing, and arithmetic — priority over subject matter that does little or nothing to prepare kids for college and the workforce. And ultimately, the Common Core standards will make American students more competitive with their international peers…”
Consider the conclusions of educator Peggy Brookins, who is a director of an engineering magnet program, and a mathematics teacher who prepares students for careers in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and someone who has been immersed in Common Core for years.
“…These standards were developed by experienced educators, leaders and experts in their field, and were built on the best and highest state standards across the country. The standards development and participation was completely state-driven and voluntary.
The standards are clear, rigorous and nationally and internationally benchmarked. They emphasize reading rigorous, high-quality literature in English class, plus nonfiction in history, science and other courses. The Common Core approach (what students should understand and be able to do) is more rigorous in the mathematical sense of providing critical thinking and reasoning in mathematical development, which translates across disciplines…Properly taught and successfully learned, the standards will, indeed, produce high school graduates who are ready for college-level courses instead of remediation courses, which drain resources at the public university and community college level… For the first time, we are able to experience the same set of standards across states giving students the skill and knowledge to succeed.”
Common Core is not perfect, nor is perfection its goal. The 20th Century was, and is, often referred to by historians as “The American Century.” America led the world. We were the essential nation. The 21st Century can also be “The American Century,” but we won’t be among the strongest, if our students are among weakest compared to the other developed nations of the world. Common Core will evolve, adjust and improve as we move forward. It is not, as we stated earlier in the essay, a magic panacea for all that ails education in America. It is, however, a big, bold and promising step in the right direction.
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