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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Not Rotten to the Core

Coming soon to--or perhaps already arrived at--a school near you: The Common Core State Standards.  As the name implies, the Common Core comprises a set of academic requirements (in math and language skills) that students are supposed to master in each grade through high school.  While adoption of the Common Core is, strictly speaking, voluntary, the vast majority of states have committed to using them, not least because adopting the Common Core was a pre-requisite to qualify for federal funding in the "Race to the Top" program.  Conservatives dislike the Common Core, seeing it as unwarranted federal intrusion in an area--public education--historically reserved for the states.  Liberals are uneasy about the Common Core's reliance on standardized testing and its potential use as a bludgeon against teachers.  ("Mr. Smith, your students' scores on the Common Core exams fell 3% this year.  What do you have to say for yourself?")

First, to the conservatives: You are absolutely right that the Common Core represents a federal mandate.  (Yes, technically, as mentioned above, the curriculum is voluntary, but since so much funding depends on its adoption, the Common Core is voluntary in much the same way that eating is voluntary: One doesn't have to do it, but one will probably not enjoy the results of such a choice.)  But, seriously, folks, haven't we outgrown the notion that education policy should be left to the states?  It's a truism that the world is flat--that Americans are competing for jobs and opportunities not only with people within their own communities but with people from across the entire country and, indeed, the world.  Can anyone truly argue that the educational needs of a child in New York differ fundamentally from those of a child in Mississippi?  When educational researchers and policy experts lament the fact that Americans consistently lag their peers in South Korea or Germany (or the Czech Republic, for Pete's sake!), they are implicitly or explicitly calling for a national educational policy.  There is no reason a high school student in Arkansas shouldn't have to suffer as much with trigonometry as an 11th grader in Massachusetts.

A more liberal-leaning complaint bemoans the Core's emphasis on measurable skills, which do not take into account the need for students to experience the more intrinsic rewards of learning.  These complaints deal mainly with the language-based standards.  According to public school teacher Claire Needell Hollander,

"The writers of the Common Core had no intention of killing literature in the classroom. But the convenient fiction that yearly language learning can be precisely measured by various “metrics” is supplanting the importance of literary experience. The Common Core remains neutral on the question of whether my students should read Shakespeare, Salinger or a Ford owner’s manual, so long as the text remains 'complex.'"

Well, again, yes.  Certainly, I would personally encourage students to read Shakespeare rather than a repair manual for a tractor (unless we're talking about Cymbeline, in which case it's a toss-up), but as I mentioned in a previous post, the point is that students should read and, by reading, develop their reading skills.  When it comes to testing students' reading abilities, the more they have been exposed to the written word--in whatever form--the better they will be able to perform on standardized tests.  Now, we can argue that standardized tests--especially of the multiple-choice variety--are not the best way to evaluate a student's knowledge, and we can and should look for other evaluative mechanisms.  But again there is nothing inherently objectionable in the idea that all students--regardless of which state they live in--should possess certain literacy skills.

I do share some concern about Common Core standards being used as a weapon to punish teachers and teachers' unions.  Especially in the early going, one can expect that students will struggle with some of the Common Core's requirements--particularly if these students have not been adequately prepared in the years that have preceded the Core's implementation. If a fifth-grade teacher is suddenly responsible for teaching certain material that the students are not ready for (based on their suddenly "subpar" fourth-grade instruction), it seems unfair to punish that teacher when the results are less than satisfactory in the first few years.  Once the Common Core has been around for some time, though, it stands to reason that teachers and students will adjust.  Ultimately, I am not against the idea of teacher accountability or even using standardized test scores as a part--a PART--of a teacher evaluation system.  And frankly, a Common Core could make life easier--or at least more predictable--for a teacher facing evaluation: No matter where the teachers are working, they know what they need to teach and what standards they will be held to.

A Common Core--a common body of knowledge--is a logical development in education.  There is no reason to oppose it reflexively.

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