A New Standard: Is Common Core a Good Thing?

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September 30, 2013

The whispers started a few years ago. Now it’s a yell. Unless you’re in one of five states, you have heard the phrase “Common Core.”  But what exactly is it? And should you be worried?

First, a history…

Twenty five years ago, my mom taught a third grade class in California. She’d developed an awesome unit on Hawaii after a trip to paradise.  They also had a unit on local community history mandated by her school district. Text books provided by the state determined the students’ reading, writing, and math lessons.  Somewhere within those core subjects, she had to squeeze in cursive writing and story-telling.

Third graders on the other side of the county participated in a nutrition unit that taught them how to take care of themselves through food choices, while learning core subjects from another text-book option from the state. They didn’t need to worry about cursive writing because their second grade teacher had drilled them extensively.

Both my mom and the other teacher excelled in their jobs. Both school won awards. But students transferring between them ended their elementary experience with a few holes in their education.

But then…

Fast forward to when I started teaching in 2000. I based all my classroom instruction on the relatively new California Content Standards. These standards outlined what my students needed to learn, not just the topics, but the specific information and high level thinking required.  Every student in California should have received the same instruction.

For example, my mom’s “Local Community History” Unit had been refined into…

3.3 Students draw from historical and community resources to organize the sequence of local historical events and describe how each period of settlement left its mark on the land.

  1. Research the explorers who visited here, the newcomers who settled here, and the people who continue to come to the region, including their cultural and religious traditions and contributions.
  2. Describe the economies established by settlers and their influence on the present-day economy, with emphasis on the importance of private property and entrepreneurship.
  3. Trace why their community was established, how individuals and families contributed to its founding and development, and how the community has changed over time, drawing on maps, photographs, oral histories, letters, newspapers, and other primary sources.

And now…

I hear from my children’s teachers that they have adopted Common Core, a set of Language Arts and Mathematics standards not just for the state, but the entire nation.  Very similar to the old state content, this new initiative assures consistency for students not only within a county or state, but almost anywhere in the country. (I say almost because five states chose not to adopt Common Core in its entirety.)

Is this a good thing?

Naturally, anything attempted nationally comes with a whole basket of complex issues, but the easy answer is yes. Being specific about instructional goals allows everyone involved with education: students, teachers, administrators, legislatures, and curriculum designers, to be on the same page. Although some teachers might need to adjust their lessons, the change should not require intense restructuring of instruction. If it does, they probably needed to do that anyway.

A few parents worried that so many specific regulations would stifle creativity in the classroom. As someone who taught under standards, I can attest that rather than inhibit ideas, the specificity helped guide it. An effective educator can bundle several standards over disciplines at once.

Is there risk?

Of course! Having what students should know outlined so clearly makes assessment a natural follow-up. Tests are important but we run the risk of allowing them to drive education rather than measure it. We must remain vigilant to keep testing as means to an end rather than an end itself.

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