This is the second in a series of papers about the American education system where we will explore ideas for holistic reform that to prepare students for the new economic reality, and ensure continued U.S. competitiveness in the global marketplace. In this paper we take a look at the new Common Core standards, and think about how they fit into a broader reform plan.
The aim of education reform is surely to provide all students with a “solid enough foundation of literacy, numeracy and thinking skills for responsible citizenship, career development, and lifelong learning” -- as coherently defined by the Harvard Graduate School of Education Pathways to Prosperity Project. This, too, is the lofty aim of the Common Core -- a set of standards (not a curriculum) designed to raise achievement levels in public schools across the country. As a nation, we must ensure minimum attainment in preparation for college, a new economy, and for life. We must build this solid base before we can hope to sustainably foster spectacular achievement.
Unfortunately, the Common Core standards have sparked overtly political battles about the role of the federal government and high-stakes standardized testing; the Common Core is lauded as a great step forward as much as it is criticized as a poorly-conceived non-solution, forced onto the states by the heavy hand of the federal government.
But just for a moment, let’s ignore another argument about the role of the federal government, and think instead about the importance of maintaining America’s competitiveness in the global economy. The Program for International Student Assessment has rated U.S. high school students as mediocre in reading, math and science skills, compared to their peers in other advanced economies. While rankings are not everything, it is clear that we expect too little -- not only is our economic growth at stake, we are under-preparing our children for life after school.
The Fordham Institute (a conservative non-profit) reviewed the new standards last year, and found them to be clearer and more demanding than current standards in over thirty states. Yes, the Common Core might still be inferior to standards in a few states, but it will represent an improvement for the majority of students. In addition, while Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post carefully takes us through the problems with the Common Core, namely that “there is little evidence Common Core standards will produce the skilled and knowledgeable graduates that employers and college teachers have demanded of public schools” -- surely trying, and making some gains, is better than not trying at all.
In general, the Common Core will upgrade the quality of reasoning expected of students across all subjects. Looking at Math in particular, where the new standards will arguably have the greatest impact, more time will be spent on fewer topics that will coherently build on one another over time. While the old standards simply spoke to test makers -- teaching students how to get the answers to problems, under Common Core, the focus is on the math that is supposed to be learned from the problem. For example, many students are currently taught the “Butterfly Method” for adding and subtracting fractions. While this might be a fun way to work with fractions, how much is the student actually learning about what fractions are and how to deal with them in different contexts? Under the Common Core, students will be taught to understand fractions as numbers, and therefore when learning addition and subtraction, students will be able to understand and use equivalent fractions.
Why is a good foundation in middle school Math so important? In many states and schools, algebra proficiency is essential in 8th grade to take geometry at high school, and according to multiple studies, taking advanced math classes at high school is the single greatest predictor of college attendance. While these new math standards are not yet up to International levels (and at worst might might be two years behind), they are a significant level-up from where we are; not the best we can do, but the best we can do from where we are. Not accepting the Common Core standards would be taking a step back while the rest of the world continues to move forward.
Lance Vikaros, Education Director at Agnitus, offered this assessment of the new standards:
“Our education system is failing. Despite spending as much or more per student than other industrialized countries, our international rankings are slipping year after year. Common Core State Standards (CCSS) take a phenomenal first step towards preparing US students to succeed in twenty-first century jobs. The focus on critical thinking related to real world problem solving and effective communication favors reasoning over recall, is well-aligned with current educational research, and is designed to discourage the rote ‘teaching for the test’ practices that many fear.
Combined with like-minded STEM based standards, like the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), as well as yet-to-be-developed standards for computational thinking, Common Core establishes a comprehensive foundation of goals and benchmarks from which to better measure, compare and achieve educational reform at the federal level without impinging on the autonomy of states.
For developers of educational curriculum and technology like Agnitus, nationwide standards will better allow us to invest in the quality of our products since we will be able to cater to the needs of schools across the country all at once, rather than having to develop and sell to one state at a time.”
Now to address some of the politicking getting in the way. While supporting and opposing groups do not fit into the partisan categories we have become accustomed to, the opposition is just as dogmatic, and definitely deadly to the momentum of reform.
Groups on the right blast the new standards as a “federal power play to squash local control of education”, and Michelle Malkin who has been particularly vocal, warned that the Common Core was “about top-down control engineered through government-administered tests and left-wing textbook monopolies.” In reality, however, Common Core was written under the authority of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, in an effort that began in 2007 -- before Obama was elected. Moreover, the new standards are just that -- standards that spell-out what students should know at each grade level, not a curriculum. The responsibility remains with school districts to choose curricula that comply. In fact, education policymaking -- and 90 percent of funding -- is still handled at the state and local levels.
As for the opponents on the left, while right-leaning opposition fears federal overreach and an erosion of states’ rights, there is progressive pushback based on the harmful effects of over-testing our children, and teachers unions too are taking aim at the high-stakes standardized tests.
At the core of the union argument is that despite the inadequate preparation of teachers, many will still be assessed --and in some cases compensated -- based on the performance of their students. The Badass Teachers Association is on the frontlines of the battle against “assessments, tests and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and learning…”. Diane Ravitch, another adherent to the obsession with accountability critique, is right to “envision standards not as a demand for compliance by teachers, but as an aspiration defining what states and districts are expected to do.” But how else can we ensure that this vision becomes a reality, without some semblance of minimum compliance?
Some union leaders, however, including Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, support the guidelines in principal, on the condition that the implementation of new tests are pushed back at least a year: “Today I called for a moratorium on the consequences of high-stakes testing associated with the Common Core standards until states and districts have worked with educators to properly implement them.”
Still, the onus largely remains with the political right to remove this critical debate from the partisan circus so we can start to discuss how these standards can be best translated in the classroom, not whether we should be supporting higher standards for all. Conservative-leaning think tanks like the Manhattan Institute and the Fordham Institute have published sober, sensible arguments for the standards; William Bennett, President Reagan’s secretary of education has defended the Common Core; so has Mike Huckabee, alongside several current Republican current governors. As more and more prominent conservatives come out to support Common Core, we will be better able to move this discussion forward, and start to ask the hard questions about implementation.
It’s okay to admit that Common Core is no silver bullet -- better standards alone might not improve educational attainment -- supporting and educating teachers, and providing quality instructional materials will also be essential to success. But this is a chance to make long overdue changes under the umbrella of getting ready for this new system, and the Common Core will also provide the much-needed platform from which we can launch broader educational reforms.
Moreover, much of the criticism is based on a mischaracterization of the standards as new assessments, which they are not, or is related to fears about the politics of change rather than concerns of the Common Core's quality. Since many experts agree that these standards are a well designed first step, we should be shifting our focus how best to approach implementation and assessment
There are still questions to be asked, and additional components to be reckoned with -- not to mention the benefits of additional intensive engineering and mathematics courses, and vocational and technical learning -- but in order to prepare all children for a participation at these higher levels, we must start with a stronger base from kindergarten through high school. The Common Core is one part of a greater patchwork of educational reform that we need to grapple with; it is simply the next step in the progression of improvements.