An uncommon defense of common core: We need a standard

IMG_1559The news and my social media feed, not to mention various conversations, filled up with discussion of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Discussion, particularly from a ‘conservative’ perspective go against CCSS. The viewpoint declares CCSS is a Federal take over of education. Given our fractured society, CCSS became a figurehead for fear of Federal intrusion. Where do I stand?

I support CCSS for three key reasons. First, I believe national standards are a prudent measure in an increasingly mobile society. Second, I believe that such standards should put local districts and teachers in control of curriculum decisions. Third, I believe that the main problem in education is a lack of parental engagement, understanding, and effective support. If opponents are successful in stopping CCSS, the three issues are still in play. I often ask my proverbial question: You get rid of CCSS, then what do you do? This post will deal with the need to national standards.

I drive therefore I can build a car…
In researching this issue as well as becoming a cheerleader for my local school district, one thing became clear: As a society we are woefully uninformed about education. I hope in reading this more grace and understanding is offered to our educator neighbors. For those who are parents reading this: we hold the trump card to radically improving education. We must not consider ourselves consumers of schools, but rather as engaged participants. Too many think they understand how education should work by virtue of being a student. This would be like saying we know how to design and build a car after driving it and doing standard maintenance.

National Standards are prudent
The first question to think through is: should there be national standards? An entire discussion could start and end right there. Our society is increasingly mobile. People growing up and staying in a certain geographical region is dropping. Society is becoming increasingly more urban. A key demographic in mobility is our military community. Having a national set of standards for education makes sense. If I move from one part of the country to another, it would be nice to have consistency. Also, a national set of standards helps benchmark our educational system to that of other countries.

Who should make the decision in developing national standards is a difficult one. My preference would be for states to collaborate together as well as with private enterprise. CCSS fits this model. While there is concern with some involved, such as Bill Gates, I prefer a state & private enterprise approach than a Federally controlled or mandated one. If Federal government started CCSS, I would not favor CCSS even though I do favor national standards.

We’ve been here before
The discussion is not new. An educator friend handed me the report of the Council of Ten, dated July 9th, 1892. The report deals with the matter of uniformity in education. It details standards for certain areas, and delegates others, such as the arts. A criticism often leveled at educational standards is that it diminishes the arts. Given this, there has always been a tension in education over should and what should be uniformed in education. Page 48 under the heading “Explanation of the Sample Programmes” it states this:

“The omission of music, drawing, and elocution from the programmes offered by the committee was not intended to imply that these subjects ought to receive no systemic attention. It was merely thought best to leave it to local school authorities to determine, without suggestions from the committee, how these subjects should be introduced into the programmes in addition to the subjects reported on by the Conferences.”

Standards vs Standardization
Things such as the arts have often taken the back seat in education. The highly viewed TED talks by Sir Ken Robinson attest to this fact. The challenge with any semblance of uniforimity is standards vs. standardization. Jacqueline Grennon Brooks and Mary E. Dietz discuss this danger of CCSS. They explicitly state that the standards are not the issue, but that “the initiative conflate standards with standardization.” (Educational Leadership Dec ’12/Jan ’13, p.65) Much criticism of CCSS seems more an issue of assumed standardization vs the standards themselves.

For example:
There are standards for english literature. News reports came out that “CCSS” are forcing students to read a book some disagreed with. While the book might be on a list of examples, we should note that “the only reading explicitly required in the CCSS is the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, a Shakespeare play and one play by an American dramatist.” (CCSS Introduction, Aspen Institute) Timothy Shanahan illustrates how people took recommendations as standardization in his article “The CC Ate My Baby. (Educational leadership, Dec’12/Jan’13)

Curriculum choice is the real issue
Common Core is to education what HTML5 is to Web browsers. HTML5 is a web standard. There are multiple web browsers that interface with HTML5. Some do not interact well with HTML5- Internet Explorer. Some do a suburb job, like Safari. (I’m a mac.) Some curriculum and districts will interact well with the CCSS and some will not. Many of the criticisms of CCSS seem to be curriculum decisions, not necessarily the standards themselves. CCSS is not a curriculum. It is a set of standards.

The bottom line:
I believe we need national standards. Such is helpful to educating our children. These standards should be established by states, educators and private enterprise- the world which most will work. Common Core does this. There are things that can and need to be improved upon, as the issue of standards vs standardization illustrates. However, media punditry is making that needed interaction difficult. Rather than attacking CCSS, partner with your educator neighbors to do what’s best for kids. Why? The standards are not as much an issue as the curriculum choices are. Part two will deal with curriculum.

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