Education reform's next big thing: Common Core standards ramp up
Common Core standards are aimed at building students' critical thinking skills, and 46 states have adopted them. But critics say the methods are unproven and the education reform is moving too fast.
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Prior efforts to set common national standards had failed, in part because they came from the federal government rather than from the states themselves. The hope this time was to have rigorous standards that cross state boundaries and that are coherent across grade levels and subjects – allowing students to build from year to year on prior understanding.Skip to next paragraph
Former standards in many states "were a mile wide and an inch deep," says Heath Phillips. "We're trying to go to the opposite – a few inches wide but a mile deep. We're trying to build those critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, and students' ability to apply those in various real-world situations."
Still, the standards are seeing a fair amount of backlash – some of which, say observers, is primarily due to bad messaging or misunderstandings: people equating standards with standardized testing, for instance; assuming national standards means a national curriculum; or thinking that the standard that 70 percent of texts be informational by 12th grade means English classes will no longer focus on fiction (the standard actually applies across courses, and the intent is for social studies and science classes to do more literacy work).
But some of the backlash is also due to concerns about how standards that may look good on paper will be implemented.
"When you first introduce the concept of Common Core to teachers who have been beaten down by ... drilling kids for testing, they are extremely excited," says Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University in California. "It's what people want for their own children. But that excitement is very quickly followed by fear and dread, because the ways in which it's going to be used are unknown. If it gets squeezed back into the old multiple-choice testing mentality as a tool for rewards and sanctions, and not a tool for classrooms to engage with more rewarding and challenging instruction, then teachers will turn against it."
Some educators already have.
Diane Ravitch, an education historian and New York University professor, is a frequent critic of accountability reforms, but was initially supportive of the idea of national standards. She's turned against Common Core – in large part, she says, because of the process by which the standards were created and the speed with which they're being implemented.
"No one wanted to give it a trial, and now we're trying it in 46 states," Ms. Ravitch says. "How do we know it will improve achievement? We haven't tried it. How do we know it will work in real classrooms?"
Ravitch also has concerns about the appropriateness of the standards in lower grades – a concern shared by some early-childhood experts. The methods for arriving at standards, working backward from what high school graduates should be expected to know, in some cases has resulted in standards that don't take into account how young children learn, such experts say.
Moreover, the timing of the standards – along with numerous other accountability reforms – couldn't be worse, Ravitch says.
"American public education is being stretched to the breaking point," she says. "If someone is struggling with a 30-pound thing on their back, do you say, carry another 35 pounds because this is good for you?"
That concern is one shared by many teachers, as well as their union leaders. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), praised the Common Core standards in an April 30 address, even as she called for a moratorium on high-stakes consequences while they're being implemented.