From The New York Times Blog "Motherlode"
Adventures in Parenting
By Jessica Lahey
February 27, 2014
The questions I hear most often from parents about education policy have to do with the Common Core: What is it? And why is everyone arguing about it?
Common Core State Standards have been in the works since 2009, and are now in place at public schools all over the country. The Common Core is a set of standards for students in kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts and mathematics. Standards, here, are competencies — skills that students must master to be prepared for college by the time they graduate.
The Common Core does not dictate which books students read or how teachers should approach the instruction of algebra; it simply outlines specific skills to be mastered during a given school year. For example, third graders are to “develop an understanding of fractions as numbers.” More specifically, they are to “Understand a fraction of 1/b as the quantity formed by 1 part when a whole is partitioned into b equal parts; understand a fraction a/b as the quantity formed by a parts of size 1/b.”
But while the description is detailed and specific, it does not dictate how, or from what text, or in what context, third graders should understand this material. That was a deliberate choice made by the people who designed the standards. Decisions about how to implement the standards are left to the states.
Why bother with all this change?
The Common Core was born out of concern that American schools were falling short on performance measures like the Program for International Student Assessment, commonly known as PISA, which is an international achievement assessment. There are many explanations for the United States’ middling rank in that assessment, but many experts point to declining standards as a result of schools’ efforts to avoid penalties for falling behind in meeting annual progress benchmarks set by the federal No Child Left Behind law of 2002. Under that law, schools must meet state-defined standards of adequate yearly progress.
This created all sorts of unintended consequences, including widespread cheating on yearly assessments, simplifying the tests or excluding some schools’ test results altogether to avoid remediation.
There are other factors in the education and performance equation, of course, including significantly increasing rates of childhood poverty, lackluster teacher training and subsequently variable teaching quality. The Common Core standards are intended to raise performance expectations for our students.
That intent isn’t the subject of most of the debate. The Common Core is at the center of a war rooted in deep disagreement over educational philosophy and turf. Since the inception of organized education in this country, teachers, schools, districts and states have largely been free to choose what and how to teach.
There are Constitutional issues at play here, too, because education is not one of the enumerated powers granted to the federal government. Education has traditionally and legally remained a state and local affair, and the introduction of even voluntary standards bearing even the slightest resemblance to a national curriculum inflames an already incendiary battle for power among teachers, unions, schools, districts, states and any form of federal oversight or coercion.
It’s hard to tell where the uproar over Common Core ends and the more general uproar over education in the United States begins. There are many legitimate reasons to be dissatisfied with the state of education here. Policy makers are frustrated by the United States’ showing on the 2012 international PISA tests, in which it ranked below average for math and barely average for reading and science.
Teachers (and therefore teacher unions) feel undervalued and underrepresented in the education debate, while simultaneously undercompensated and overworked in the classroom. Parents are frustrated by the increasing amount of testing required to determine if their children and their schools are meeting expectations. Students dislike the testing as well, and having proctored standardized tests for years, I can attest that summative standardized testing is detrimental to students’ enthusiasm and morale.
Those who support the Common Core point to the academic benefits of increased rigor, and the fact that the standards will establish a more predictable and cohesive education for all students, particularly for those who move around a lot, including impoverished, military and foster children. If all children must learn the same sets of skills each year, highly mobile children will be less likely to miss out.
The inevitable growing pains and stumbling blocks inherent in the transition to the Common Core standards have not endeared them to teachers, who are being asked to upend their syllabuses and curriculums. The longer teachers work with material, getting to know the intricacies and background of its content and execution, and the better they understand how their varied students manage that material, the more effective those teachers become.
While good, experienced teachers are masters at aiming at constantly moving targets, many of those teachers face a whole-cloth restructuring of lesson plans, and that will take time.
Meantime, parents, administrators and policy makers should keep in mind that teachers and students are doing their best to make their way through a challenging period. As we do battle over standards and expectations, there are close to 80 million children enrolled in our nation’s schools, looking to seven million teachers to guide them toward an understanding of our world. That alone deserves our patience and our support.
Jessica Lahey is an educator, writer and speaker. She writes about parenting and education for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Vermont Public Radio and her own blog, Coming of Age in the Middle. Her book, “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed,” will be published by HarperCollins in 2015.