Common Core Standards Can Save Us

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It’s no secret that
most high school graduates are unprepared for college. Every year, 1.7 million first-year
college students are enrolled in remedial classes at a cost of about $3 billion
annually, the Associated
Press
recently reported. Scores on the 2011 ACT
college entrance exam
showed that only 1 in 4 high school graduates
was ready for the first year of college.

Reading scores are
especially bad. The National
Assessment of Educational Progress
(NAEP) recently reported that more
than 60 percent of twelfth-grade students were not reading at the appropriate
level, and that 27 percent were not even reading at a basic level. Two other
reports issued by the National Endowment for the Arts, “Reading at Risk (2004) and “To Read or Not To Read (2008), were just as dismal.

 

The Common Core State Standards
Initiative
(CCSSI), which has been adopted by forty-five states and
three territories, and is scheduled to go into effect in 2014, is intended to
fix this. Its goal is to make students “college- and career-ready” (CCR) when
they graduate from high school. It will achieve this by prescribing K-12
standards that are rigorous in content and application and designed to develop
high-order skills. All instruction will be aligned within a cohesive framework
so that students progressively review and extend their learning during each
subsequent grade.

 

For example,
beginning in kindergarten, students might learn about the human body by
exploring the five senses and the associated body parts. In addition, they
would learn the importance of taking care of their bodies through an overview
of hygiene, diet, exercise, and rest.

 

In grade 1, they would
build on this foundation when they are introduced to the systems of the human
body and the associated body parts. Likewise, they would learn about taking
care of their bodies by studying germs, diseases, and preventing illness.

 

A
Focus for Instruction
 


A similar pattern is
repeated through the 5th grade, with new and more complex subjects
added each year–e.g., the digestive, excretory, muscular, skeletal and nervous
systems in grades 2 and 3, and the circulatory, respiratory, and endocrine
systems in grades 4 and5, which in turn will serve as a foundation for studying
advanced subjects like anatomy and physiology during junior high and high
school.

 

What the Standards
offer is “a focus for instruction” while ensuring “that students gain adequate
exposure to a range of texts and tasks.” Rigor is “infused through the
requirements”so that “students read increasingly complex texts through the
grades.”

 

More importantly,
students “advancing through the grades are expected to meet each year’s
grade-specific standards, retain or further develop skills and understandings
mastered in preceding grades, and work steadily toward meeting the more general
expectations described by the CCR standards.”

 

By the time they
graduate from high school, students will have developed skills in reading,
writing, speaking, and listening, as well as content knowledge in multiple
disciplines, such as mathematics, science, history, and English.

 

Such an initiative is
long overdue. For far too long, grade schools and high schools have been
inefficient and failing to educate students because of incoherent
curricula
and vacuous
course offerings
. As E. D. Hirsch writes in The Schools We Need, the “lack of shared knowledge among American
students not only holds back their average progress, creating a national
excellence gap, but, more drastically, holds back disadvantaged students, thus
creating a fairness gap as well.”

 

The CCSSI is designed
to close these gaps in three important ways.

 

First, by attempting
to convey knowledge cumulatively and coherently, grade by grade, it emphasizes
the connection between prior knowledge and leaning that cognitive science tells
us is essential for genuine learning to take place.

 

Promoting
Higher-Order Thinking

 

A prescribed
curriculum not only “encourages students to use their innate thinking abilities
to process learning at higher levels of complexity,” it teaches students “how
to organize content in such a way that it facilities and promotes higher-order
thinking,” writes David Sousa in How the
Brain Learns
.

In
fact, the “more connections that students can make between past learning and
new learning, the more likely they are to determine sense and meaning and thus
retain the new learning.” And “when these connections can be extended across
curriculum areas,” adds Sousa, “they establish a framework of associative
networks that will be recalled for future problem solving.”

As things stand now,
grade school and high school curricula are too diffuse, and individual classes
are too tightly bound to their context–e.g., English is taught as the mastery
of grammar, reading is seen as an all-purpose skill that can be equally applied
to all subjects and problems. The result is students who do not retain what
they learn and are unable to transfer knowledge or use their skills in
different areas.

 

Second, the CCSSI is designed to close the
knowledge gap by encouraging students to develop “mutually reinforcing skills
and exhibit mastery of standards for reading and writing across a range of
texts and classrooms.”

 

For example, while
editing papers, students address both Writing and Language standards; when
analyzing and drawing evidence from texts, they address Writing and Reading
standards; when discussing something they have read or written, they
demonstrate speaking and listening skills.

Some
critics, such as Sandra
Stotsky
, find this approach
flawed. She argues that it fails to take into account the current structure of
schools, and that it is too restrictive because it relies on 2009
NAEP Reading Framework for Assessment of Educational Progress
–which
suggests that in grade 4, 50% of student readings must be literary and 50%
informational; in grade 8, 45% must be literary and 55% information; and in
grade 12, 30% is literary and 70 % information.

To
make matters worse, the CCSSI “contains no content standards for history or
science,” while using English language arts to teach these subjects is likely
promote “empty” literacy standards instead. In fact, she accuses David Coleman,
the CCSSI’s principle author, of not understanding “how a skill differs from a
content standard.”

But the percentages
“reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA setting,” and
therefore would not necessarily reflect how teachers teach reading in the
manner that Professor Stotsky describes. More to the point, she disregards the
most critical feature of the Standards, its holistic nature, which calls for a
more global approach to teaching and learning that (ideally) will promote
strategic thinking, making connections between ideas, and greater coherence
across disciplines, rather than perpetuating the current fragmentation.

 

The third, and
perhaps most important, reason that the CCSSI is designed to close the
knowledge gap is that it is language-centered (not image-centered) and
reading-based. This is crucial for advanced cognitive development, not only
because it requires students to develop habits of thought that force the brain
to translate symbols into concepts, but also because it recognizes that facts
and information acquired through careful and intensive reading are the
foundation for all knowledge.

 

At bottom, the CSSSI
is needed because it upholds rigorous standards and will challenge students a
great deal more than they are being challenged now. And when teachers across
the board demand more from students, they work harder and learn more.

 

J.M. Anderson

J. M. Anderson is author of The Skinny on Teaching: What You Don't Learn in Graduate School.

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