Why Common Core Standards Are Likely To Fail

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I
argued yesterday that the Common
Core State Standards Initiative
(CCSSI) is both necessary and a good
thing–but I must add that it just can’t work now.

It has the potential
to transform American K-12 education, but the plain fact is that it is destined
to fail because current teacher education programs neither prepare nor equip
grade school and high school teachers to teach the Standards.

 

Whether students
learn–and what they learn–depends largely upon what happens inside the
classroom as they and their teachers interact over the curriculum. “Skillful
teaching,” write Deborah
Loewenberg Ball and Francesca Forzani
, “can make the difference
between students being at the top of the class or the bottom, completing high
school or dropping out.”

But
since the 1920s, the quality of teacher education has severely diminished as
less weight has been given to liberal arts knowledge in teacher training and as
progressive educators have  increasingly
emphasized method over content. It’s no coincidence that teacher education
programs are–and have been–a running joke in American higher education. Rigor
is almost non-existent; standards are low; grade inflation is widespread and
rampant. (See here,
here, and here.)

Unlike their
counterparts in, say, Finland,
where becoming a teacher is competitive and academic standards are high,
Americans seem content scraping near the bottom of the barrel to find their
future educators.

 

According to Arthur
Levine, director of the Education
Schools Project
, although “secondary school teachers do well
compared to the national average on SAT and GRE exams, the scores of future
elementary school teachers fall near the bottom of test takers. Their GRE
scores are 100 points below the national average.”

 

Teachers
Who Can’t Do Basic Arithmetic?

 

An editorial
in the Chicago Tribune last year highlighted the problem when it revealed that
a majority of veteran teachers in Chicago had scored an average of 19.4 (out of
36) on the ACT exam–“about a point below what experts say is the minimum score necessary for college
readiness.”

 

In fact, the
Superintendent of Illinois schools admitted to the editorial board that many
prospective teachers at one major university couldn’t do basic arithmetic, such
as adding and subtracting fractions.

 

When Illinois raised
the threshold in its basic skills test for students seeking admission to
teacher education programs, the pass rate plummeted to 37 percent in 2011 (down
from 84 percent in 2009-10).To “fix” this, one state representative proposed
lowering the passing mark from 75 percent to 55 percent, even though students
can take the test up to five times.

 

To its credit, the
CCSSI infuses rigor throughout its curriculum, and expects students to read
increasingly complex texts through the grades. But higher standards won’t make
a difference when most teachers–who are themselves products of a sub-standard
teacher training program–lack the abilities, skills, and content knowledge to meet
and teach those standards.(See here,here
and here.)

 

True, teachers alone
shouldn’t be blamed when the Standards fail, particularly if students live in
environments where knowledge isn’t valued and the habits and skills they learn
aren’t reinforced at home.

 

For instance, one
strength of the CCSSI is that it is language-centered and reading-based, even
in such subjects as mathematics and the sciences. But Americans don’t
like to read
–at least not difficult or challenging books.

 

Yet a 2008 study by
the National Endowment for the Arts
study showed not only that the number of books in a home is a significant
predictor of academic achievement, but also that the amount of reading students
do for pleasure correlates strongly with academic achievement.

 

Not surprisingly,
nearly half of all Americans ages 18-24 read no books for pleasure; the
percentage of 17-year-old who read nothing at all for pleasure doubled over a
twenty-year period; and less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers.

 

Reading
While Being Entertained

 

And those who are
reading usually do it while “multi-tasking”–i.e., listening to music on their
iPods, texting on their mobile phones,  and
watching movies on their computers–which means “less focused engagement with a
text” and poorer reading comprehension. In fact, the average 8-18 year-old
devotes about 53
hours a week
to using entertainment media–while the average high
school student spends 3
hours a week
preparing for classes.

 

Parents must insist
that homework is important and must be completed before watching television or
going out to play with friends,” writes Jackson Toby in the Lowering of Higher Education, even if
that means “nagging and supervising until the child is mature enough to engage
in self-discipline.”

 

But when parents’
behavior is just as jejune as their children’s (the average American adult
spends 34
hours a week
watching TV), and when they fail to reinforce the value
of education through their own activities and example, the Standards will have
little chance of achieving their aims, no matter how rigorous,
language-centered, and reading-based they are.

 

Nor should teachers
alone be blamed when the CCSSI fails because the intention behind the Standards
is out of sync with their overall structure.

 

On the one hand, the
CCSSI promotes intellectual maturity, content knowledge, understanding nuances,
critical thinking, evidence-based argumentation, information literacy, and
open-mindedness–all of which are appropriate ends of the formative process of education.

 

On the other hand, it
also promotes outcomes-based learning–emphasizing “required achievements” and
focusing on “results rather than means”–which not only encourages teaching to
the test, but also undermines genuine learning, as I’ve discussed here
before.

 

The reason is to let
“teachers, curriculum developers, and states” determine how the goals of the
CCSSI “should be reached and what additional topics should be addressed.”
Therefore, it leaves teachers “free to provide students with whatever tools and
knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful
for meeting” those goals. 

 

This takes us back to
square one, and the likelihood that the CCSSI will fail because current teacher
education programs neither prepare nor equip grade school and high school
teachers to teach the Standards.

 

Reform at any level
of education will never occur until modern educators realize that what we teach and how we teach are inseparable from the aims we seek to achieve.

 

Unless teacher
education programs radically change in structure and content–i.e., return to
training teachers in the liberal arts and insist that they are thoroughly
grounded in content and sound pedagogy–the CCSSI is doomed from the outset.

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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