by Julia Steiny
I have been, in Facebook lingo, a lurker rather than a poster regarding the new national initiative: the Common Core Standards (CCS).
CCS is the biggest thing to come along in education since the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. NCLB is not gone, exactly, but it’s quickly becoming a mere shadow of itself, as national educational policies shift from one philosophical strategy (NCLB) to a radically different one (CCS).
But I’ve lurked because CCS is HUGE. NCLB is puny in comparison. Start with the fact that NCLB had no standards whatever. Each state was told to define and test for academic proficiency. Without any actual goals or agree-on standards, NCLB created a mania for test scores — which meant what? NCLB was about passing and failing, winning and losing, schools labeled “A” or “F.” It was simple. The public engaged in all that judgment.
The only problem was that it didn’t much improve learning, according to the very data the feds forced the states to collect.
As a result, academic, government, and business associations of all kinds began to fashion and later support a set of academic criteria that would make educational attainment comparable among states. Skim through the standards themselves to understand the effort’s scale and complexity. Individual goals for students to meet are nuanced and not simple. Yes, I take issue with some of the CCS decisions, but as a culture we’re finally discussing what on earth we’d like education to be for kids, in detail! This is potentially creative, probably more effective than what we’ve been doing, and an encouraging step in the right direction.
So I was shocked, frankly, to learn how clueless the public is about CCS. The annual report on the annual education survey conducted by Gallup with Phi Delta Kappa, called “Which way do we go?,” reports that fully 62 percent of the general public has never even heard of CCS’s existence. Really? This is not okay.
Common Core is big, but you can wrap your arms around it.
The Alliance for Excellent Education created quite a helpful primer, Common Core 101. Yes, the Alliance is a friend of CC, which also has passionate foes. This primer sketches its comprehensive scope. And it notes what aspects are causing controversies, without getting into the specifics about what’s fueling the fires. You’ll never understand the truly laudable things CCS is trying to do if you get lost in the dense weeds of controversy, which can suck you in like a teen into a video game. Yes, certain testing and textbook contractors are going to make out like bandits as a result of CC, but there really are pros and cons even in that toxic thicket.
Try to avoid passing judgment until you have the big picture. But don’t leave the decisions up to the 38 percent who are paying attention.
The key to CCS is that it’s about standards, not curriculum — big dif.
An academic “standard” is broad benchmark that a kid should meet by a certain time. They’re inevitably vague-sounding. So: children should be able to read by 3rd grade. The way the CCS puts it is that third graders should
* Know and apply grade-level phonics and word analysis skills in decoding words, and
* Read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension.
Yes, they go on to spell out what skills and knowledge reaching those standards would involve. But they say nothing about curriculum. Teachers, states, districts, and schools, along with parents, are going to have to figure out the how-to of curriculum. And this could be really exciting.
A great curriculum lays out all the interesting, hopefully delightful experiences for kids to DO to help them learn the building blocks. A smart sequence of books, activities, games and projects get kids familiar with the skills and knowledge that make meeting standards easy. (Or at least possible.) Parents, employers and others surely have thoughts about what these experiences should be. If local manufacturers and tech businesses want more kids interested in their industry, work with educators on creating relevant, engaging learning experiences.
For once it seems as if the education industry has left room for the rest of us to get in the game. Education was never for passing tests, though assessment will always be a necessary gatekeeper. Teaching was about passing down values, skills, knowledge that the culture’s adults felt were important for survival. Great! Let’s talk about those values and skills. If CCS has set a standard too low for your taste, help kids meet it and beat early. Aim for something with the kids. The public’s success, your success, is entwined with theirs.
C’mon. Everyone needs at least a passing knowledge of what’s going on with the nation’s kids. Not having kids of their own lets no one off the hook. If you know the unemployment rate, you should also know that 21 percent of America’s children are growing up in poverty. You should know that kids’ education is everyone’s responsibility, and that Common Core is the current strategy. We are growing such a nasty future for ourselves by ignoring the plight of the nation’s kids. And blaming the parents and schools is waaaay too easy. It’s all of us. Get on board.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.