When a teacher whom I respect asked me recently why I support the Common Core State Standards, I decided I ought to set out my reasons with at least enough coherence that they are clear in my own mind. Before I begin, here are a few disclaimers to help readers interpret my comments:
- I have focused almost exclusively on the English language arts standards, which are the standards I need to know, ignoring the math standards.
- Because I approve of the standards more than I disapprove of them does not mean I think the standards are flawless.
- My approval/disapproval is related only to the standards themselves, not to how they are implemented in a given place.
- My approval/disapproval is related only to the standards themselves, not to to any testing apparatus that may be associated with the standards.
1. Common Core Standards aim for learning that develops depth, utility and fluency throughout a lifetime.
The ELA standards, for example, focus on enabling students to gather information by reading, asking questions, observing, and discussing ideas with others; to think, analyze, and evaluate that information; to make choices based on that information; to present their reasoned opinions in writing, speaking, and other media; to apply their learning and thinking in creative ways. None of those skills can be mastered in one lesson or unit; they must develop over years of diverse experiences.
2. The Common Core Standards put acquiring learning skills into the context of learning content.
The standards don’t specify what specific topics must be taught. The standards say, for example, that students must be able to discuss differences in the way a topic is treated in a piece of fiction and a piece of nonfiction, but leave the choice of works open.
3. Common Core Standards are presented in terms of what students must do to demonstrate achievement.
Whenever the standards specify how a student demonstrates learning, they provide guidance as to the form instruction and evaluation must take. If the standards call for making choices and defending those choices, the learning activities must provide opportunities for making choices and defending them. If a standard calls for preparing a written document or giving a speech, a multiple choice test will not be an appropriate final assessment.
4. The Common Core gives curriculum design responsibilities back to teachers.
The standards don’t specify what content and instructional methods teachers must use. Choosing how to design a curriculum to fit students’ needs is left to teachers who know their students and the learning resources available locally.
5. The Common Core necessitates continual evaluation and instructional adjustments in terms of the standards.
Because the standards are laddered to indicate how particular skills build year by year, teachers must assess students’ learning on a daily basis to correct misunderstandings before they become ingrained in students’ thinking. For such formative evaluations to be useful, they must be appropriate to the content being taught. Teachers cannot rely on multiple choice and short answer quizzes for insights into students’ thought processes or skill levels.
6. Common Core Standards encourage learning activities that address more than one objective.
The standards are so detailed that no teacher could possibly present even one lesson on every topic specified for her grade level in a year. Teachers should quickly realize that by planning activities that work toward achievement of more than one Common Core objective, they increase their productivity. A teacher can design an activity that includes reading nonfiction text, learning a new vocabulary word used that text, working in a small group, speaking and writing without spending more time than would be required to develop learning materials for each of those separate outcomes.
7. Common Core standards make teaching heterogeneous groups easier.
A teacher who is providing students with multiple opportunities to learn the most important skills and content can more easily help students master areas in which they are weak than can the teacher who has just one unit a year on a particular topic. Moreover, a teacher can help students set individual growth targets for the academic year, enabling students to reduce specific grammar errors, for example, or encouraging students to develop more depth in some area in which they are already at grade level.
8. Core standards promote cross-disciplinary collaboration.
So much is expected of schools under Common Core, that only by working with other teachers, including those in other disciplines, can an individual teacher accomplish her/his own objectives. Recognizing the importance of communication skills in all areas of life, Common Core demands teachers across the disciplines share in teaching English. Shared burdens are not only are lighter but often produce creative results.
9. Teachers must meet Common Core standards in order to teach students to meet them.
The Common Core is about being able to learn what you need to know without having a teacher masticate and pre-digest it for you. Teachers who won’t or can’t do that for themselves in order to teach to the Core standards shouldn’t teaching in Common Core schools.
10. Common Core requires flexible teachers and encourages them to be creative.
The Common Core State Standards constitute an instructional system: Its components need to be combined within a class and within a school to produce specific outcomes. Thinking in terms of school-wide teaching rather than in terms of classroom units requires intellectual flexibility. Teachers who can make the shift will find the Core standards give them wide latitude to develop their own materials, to collaborate with peers, to tap community and worldwide resources.
There you have my reasons for thinking the Common Core is more useful than not. My thoughts on the not-so-great parts and on some of the wacky ways states have attempted to implement the Core can wait for another day.
Thanks to @song4mozart for pushing me to write out my thoughts on this topic.