Getting to the Core

3/13/11

Developed for use in 48 states, instrumental in Obama’s current Race to the Top program, and representative of yet another effort to restructure the American School System, the Common Core Standards offer expectations in the categories of language arts and mathematics that aim to push more students toward success in the “real world.” As explained on the Common Core Standard website (corestandards.org,) the program works to make notoriously low-level thinking American students capable of high-order thought. Again and again, the ability to compete (and, for Obama, to outcompete) in the global economy and society is stressed. The standards build on what already exists and is good in our state standards and is not mandatory (if it were, the American people would undoubtedly cry “socialism!”)

Flipping through a slideshow found on the corestandards.org website, I was interested in how the standards were described in the broadest terms. With statistics and long-winded explanations of evidence absent, it was easy to get to the heart of the Standards, and I imagined myself as a parent contemplating the impact of the Standards upon the education of my child (as I’m sure is the case with many of the viewers of the website.) In the first slide, an overview of the initiative, it is stated that the focus lies in “learning expectations for students, not how students get there” (corestandards.org.) This was a bit puzzling for me. I agree that expectations are important, and that they should be relatively equal across the country in order to establish a sort of national unity when it comes to educational opportunity, but I also think that the method of teaching the material that will eventually be measured in order to meet the expectations cannot be overlooked. Acknowledging that all children learn differently, I am a firm believer in the utilization of diverse tactics in the learning environment–i.e. catering to the concept of Multiple Intelligences (see diagram.)

I support the fact that the Standards suggest texts and materials teachers can use to meet standards rather than providing a set list, but perhaps they should also offer ideas for teaching material in a variety of ways. Teachers need to be allowed to express their creativity, and if they shared their creative ideas with one another students would benefit. For this reason, I also strongly support the fact that teachers provide a lot of input when it comes to the Standards. This is how it should be–the people who are practicing the Standards should have a say in what they entail. However, shouldn’t the students also have a say? The Standards are all about preparing students for a rapidly changing society and global experience. By the time students reach high school, they may be more aware of what they need to know to keep up with their peers (nationally and internationally) than even their teachers. This is true especially when it comes to technology. Teenagers are more technologically saavy than every before. Maybe we need to create a venue for them to teach each other or to even teach their teachers. For me, teaching others is often the best way to learn.

In a slide titled “Criteria for the Standards,” the Standards’ application of high-order skills is stressed. Reading this bullet point, I thought of Daggett’s model–an image that was central in my Educational Psychology course from my Fall semester. This model (seen below) features 4 quadrants of thought. In the U.S., we are known for remaining in quadrant A when it comes to the education and assessment of our children. This is the quadrant where fact memorization and multiple choice tests run rampant. What we need to strive for is quadrant D. This quadrant features complex content that is relevant to real life content. It incorporates problem solving and practicality. Too often in the U.S. we learn theorems and dates and principles, but we have no idea how to apply them after the 55 minute test period ends. I am hopeful that the Standards can help to change this trend, and push our youth toward more authentic assessment, holistic knowledge, and confident application.

Continuing the conversation of higher order thinking, I feel that we should begin the  practice of “real world thinking” at a very early age. Looking over the bullet points focused on the Math Standards, it is stated that “the high school standards call on students to practice applying mathematical ways of thinking to real world issues and challenges and emphasize mathematical modeling” (corestandards.org). Yet, this higher order thinking is not acknowledged until the high school level. Like the learning of foreign languages, I think that high order thinking is better learned if it begins early. In this sense, maybe we should begin to use more authentic assessments in early grades–incorporating these sorts of tests into what needs to happen for students to meet the expectations of the Standards.

Reading through a more complex explanation of the Core State Standards Initiative for English Language Arts, I was happy to see the acknowledgement of “critical types of content.” This content includes “myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare” (corestandards.org). I like that these documents are the kind that instill a sense of identity and place in the world, and that they aren’t strictly regulated by list, but I struggle with the notion that they can offer completely equal opportunity. The decisions of what to teach and how to teach it is left up to states, districts and schools. This seems essential in a society so obsessed with choice, but it also seems a little too close to the way the system already operates. The Standards intend to help teachers create a syllabus of increasingly complex literature for their students. This is a sort of “scaffolding” technique that I approve of, but I have trouble with the logistics. It doesn’t seem possible for all students to ever really be on the same level. There will always be students who need to be challenged beyond the benchmark grade level and some who lag behind. How should teachers account for these students? Are they meant to create separate levels of complexity for these students as they see fit? How does this translate as students move on to different grade levels and teachers? I think that all of this could be effective, but it requires teachers and students to be in constant and effective communication with one another and with the creators of the Standards.

Finally, as the Standards continue to present themselves as ways to prepare for “real life experience” and “college in the 21st Century” I have to wonder what sort of real life experience and which colleges are being referred to. Are the benchmark Standards supposed to be what you need to get into a community college, or are they preparation for the Ivy League? Is the “real life experience” inclusive of jobs outside of the academic realm, or does it only focus on the future doctors, lawyers, and teachers of America? It seems like we should prepare all of our children for whatever path fits their passion. Perhaps this means more specialization based on the individual, or a re-evaluation of what the “real world” actually means.

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One Response to Getting to the Core

  1. Pingback: III. Testing: Authentic Assessment | growingupinamerica

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