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Common Core, Divided Goals

  |   By: Steven Boydstun     |   Opinion

One of the touchstone issues in Alabama politics recently has been where one stands on the Common Core standards for K-12 schools.  I see pictures online of school children holding up signs, presumably given to them by their parents, in front of the Alabama State House that say “STOP COMMON CORE!” My initial reaction was these signs are tantamount to saying “LEGISLATURE: STOP MAKING US SMARTER!”

We do several things well in Alabama, but unfortunately, adequately preparing our public school students for college and careers is not one of them. That’s not to say things are not getting better, because data show things are getting better. However, we still have a long way to go.

Common Core started as a joint venture between state superintendents, governors, higher education and the business community all over the country in response to studies that show that the United States is falling behind many other industrialized countries in education. In Alabama, Common Core was adopted during the Riley administration with little controversy.

What is interesting is that all but a handful of states have also adopted the Common Core with little to no controversy.  The controversy began when the policy was tied to President Obama’s “Race to the Top” for schools.  Common Core is a joint partnership between states, but its former perception has been distorted by politics.

Let’s be honest, in places like Alabama, tying President Obama’s name to a program or piece of legislation is the “kiss of death.”  Common Core was a non-issue until then. Now, it’s called a socialist and egregiously overreaching program by the federal government on an issue that should be handled by the individual states.

But that’s just it, the states are the ones working together to establish a standardized level of competence for K-12 students. Everyone should read what the standards are to be better familiar with them. They can be found here: http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards.

Let’s not get carried away, though. A lot of policy makers and parents want a “silver bullet” to solve our educational problems.  No such bullet exists, and according to Phillip Grant, a PhD student in Education Administration and Policy at The University of Georgia, it is not manifested in the Common Core.

He describes the mixed bag of Common Core by saying, “These standards help students discern arguments, what makes them relevant and what doesn’t. These are skills that everyone needs, and the English Literature standards are filled with things that every person needs to know. From how to read poetry to how to write someone a letter and discern reliable sources from non-reliable sources, these standards are excellent and help teachers do unit planning.”

But, Grant also notes that the standards could be improved by increasing character and civic education, offering flexibility for creative teachers, and including suggestions for making the material relevant for teachers. On the negative, he notes that while everyone can agree all students should be able to adequately read and write upon graduating from high school, not every student needs to know advanced statistics.  A more practical curriculum could benefit many students, especially those who are planning to enter the workforce or attend a technical school after high school.

One criticism is that Common Core does not give teachers flexibility and makes teachers “teach for a test” rather than expand minds.  One must ask, though, if we are indeed adequately expanding the minds of students, should they not be able to pass the test? According to a source in the Alabama Department of Education, Common Core standards do not dictate what text a teacher must teach.

The examples of books the Common Core Committee used for reading standards were, purposely, texts that are out of print so teachers could use whatever books they felt were most relevant and apply the standards to that text. These standards, according to a source, give teachers a framework for how to break down and examine the text of their choice.

A school cannot eliminate any Common Core standards, but states can add to the standards.  This is a mechanism for schools to tailor Common Core to the needs of students at the local level, which puts one of the program’s biggest criticisms on shaky ground.

Common Core is hugely popular among military families, those in the business community and among families who move to different states on a somewhat regular basis for work. It allows their children to relatively be on the same track they were on in their previous state without jumping too far ahead of where they were or digressing too far back.

Before Common Core there was a lot of inequality in curriculum among the states.  The goal of Common Core is that no matter where a student lives, the fundamental standards for that grade should be uniform.

It may have been okay one hundred years ago for students in Alabama to leave high school with a totally different standard of knowledge than a student in New York, but in today’s global village, Alabama students should more appropriately be looked at as American students.  Our children are going to have to compete against global standards, not just the standards of those in our neighboring states.

Common Core is no silver bullet, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Follow Steven on Twitter at @skboydstun

Steven Boydstun holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science from Troy University (Troy) and a Master of Public Administration degree from The University of Alabama. Views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of his employer or any other affiliate.