Right now the United States is in the midst of a radical change in K-12 education. A recent poll shows that even if you have a child in school, you may not realize that it’s happening.
During President Barack Obama’s first term, the Department of Education created a contest called Race to the Top which was a way to encourage schools to find innovative approaches to learning and improving performance in K-12. The contest awarded grants to states and local districts whose programs demonstrated focus on certain educational policies, such as turning around low performing schools and evaluation of teacher and principal performance. Initial participation in the program temporarily waived certain benchmarks required by No Child Left Behind.
A legacy of President George W. Bush, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 linked federal funding to public schools’ performance, which was determined by scores achieved on standardized tests administered as early as the second grade. Critics have argued the law’s focus on test scores to determine proficiency has led to an educational system focused on memorization and testing proficiency, instead of equipping students with knowledge they need to be successful. Furthermore, the law did little to account for the inconsistency in resources available to schools.
In 2010, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers took input from teachers, parents and experts in an effort to get an idea of what students needed to know before graduating high school in order to be prepared for college and future careers. More than 60 percent of first year students enrolling in college are not prepared for post-secondary study, even if they qualify for enrollment. They spend their early years taking remedial courses in English and mathematics, possibly prolonging their college education as these courses do not count for credit.
With this in mind, they created the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The uniformed standards are designed to make sure that students reach certain critical benchmarks from K-12. The idea is that every student, regardless of which state or district they graduate from, will be ready for college without the need of remedial courses. The standards were not developed or approved by the Obama administration or the Department of Education, but the Race to the Top grant program does award points for adoption of the standards.
As a result, 45 states have implemented Common Core as part of their educational revamping. The only states not participating are Texas, Alaska, Nebraska and Virginia, with Minnesota only adopting the English standards.
The standards promote English and mathematics proficiency, with a focus on critical thinking and reasoning. Schools and teachers are free to create their own methods and materials of reaching the benchmarks, though recommendations, such as reading lists, are provided which focus on the desired skill set. The Common Core Standards were built on standards already in place in many states and designed to give teachers time to develop teaching methods and students time to master the key conceptual understandings and procedures.
While teachers have greater freedom to teach the subject areas, the new focus may require a change in the way they teach. For example, just remembering the plot of a story does not develop critical thinking. Instead, a teacher may require students to write an email from the point of view of one of the characters and then later explain why they think the character would say what they said, or even if they would use those words. Perhaps a student will be required to solve a math problem and explain why they chose that method, regardless if the answer is correct.
The point of such lessons is to have the students think about what they are doing and be able to defend their position. The focus isn’t on right or wrong answers.
Needless to say, the standards have their detractors. Thus far the criticism, largely from Republican politicians, has focused on the incorrect belief that the standards are a nationalization of education, a violation of state sovereignty. The standards are not a national requirement and a state’s adoption of them is purely voluntary. The unevenness in previous standards has also created situations where students are required to learn things sooner than previously required (i.e., subtraction now begins in kindergarten).
Parents have complained that it is unfair to have students in later grades be required to reach benchmarks for which their education thus far has not prepared them. In response, many states have been using a phased-in approach, starting with the lower grades and adding the new standards progressively each year. Additionally, current teaching materials and textbooks haven’t caught up with the new methods and standards, forcing them to work with others online to develop lessons plans and making use of the recommendations provided by the Common Core website.
It is too early to tell if the new standards are working. Current testing materials are not designed to incorporate the new focuses, resulting in a noticeable drop in test scores among early adopters of Common Core. Testing tools have been developed by Common Core and will be available starting with the 2014-2015 school year.
The political backlash and implementation challenges notwithstanding, there is much agreement between educators and experts agree that there is great value in a foundation of knowledge for students to be prepared for further educational pursuits and careers.