Rethinking Common Core

With Betsy DeVos now at the helm as Secretary of Education, it’s almost a guarantee that, provided she stays on the full 4 years, we will see an attempt at repealing or replacing Common Core Standards, likely by bringing control of educational standards back to the states. Common Core has been a dirty word among parents and educators alike since its inception, in part because of its botched implementation (which is true), in part because people think that those asinine math problems that get shared on Facebook are directly related to Common Core (which is very false).

As someone who intends to go into education myself, I have mixed opinions about these standards. I think it’s important for there to be common national standards, since pre-Common Core the quality of education across this country was very uneven. And at least for English (I can’t really comment on math) the standards are reasonably well-written. I don’t think the implementation was effective, and I hate that the standards are so inexorably tied to high-stakes testing, but they’re not the educational scourge that many make them out to be.

That being said, an article I had to read for class on Common Core got me thinking about another flaw that I might have overlooked — that it makes arbitrary divisions between the literacy skills that a student should have at certain grade levels. The author argues that these divisions are unrealistic and can lead to a hyper-focus on skills only being taught at certain grade “checkpoints.” For example, Common Core Standards don’t expect students to differentiate between active and passive voice until eighth grade, after students have mastered the seventh grade standard of differentiating between levels of sentence complexity. Or, a student’s ability to cite relevant evidence scaffolds from “relevant facts” to “well-chosen facts” to “sufficient facts and extended definitions.” This is ridiculous. Different students will develop their writing and comprehension abilities in different ways, and there is no reason to withhold certain “relevant” skills from students until certain grades, or to hyper-focus on certain skills at certain grades.

Considering all of this, I don’t think the grade-level divisions in Common Core really work, and I think we need to reassess how we define standards for our students. The fact of the matter is that no two students will have the same intellectual capabilities, or develop certain skills at the same times, in the same ways. An honors student might be considered “career and college ready” by the ninth or tenth grade; a lower-level student might struggle to make it past seventh or eighth grade standards by the end of the high school. This is completely normal and okay. We should not expect that all of our students will reach CCR standards, and we should not expect that all of our students will (or can) evenly reach arbitrarily-defined standards checkpoints by the end of a school year, or that a number of students will surpass those checkpoints and find themselves with nowhere to go, unless teachers make a focused effort to provide enrichment activities.

What we need are a flexible set of standards that don’t tie student abilities to grade levels, but to what they can accomplish academically. In other words, while there should be tiered literacy standards, these tiers should not correspond to the grade that a student is in. A student’s growth should be measured by what they have accomplished that year. If a student starts second grade reading on a Kindergarten level and is now reading on a first grade level, the standards should reflect that. If a student starts second grade reading on a fourth grade level and is now reading on a fifth-or-sixth grade level, the standards should reflect that as well.

This, to an extent, frees teachers from teaching to a certain standard, and instead allows them to focus their curriculum each year on content. A ninth-grade English class can focus on a theme — “world cultures,” or “new beginnings,” or whatever content is deemed appropriate for ninth-graders. The class reads the same age-appropriate material, and learns necessary content, but the final work produced by students, or the independent work done by students, reflects their differing abilities, at different stages throughout the year. So by the end of the year, we can say that Billy started at a “level 6” in comprehension and a “level 5” in writing, but is now “level 7” in both, or that Jane is one-level away from being “CCR,” and should consider AP or college classes for enrichment. This gives teachers more of a chance to be independent and creative, and provides us with a better benchmark for how our students are progressing academically, and what can be done to ensure their continued progress.

I realize that I’m basically just describing differentiation, but I think part of the problem with Common Core is that it doesn’t promote differentiation in the classroom. Or, conversely, that it fails when everyone in your school is an honors student, or you’re teaching in an ICT classroom — both cases where the concept of a uniform, defined standard is problematized by the population of students in your classroom. We ask our teachers to differentiate, and yet the standards expect that, in the end, everyone reach the same benchmarks for promotion, or to pass a state test. This isn’t an effective way to teach and, frankly, leads to us failing our students more often than not.

If we’re going to repeal Common Core, fine. Educational standards and practices change all the time. But if a repeal is in the cards, let’s not replace it with more of the same. Let’s make more of a concerted effort to get things right.

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