Point – Counterpoint: Common Core

by: Douglas Grant

An insightful and comprehensive deliberation of the polarizing Common Core Standards Initiative….

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More than a decade after the implementation of the congressional act No Child Left Behind, another movement in education reform is now inchoately underway: The Common Core Standards Initiative. Common Core is a national endeavor to ensure that all U.S. students between kindergarten and twelfth grade meet the same set of criteria in both mathematics and English language arts.

The brainchild of both the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, Common Core outlines what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. A collaborative effort among teachers, administrators, and educational specialists, the standards of Common Core lay out an educational framework which is meant to bring the fifty states under one roof in education so that–statistically speaking on a national level–all of the students in this country are being held accountable for the same higher-level content that is meant to prepare them to succeed at the college level and beyond. These standards are research and evidence-based, meant to be clear and consistent, aligned with college and career expectations, based on rigorous content and application of knowledge through higher-order thinking skills, built upon the strengths and lessons of current state standards, and informed by other top performing countries.

Common Core has certainly had its share of controversy since its inception, and not all states have adopted the new standards. Federal grants are the incentive for states to adopt Common Core, but the holdout states include Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana, Virginia and Alaska. Some states have adopted the standards only to have their citizenry vocal in their fierce opposition to the initiative based on issues that are state-specific.

The truth is that Common Core is very much a social experiment that we as a country have yet to see the results of. Engaging in discussion about the finer points of Common Core could take the conversation off into a thousand different directions. Below are just some of the key issues that proponents and opponents of the initiative might debate over.

Point: The regression of K-12 public education in this country is deplorable. We are lagging behind the rest of the first-world in education, and now more than ever is a time for reform. Our students will need an edge if they are it survive in–much less compete in–a global economy. Our very jobs are being outsourced at an alarming rate. Common Core is the remedy. Its rigorous standards are just what our youth of today need to master higher-level thinking concepts. Moreover, many of these internationally benchmarked standards are technology based, and with technology skills a must in the business world of global commerce, Common Core will set our students up for success.

Counterpoint: That’s all well and good, and there’s no denying that we as a country are severely lagging in educating our youth compared to other countries,  sinking or swimming in education (depending on who you ask) on a global scale. But we need to think small before we can think big. Just look at the damage our homegrown multinational corporations and banks have done throughout the world. Will the homogenization of our public institutions help us or hurt us? This is America; what business does the federal government have telling us what we should know collectively? Value and belief systems vary from state to state. A Hawaiian student’s path to success might not be the same path as that of a student from Maine. Over-specializing the skills of our students at the national level does more harm than good. Technology based education is well conceived, but unfortunately in our country there is a touchy socio-economic discrepancy in many states that bars some students from access to said technology. Common Core’s goal is noble, but in reality the standards are vague. What we’re really dealing with here is a very broad catch-all in an attempt to bring everyone into the fold, so that we can once again not only compete globally, but lead globally. And this is why some states simply will not submit: the need to maintain some semblance of individuality coupled with the need to ensure that public schools are in no way being influenced by any kind of political agenda.

Point: Common Core standards will create a more rigorous environment in the classroom, and this might be the single most important issue the initiative addresses. Right now there is an alarming divide between what a student has mastered by the end of high school and what is expected of him or her at the college level. In other words, the value of the high school diploma has depreciated over the years, and change needs to happen now. New standardized testing under the initiative, the Smarter Balanced Assessment, will finally allow states to compare their results with each other accurately, and will save many states a great deal of money.

Counterpoint: An increase in rigor in no way benefits the millions of students who’ve already fallen behind. There is far too much pressure put on our students in terms of standardized testing. Smarter Balanced merely raises the stakes, which puts even more undue pressure on our students. Accountability has become a statistics game; these assessments have always been controversial because not everyone agrees that standardized testing is an accurate picture of what a student is capable of. There is a whole spectrum of intelligences and abilities, and some extremely gifted students simply don’t test well. High test scores equal more funding for schools, so what does that say about how we prioritize? What happens to the school from the low-income demographic that is under-resourced and under-staffed? Not to mention that this is an online test that many schools are still not technologically equipped for. The trending issue of high stakes testing has become a topic of much debate, and Common Core would have us plunge boldly ahead when we should be stopping to reevaluate the situation.

Point: The Common Core standards enhance teacher collaboration and professional development. Never before in history have American educators come together collectively to learn from one another and to improve upon the classroom experience. This national think-tank in English language arts and mathematics marks an exciting new era in American education, one where the best ideas and most proven practices are shared. It has been long overdue.

Counterpoint: We’ve all had that one teacher who changed our lives. The teacher who was unorthodox, who thought outside the box. The teacher who really got through to us when it seemed like no one else could. The teacher who refused to be institutionalized, who was teaching us invaluable life lessons while we thought we were simply being entertained. The teacher who made it easier for us to understand why we were learning what we were when the other teachers were simply teaching to the test.

Well, just wait. In the next few years as the transition to Common Core becomes streamlined and American schools become syndicated, these very teachers that we will never forget will pursue that other career they’d always considered before they decided to go into teaching. They will walk, and we won’t even have to ask ourselves why.

Point: Common Core State Standards assessments will cover multiple skills and therefore will increase critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. No longer will it be sufficient for students to provide the right answer; they must now be able to explain how they arrived at that answer by providing the processes that went into solving the problem. This will maximize higher-level thinking skills.

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Counterpoint: So in other words the ante has been upped for students who already struggle? No longer will it be sufficient for Algebra II students to use the step-by-step processes they were taught to produce the solution to the problem. Now they must be able to defend their answers, even though many of these students–who are being forced to take the class–may never be able to truly grasp many of these algebraic concepts.

For so many, education comes in the form of the processes we employ to find the answers to questions. With assessment and progress monitoring, we discover who has a real proficiency for numbers and words, and we map out their educations accordingly. What Common Core does is actually dilute this process by making everyone accountable for the same processes. That student who never showed an affinity for math skills and who’s going to attend vocational school after graduation? Well at one time he might have passed his tests, but with Common Core’s restructuring of teaching methods he became frustrated and decided to just take the F.

Retort to Counterpoint: This goes exactly to the heart of the matter: We are doing our youth a tremendous disservice by simply allowing them to slide by with their diplomas without having properly equipped them for the world beyond, which will keep turning with or without them. We understand where parents are coming from when they fear for their child’s academic success, but we need to face facts here, and the fact is this: The United States is being left behind. This a scary thought for a nation that once led the world in innovation and free-market economics. Now is the time to step-up our quality control in education and get back into the big game. Common Core makes this possible. Yes, the transition will be difficult and expensive, but the ends will justify the means. We’re on the threshold of a new era in education, one we must embrace lest we be remembered as a nation that became prosaic throughout its own complacency.

As mentioned previously, these are just some of the directions the debate might take. When discussing this topic, you risk the finer points forking into opposing side issues, and then forking again. The initiative is still in its implementation phase, and there is still a good deal to be planned and discussed to ensure that we are responsibly meeting the needs of our students. The 2013-14 school year marked the first year of Common Core’s implementation in many of the states that adopted the standards. Many parents were not pleased that their children’s educations were jeopardized in a stage of experimentation. However, there were just as many parents who are relieved to see that something is finally being done to repair our country’s ailing educational standing in the world. Only time with tell what the results will yield.

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