Is Common Core the Answer to American Education?

Remember when you were a kid and occasionally someone would bring the teacher an apple? Me neither, but you’ve definitely heard of it happening before. The apple has become a symbol of American education, which needs to be healthy and efficient for our society to prosper. The core of our education system, just like an apple’s core, needs to be strong or else it will fall apart and wither. Today, Claremont Radius writers Jessica Kim and Max Sickinger will debate the implementation and benefits of the Common Core, and whether the core of this fruit would be sweet or toxic.
Ross ReggioSection Editor

FOR

The Common Core, as defined by the official website of Common Core State Standards, is a “set of high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (ELA) outlining what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade [1]”. The purpose of the common core was to create consistency across the fifty states about what skills or standards a high school graduate needed to possess. The Common Core is currently implemented, voluntarily, in forty-two states, the District of Columbia, and four territories. These standards were created under the direction of instructors and standards experts from around the country using evidence and international education benchmarks to create a competitive, yet achievable set of guidelines [2]. These standards are motivating because, even as a leading country, the United States falls short in educational rankings.

The rigorous standards improve the quality of the classroom. The standards put in place are a check on what the teachers are expected to teach. While teachers still have free reign over how they teach the material or what exactly they want to focus on, it is necessary for teachers and students to meet certain criterion. By ensuring that each student is learning and each teacher is teaching the minimum requirements at each grade level, we create a collaborative and more efficient learning and working environment. Just in the classroom, teachers will no longer have to spend a month at the beginning of each school year trying to review material or “see where each student is” because students may have had different teachers the year prior. Instead, teachers can expect that all students have a similar benchmark understanding and can be pushed forward from there. In smaller schools, we see that there is more collaboration amongst the teachers both in the same discipline and across disciplines. As such, the teachers are aware of what has been taught and how to build on that material.

This type of collaboration among teachers in large, typically public, schools, while currently a challenge, would be facilitated by these Common Core Standards. There is potential for more collaboration within disciplines and across disciplines. Instructors would also be able to save considerable time, money, and resources by sharing open-source material and taking advantage of cross-state opportunities that come from sharing consistent standards [3].  The adoption of common core standards would be particularly useful in schools that do not place adequate pressure on teachers to ensure students are learning the material. The teachers will now be held accountable for a certain set of standards that they are required to teach.

This consistency not only benefits students and teachers at one school but also provides additional consistency between teachers across the United States. If a student moves from California to Colorado, the teacher in Colorado can expect the student to have mastery over the same material as all the other students in the same grade. The consistency eases the transition of many students moving between schools — a transition that is already very difficult for students who may be adjusting to the new area, homesickness, or difficulty making new friends. Additionally, if students decide to go to university, then professors will have an accurate idea of what the students already have mastery over. Especially when universities are made up of students from all around the United States, a consistent benchmark of knowledge will aid professors in teaching new material.

Especially in math, the standards encourage learning the application of skills and material beyond simple formulas. The integrated material fills “gaps in student learning” according to Aruna Renduchintala, Head of Mathematics Department at Northwood High School. Students incorrectly think that rote memorization of the formulas and “plug-and-chug” methods will lead to an understanding of the material when, in fact, deeper conceptual links are needed to fully master the concepts. Renduchintala says, “This becomes problematic later when students are expected to apply their knowledge to real life or abstract problems in higher quantitative courses.” As an instructor, she explains that “Students lack a connected structural knowledge base [4].” Rightfully so, it is true that in higher level STEM courses, problems are not strictly “Algebra” or “Geometry,” but rather a combination of the two to solve a larger issue. Cultivating this skill early on by teaching concepts so that they are integrated alleviates the confusion students may feel when they try to “put it all together.” Students would not only be prepared for more advanced courses but also well-equipped with the skills needed to solve real-world problems.

"The integrated material fills gaps in student learning."

Additionally, the method of testing whether or not the standards have been reached is much more effective than the current system. The Common Core exams will be done on computers, and the test will be adaptive. These exams will be easier and faster to grade allowing for more immediate feedback to students. The test will also adapt based on the skill level of the student giving a more accurate representation of the concepts that the student has mastered or still needs assistance with. The exams themselves should also take less time because they are tailored to each student. Less time spent taking exams means there is more time devoted to learning new material or strengthening understanding of existing material. Because each exam is individualized and graded by the computer, issues of cheating will be drastically reduced or more easily caught because the tests are individualized.

Overall, the added consistency of learning material is a benefit to the student and the teacher when learning or teaching new material. The Common Core Standards save time and money allowing for greater growth in the students.

Jessica KimStaff Writer

AGAINST

Bells, rules, short breaks, and a boss who you hate. That’s life…no? And it starts early. From age 5 onward, American youth are subjected to the remnants of an archaic factory system. Students are forced to sit in neat rows until they are dismissed by a bell, they are given short breaks, and they are told what to think for 8 hours a day. This system is outdated and ineffective, and it shows in the United States’ constantly plummeting academic ranking [5]. If the US wants to prepare its youth for the future, it needs to train students to look forward. The first step in this process is the rehabilitation of the federally set curriculum.

In an ideal world, a federally set school curriculum could both foster widespread academic achievement and facilitate equal educational opportunity. But, I’m 5’8”, and Donald Trump is president, so we obviously do not live in an ideal world. In reality, the federally set curriculum fails because of standardized testing. These tests, designed to hold teachers accountable and provide national oversight into academic performance, unfortunately act to the opposite effect. Teachers are encouraged to teach to the test, debate and dialogue are swept under the rug in favor of fact, and students are forced to memorize, rather than learn. Ironic…isn’t it?

Students should no longer be forced to memorize facts. Memorization is time-consuming, short-lasting, and inefficient. If students want facts, they should use google. Rather than diverting precious school hours, which are constantly cut to meet shrinking budgets, to route memorization, teachers should focus on developing students’ critical thinking, problem-solving, and writing. These skills, though difficult to test, are exponentially more important in both collegiate and professional settings than knowing the date of the Stamp Act of 1775.

Test results are flawed indicators of teacher performance. Some teachers are bound to have better test scores than others. But, in a federal system, how do we reconcile these gaps? Some states, including Washington D.C., have implemented programs that tie teacher salaries to students scores [6]. This method of rectification is proven to fail. A Vanderbilt study, which awarded bonuses to teachers with high student test performance, failed to produce results above those of the control group [7]. Additionally, this incentive-based methodology dissuades talented individuals from pursuing teaching careers, as it produces anxiety for teachers whose livelihoods are annually jeopardized, not results.

Finally, standardized testing negates emotional and social learning. Social skills are more important than any grade or extracurricular activity. Humor, confidence, creativity, and interpersonal skills are key to youth personal development. Recent studies have correlated social and emotional learning with both academic and career success [8]. But because the development of these skills does not improve test scores, schools ignore them. National testing doesn’t account for them, so why should teachers care?

"We must allow for academic freedom."

The necessity of common education comes down to one question: Trust. More specifically: Do we trust our teachers and students? Do we believe that the goal of every teacher is to expand their students’ minds, both intellectually and socially?

If we do, we must allow for academic freedom. Teachers must be freed from the constraints of standardized tests. This freedom will allow teachers to utilize their individual skills, thereby improving the academic environment. Moreover, this freedom must be married with student input. The largest obstacle to student learning is apathy. American students are bored in class because they are forced to learn but are never told why. If we want students to learn and improve, they must play a direct role in their education. Individual courses should be tailored to the interests of those students, allowing them to succeed in the areas about which they care. This form of education directly contradicts federal set curriculums and testing.

If we do not trust our teachers, we must scrutinize the process by which teachers are hired and retained, rather than patch holes on a common education system doomed to fail. We must create processes to ensure that the best and brightest want to train the leaders of the future. Finland, for instance, recently created a program that mandates “arts and crafts, more learning by doing, rigorous standards for teacher certification, higher teacher pay, and attractive working conditions [9]”. Teacher positions are now highly sought after, and Finland is among the best in the world in student academic performance. If the United States wants to succeed, it must follow suit and create a system in which students are encouraged to debate, critically think, and problem solve, rather than simply belch information into little bubbles graded by a scantron.

Max SickingerStaff Writer

REBUTTAL - AGAINST

The first half of Ms. Kim’s argument impressed me. It is well written and documents the issues I believe are crucial to the discussion of common education. Unfortunately, it misconstrues these issues and exemplifies backward thinking. Ms. Kim argues that “schools that do not place adequate pressure on teachers to ensure students are learning the material”. She claims that standardized tests, which enforce the rigorous academic standards espoused by Common Core, are thus necessary to keep teachers on track. As explained in my previous argument, this argument is based out of a lack of trust of teachers. It assumes that teachers are lazy, untalented and to some degree inept. Ms. Kim also claims that teachers are still able to utilize their personal talent and explore the issues that they find most interesting in a common education system. I disagree. Under this system, teachers are encouraged to touch on the topics most common on the exams and because in many cases their livelihoods depend on it, they have little choice. They are therefore left with little creative and academic freedom. Because of this, talented individuals are dissuaded from pursuing teaching careers, creating a vicious cycle that degrades the quality of classroom learning.

"Talented individuals are dissuaded from pursuing teaching careers, creating a vicious cycle that degrades the quality of classroom learning."

The second half of Ms. Kim’s argument is well-reasoned but does not fully provide a case for common education. Her most impressive argument surrounds student transfers between states. For these students, common educational standards would aid in their transition. I have no argument against this. However, her arguments surrounding testing do not relate to common education. They relate to testing as a whole. Tests on computers that adapt to student answers in order to most fully assess student knowledge are not inherent to common core. In fact, they could be most fully utilized to negate differences in different teaching styles in a non-common core program, adapting to test students on the concepts with which they are familiar. Additionally, Ms. Kim provides no evidence that the common core’s methods for testing mathematics encourage critical and abstract problem solving, she simply claims they do. Once again, this method is not only possible in a common core program. There is no reason that individual math teachers could link these topics together.

Overall, Ms. Kim provides a compelling but lacking argument, which fails to utilize evidence efficiently and therefore does not provide a strong case for common education.

Max SickingerStaff Writer

REBUTTAL - FOR

Mr. Sickinger is correct in saying that the US should prepare its students to look forward in order to prepare for the future. But there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what Common Core really is. Common Core is not a federally set curriculum. It is a set of guidelines and goals for what each student should master before moving on to the next grade level. According to the common core website, teachers have full control over how the material can be taught. There is a distinction between the standards, what needs to be learned, versus the curriculum, how the material is taught.

 

Mr. Sickinger then moves to argue that Common Core fails because of standardized testing. However, once again, there is a lack of understanding about how these “standardized tests” will be implemented. When analyzing the tests, it is apparent that they are not truly “standard” in the traditional sense. Like I stated in my argument, standardized testing under common core would be on the computer through adaptive testing. This type of testing gives each student an individualized test based on their responses allowing for a more accurate portrayal of the student’s mastery or misunderstandings. In fact, this type of testing reduces time spent taking exams and increases time spent improving understanding. Because teachers cannot necessarily control what will be on the exams, they are incentivized and encouraged to teach a thorough understanding of the material instead of “teaching to the test.”

The current educational system promotes rote memorization, a simple application of routinely memorized math equations, and an absence of true understanding. Once again, Mr. Sickinger fails to understand that the common core guidelines promote a more holistic learning style that can also place emphasis on “creativity and interpersonal skills.” Quoting an instructor at Northwood High School, Ms. Renduchintala believes that the common core guidelines are necessary for a “connected structural knowledge base” and “deeper conceptual links.” Proponents of true material mastery and elimination of “plug-and-chug” methods are proponents of the Common Core Guidelines. Additionally, though all teachers may be expected to teach Concept Z, whether this is taught through a presentation, creative film, or practice worksheets is completely under the discretion of the instructor. Instead of being bored in class and failing to see the application to the real world, the more integrated style of learning the material can lead to more engaging applications of concepts and deeper understanding. While we want students to follow their passions, we want to ensure that every student is competent in the basic skills necessary in a workplace or university environment. Common Core is not the ceiling. Teachers and students can always learn more and do more; Common Core is just the baseline.

"We want to ensure that every student is competent in the basic skills necessary in a workplace or university environment."

Test results being connected to teacher performance is not relevant to the discussion of whether these guidelines should be implemented.Regardless of whether it is fair to base teacher salaries on student test scores or not, it would be fairer for all educators to be held at universal standards. I would even claim that increased pay would incentivize more qualified people to pursue teaching which would produce not only better test scores but also a deeper insight into the concepts. But that’s another debate.

Overall, it’s clear that Common Core is a step in the right direction to create more equality in education and foster growth and deeper understanding of concepts while simultaneously learning to apply these concepts to real-world situations.

Jessica KimStaff Writer

Sources and Notes

Featured Image Source: "old school" by alamosbasement— Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commons — https://flic.kr/p/6r26iv

[1] http://www.corestandards.org/
[2] http://www.corestandards.org/
[3] http://www.corestandards.org/
[4] Aruna Renduchintala, Mathematics Head of Department, Northwood High School
[5] https://rankingamerica.wordpress.com/category/education/
[6] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/dc-program-ties-teacher-salaries-to-student-test-scores/
[7] http://parentsacrossamerica.org/performancepay/
[8] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-wide-wide-world-psychology/201701/why-child-s-social-emotional-skills-are-so-important
[9] https://newrepublic.com/article/82329/education-reform-finland-us

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