Underneath the Common Core

The debate rages on about the effectiveness of the Common Core State Standards Initiative on a local, state and national level. The Common Core, developed to address a “lack of standardization” in curricula and testing across the nation, has been adopted by 45 states to “ensure students are prepared for today’s entry-level careers, freshman-level college courses, and workforce training programs.” According to CCSS website, Common Core “focuses on developing the critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills students will need to be successful.”

In Connecticut, the CCSS were adopted unanimously in July 2010. Nearly 4 years later, local districts are still striving for successful implementation. In fact, just last week CT Governor Daniel Malloy created a special taskforce to identify recommendations for improving the implementation process.

Bill Gates also weighed in as he called on educators at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington D.C. to defend the Common Core. As reported by The Huffington Post, “consistency of the Common Core across states,” Gates argued, “is a key ingredient in its potential success. Under older standards, a student from Kentucky didn’t have to know the quadratic formula, but a neighbor in Tennessee did.”  As Gates himself opined, “maybe we can’t answer every tweet or post, but the authoritative voice on this is teachers.”

As the controversy surrounding what is considered baseline “knowledge” continues, a group of Greenwich Education Group educators weighed in with their views on 21st century essential skills—among them critical thinking, common sense, the ability to question, self-advocacy, self-worth and self-esteem. 

Common Sense:

“Students should be able to apply common sense in a classroom setting” believes Dr. John Henderson, Head of the Mathematics and Science Departments for the GEG Schools. In addition, Henderson feels that students should “demonstrate logical reasoning through complex problem solving using discussion, word problems, and hands-on activity-based learning as a metric.” A physicist by training, Henderson encounters many students who can memorize facts and formulas, but can’t step back and take a big-picture, common-sense view of the situation. Without the ability to contextualize the topic, students will struggle to progress from being expert test-takers to being true scientific innovators.

Responsibility & Self-Advocacy:

Samantha Steele, an English/Elementary Educator for GEG, feels schools should also focus on social and behavioral skills. “At the lower grades, homework completion, using self-advocacy skills with friends and teachers, following directions and classroom responsibility” are essential.

For older students, however, Steels raises an issue which has unfortunately recently come to forefront, “students should be required to show proficiency in recognizing signs of bullying and dealing with bullying when it occurs. We might have fewer bullies if we address it as a subject in school from an early age.”

Self-Worth & Self-Esteem:

Allison Tables, Life Coach at The Spire School, had similar views regarding the importance of self-knowledge as a foundation to success: “Students must have a sense of self-worth and self-acceptance as a basis for all future endeavors.” Tables cites these as essential life and social-emotional skills for students.  As an educator, she feels, “it is important for us to provide our students with opportunities to give them a greater sense of self-acceptance. In order for students to truly care about others, focus on their work, fine tune a passion, etc., they must feel that they matter.”

The Ability To Question:

“The one standard I would like to see added across all subject is formulating questions,” proposed Katherine Henderson, Mathematics and Latin Educator at the GEG Schools. Students are often taught that school is about answering questions, but the ability to ask insightful questions is the cornerstone of disciplinary understanding.

In her math classes, Henderson emphasizes logic, mathematical representation, and problem-solving strategies—all elements that she believes could be standardized as well. Finally, Henderson suggests that cross-curricular connections (e.g., between science and math) could be codified in the standards to promote a deeper level of comprehension.

Critical Thinking & A Sense of Skepticism:

Diane Ferber, Director of The Collaborative Center for Learning and Development at GEG, feels that students must develop critical thinking skills and a sense of skepticism. Ferber explains that there has been a “shift from memorization to critical thinking thanks to the Internet and on-demand retrieval of facts. We now send students to the Internet to find opinions and information.” However, Ferber states, “we are not overtly teaching students how to use the source of the information to understand slant, bias, or agenda. For example, there is a difference when getting information from a site ending in .edu vs. .com.”

As an example, she points to the political arena and the need to research the true author of articles. “Opinion, agenda, objectivity all vary by site,” she explains, “but many students are taught to use the Internet as we would have used an encyclopedia with the expectation of correctness, fact, balance.”

Ferber further explains, “a core skill is understanding the point of view and sources of information on the Internet, and its implication for the objectivity and reliability of the material, and so the implications for our own interpretation and application of what we read.” The teaching of knowledge doesn’t stop at content, but now must include the questioning of the source of such knowledge.

The rollout of the CCSS has raised the question of what knowledge students must be taught, but the debate that has ensued has also highlighted that there is no unanimity of view about what are the truly necessary skills.  Is it a knowledge of facts? Skills in questioning and a sense of skepticism? Or is it important to have social skills grounded in a sense of self-worth?  The debate is that much more difficult because all of these are attributes any parent would want to see their child possess.  The truth is that finding common standards for children who are all unique in their own rights is probably something that will forever elicit debate among educators, politicians and parents.