“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” — Benjamin Franklin
Enter the Common Core State Standards. In 2009, after years of declining student achievement, rising high school and college dropout rates and students entering but unable to compete in the global job market, these new, national standards were offered to states as a way to place our students on an equal path toward academic success and college and career readiness.
The standards were informed by the best state standards already in existence, the experience of teachers, content experts, states, leading thinkers and feedback from the public. On Aug. 2, 2010, the California State Board of Education adopted the standards after lengthy discussion and public input.
These new standards differ from the California standards we’ve known for the past 17 years because they ask us to focus on evidence of student learning, helping students raise their literacy levels, teaching higher-level thinking skills, fostering learning confidence and independence, and teaching fewer concepts more deeply at each grade level.
As educators, we hear from parents and community members every day, and everyone wants the same thing for their children: to learn the skills necessary to be prepared for college or career, to be competitive in a 21st Century global market and to become competent thinkers and contributing members of our society. This is exciting, since this is exactly what the Common Core State Standards emphasize.
What are the Common Core Standards? They are a set of expectations that students are expected to learn at each grade level. The standards are not a curriculum. In a recent article published by The Union, Jan Collins was quoted as saying, “The curriculum should be under local control because nobody knows our children and our students more than the teachers that teach them every day.”
We could not agree more.
Lucky for us, the Common Core Standards establish what students need to learn but do not dictate the curriculum used or how teachers should teach. Those decisions are determined solely by our local districts.
How will our students benefit from a national set of standards? For decades, students in every state have been held to vastly different sets of expectations, some states more rigorous than others. As a child who moved to five different states during her K-12 education, as many in our military are required to do, Shar can tell you that it has a profound impact on a student’s ability to transition successfully into new learning environments. Parents have concerns that our students are not entering the work force or college prepared to compete globally, and yet we have not held our students to the same set of real-world expectations across our United States. These standards unite our states with a common set of expectations but leave the curriculum and how those standards are taught to local control.
Are the Common Core Standards abandoning classical literature and basic arithmetic? Absolutely not. In fact, the English language arts standards require analysis of rich literature, as well as developing skills in critical thinking, reading, writing and speaking across the curricular areas. The emphasis of teaching literacy does not fall solely to English teachers. In math, the Common Core Standards focus on procedural and problem-solving strategies while demanding mastery and automaticity with basic facts, algorithms and the understanding of critical arithmetic skills. By focusing on fewer topics in a more in-depth way, students learn to think, not just memorize and regurgitate facts.
Our job is to educate our children for tomorrow’s challenges. To quote an unknown author, “You can’t expect to meet the challenges of today with yesterday’s tools and expect to be in business tomorrow.” The Common Core Standards are an example of a transformative and powerful change for our students.
As Benjamin Franklin and our Founding Fathers discovered, great change can bring a peak of unease, frustration and resistance but is often tempered by the promise of amazing possibilities on the other side: the possibilities for “improvement, achievement and success.”
Shar Johns is associate superintendent for educational services and Kathleen Kiefer is director of curriculum, instruction and accountability with the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Office.