This May Be The Biggest Problem With America’s ‘Common Core’ Education Standards

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The Com­mon Core — a set of edu­ca­tion stan­dards adopt­ed by near­ly every U.S. state — was built on the idea that stu­dents should be able to think crit­i­cal­ly rather than just mem­o­rize mate­r­i­al for tests. It’s a good goal. A com­mon and valid crit­i­cism of Amer­i­can edu­ca­tion is that it focus­es too much on rote learn­ing and not enough on comprehension.

But the Com­mon Core and the tests tied to those stan­dards might pre­vent stu­dents from achiev­ing that goal. Those rig­or­ous tests could dis­cour­age teach­ers from being cre­ative and force them to teach to the test, accord­ing to a leg­isla­tive offi­cial in Mass­a­chu­setts who works on edu­ca­tion policy.

Com­mon Core was cre­at­ed in 2009 and is meant to even the play­ing field by giv­ing every state a uni­ver­sal set of stan­dards to mea­sure learn­ing. The pro­gram is incen­tivized with fed­er­al grant mon­ey that is giv­en to states that imple­ment the standards.

Mass­a­chu­setts is typ­i­cal­ly held up as an exam­ple of how the Com­mon Core is sup­posed to work. The state is con­sid­ered a suc­cess sto­ry, with edu­ca­tion offi­cials not­ing improv­ing test scores and read­ing skills.

But Michael Benezra, a leg­isla­tive direc­tor for the Mass­a­chu­setts Sen­ate, told Busi­ness Insid­er that the tide is turn­ing in the Bay State on both sides of the aisle.

Inside the [leg­is­la­ture], the gen­er­al atti­tude is that Com­mon Core … is insti­tu­tion­al­ized and it’s not going any­where,” Benezra said. “I’m start­ing to see the teach­ers unions and the char­ter school peo­ple kind of agree­ing on the issue that Com­mon Core needs to go.”

Com­mon Core empha­sizes crit­i­cal think­ing, and the tests are designed to test stu­dents’ com­pre­hen­sion about what they read and how they come to solu­tions for math prob­lems. The tests are so intense, tak­ing the aver­age stu­dent eight to 10 hours to com­plete. And teach­ers are under so much pres­sure to pre­pare their stu­dents to do well that instruc­tion becomes less indi­vid­u­al­ized and crit­i­cal think­ing in stu­dents can be hampered.

The reliance on test­ing pigeon­holes the teach­ers to teach only to the test,” Benezra said. “So the kids are com­ing out and what they’re learn­ing might not be con­ven­tion­al. So they might know some obscure facts about Amer­i­can his­to­ry, but they might miss why the rev­o­lu­tion started.”

Com­mon Core tests could end up defeat­ing the pur­pose of the stan­dards themselves.

I think it’s kind of coun­ter­in­tu­itive to stu­dents get­ting the big pic­ture because they’re required to test so much,” Benezra said. “In order to per­form well on the test, you have to mem­o­rize things. … You can say we’re try­ing to get them to think more crit­i­cal­ly and read close­ly … but at the end, the stu­dents take a test, they don’t write a long essay where they’re forced to think deeply about the issue.”

The New York Times explains the think­ing behind the new processes:

It was no longer suf­fi­cient for stu­dents to mem­o­rize mul­ti­pli­ca­tion tables. They had to demon­strate exact­ly what three times five meant by shad­ing in squares on a grid. If the top­ic was frac­tions, they would slide around neon-col­ored tiles on their desks until they could prove that three-quar­ters was the same as six-eighths.

An Atlanta teacher told BI last month that these stan­dards could also make strug­gling stu­dents feel defeat­ed and give up altogether.

She wrote: “One thing the Com­mon Core cur­ricu­lum stress­es is read­ing infor­ma­tion­al texts — this seems real­ly prac­ti­cal, and I like that focus. It asks that kids do close read­ing and answer text-based ques­tions with evi­dence from the text. But my kids are read­ing so far below grade lev­el that they just shut down and feel defeated.”