Quality Education for All
For the past year, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) have been coordinating an effort to develop a set of academic standards to be implemented at elementary and secondary schools across the country. The Common Core Standards Initiative arose out of the educational crisis brewing in America's public schools - students are chronically underprepared for college or the workplace when they graduate from high school. The U.S. Department of Education reports that at least a third of incoming college freshman in the 2007-2008 school year had to take remedial classes just to catch up to college-level coursework.
Although the quality of K-12 education is suffering across the country, the issues aren't necessarily evenly distributed. Academic standards at public schools are so inconsistent that students in one school could be getting an excellent education, while their peers in another school just miles away are being left in the dust. While these differences don't necessarily follow obvious lines - suburban vs. inner-city, for example - it's not hard to see that it's the low-income children in underfunded and overcrowded schools who bear the brunt of the problem.
This is where the Common Core Standards Initiative comes in. The NGA Center and the CCSSO saw a need to raise academic standards at all schools in order to give children equal access to the opportunities that come with a better education. With the input of teachers, school administrators, education experts, parents and others with a stake in American public education, the Initiative has worked to develop a set of standards in English and math that are:
- Aligned with college and workplace expectations
- Clear, understandable and consistent
- Evidence and research-based
- Inclusive of rigorous content and the application of knowledge through high-order skills
- Building upon the strengths and lessons of current state standards
- Informed by other high performing countries so that all students are prepared to succeed in the global economy
The standards focus on key knowledge and skill benchmarks that students should achieve in each year, from kindergarten through grade 12. Students who meet these benchmarks should be fully prepared for either college or career upon graduating from high school.
In addition to the grade-specific guidelines for mathematical content, the final document offers eight general skills that students should acquire via mathematical practice:
- Making sense of problems and persevering in solving them
- Reasoning abstractly and quantitatively
- Constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others
- Modeling problems and concepts with mathematics
- Using appropriate tools strategically
- Using precise means of communication
- Looking for and utilizing structure
- Identifying and expressing regularity in repeated reasoning
The 'English' standards actually encompass English language arts and literacy in history, social studies, science and technical subjects. They focus on reading comprehension and a broad range of communication and analytical skills. Grade-specific guidelines are offered from kindergarten through grade 8, but the high school guidelines are separated into 'bands' for grades 9-10 and 11-12 in order to allow more flexibility in curriculum design.
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The Next Step
Inevitably, there has been a lot of resistance along the way. Many critics see the standards as an attempt to 'nationalize' public education. For some, this means pushing a federal agenda into an area that is traditionally regulated by the states. For others, it means creating a one-size-fits-all approach that would stifle educational innovation, forcing teachers to 'teach to the standards' regardless of their students' individual needs, much like many feel that standardized tests force them to 'teach to the test.'
Cognizant of these concerns, the organization released the first draft of the standards for public comment back in March. Knowing that the document was limited in many ways - the standards set goals but don't offer guidelines on how to teach to them - the organization specifically solicited feedback from teachers on how to keep the standards realistic and teachable without sacrificing either academic rigor or room for diverse educational needs and teaching styles.
Since releasing the first draft, the Initiative carefully refined the standards documents. On June 2nd, they officially released the final draft of the Common Core State Standards at Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee, GA. The event marked the conclusion of the first stage of the project - the development of the standards - and the beginning of the second, equally important stage: implementation. At the release of the standards, Dr. Eric J. Smith, Florida Commissioner of Education, noted, 'We are entering the most critical phase of the movement for Common Core State Standards. It is now up to states to adopt the standards and carry on the hard work of the educators and community leaders that worked to develop them.'
Although the Department of Education can't force states to sign on to this set of standards, adopting college- and career-readiness standards has become a growing trend among public high schools in the last five years. Supporters of the Initiative hope that this will soon translate into the adoption of common standards at all levels of public education.
Mindful of the importance of K-12 education for college success, higher education groups are also coming out in support of the Initiative. On the occasion of the unveiling of the final draft, a large coalition of national higher education organizations released a statement praising the release of the standards. The statement declares that 'we believe the completion of these standards represents an important step toward realizing President Obama's goal of making the United States the world's leader in educational attainment and are grateful to the governors and chief state school officers for their leadership in making these standards a reality.' Some 23 higher ed organizations endorsed the letter.