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Common Core Standards: Good or Bad?

Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is an initiative in the United States that highlights what a student should know in language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade. The standards are meant to provide consistency across state lines while raising the academic bar—especially for states (and urban areas) that have large achievement gaps. The standards are meant to ensure that all students graduating from high school are prepared to enter credit-bearing courses at two- or four-year college programs.

The CCSS was released by the bipartisan National Governors Association for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. While initially the standards received broad, bipartisan support, this support eroded when the federal government supported adoption of the standards.

The CCSS has critics on both sides of the political aisle. Critics on the right are afraid that the CCSS is a federal control takeover of local classrooms. What the critics on the right don’t tell you is that local school districts are free to design the curricula and teachers are left to design their own methods of instruction and can select the resources best tailored to their lessons. In addition, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act forbids the federal government from intervening in school curriculum development, and states can opt, or not, to adopt the CCSS. Adoption of the standards is not mandated, so the criticism of federal takeover is moot.

Critics on the left criticize the creators as being too hasty and who did not think about long-term consequences of standards’ adoption. They also complained that there were no trials or validation before states began adopting the standards. These criticisms can also be repudiated as the creation of the standards “represent an amalgamation and integration of a dozen of years of research and practice,” confirms David Conley, professor at the University of Oregon and co-chair of the Common Core State Standards Initiative Validation Committee. The English standards were based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) frameworks in reading and writing, “which draw extensively on scholarly research and evidence,” state representatives on the Common Core website. “Mathematics standards draw on conclusions from Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and other studies of high-performing countries that the traditional mathematics curriculum must become substantially more coherent and focused in order to improve student achievement.” Clearly, a great deal of thought and research were given to the creation of these standards.

Another question can be asked, “What do we have without national standards?” With no national standards, we have states, local school districts, and even individual teachers all doing what they want, often to the detriment of the students that they are charged to educate. We see this throughout classrooms of the Minneapolis public school system. In fact, one teacher recently told me that the district can tell me how they want me to teach reading, but once the classroom door is closed, I am free to teach how I want to teach.” Due to this lack of fidelity of instruction, it’s no wonder there exists gaps in students’ basic skills acquisition. This contributes significantly to Minnesota’s achievement gap between white, suburban, middle-class students who can largely read and urban, minority students who, by and large, cannot. These disadvantaged, at-risk students require even more explicit reading instruction, something I fear they are not receiving.

Not surprisingly, our nation’s teacher unions are opposed to Common Core State Standards. They don’t want their most precious commodity, teachers (ironically instead of students), to have to be accountable to standards as this limits teachers’ academic freedom and creativity. Sadly, the union’s stand does a great disservice to at-risk students who deserve to have the academic bar raised and to have teachers be held accountable.

Standards are an inherent necessity in a civilized society. Without them, there is potential chaos and anarchy. Standards provide guidelines to ensure that people are operating from a common and level playing field. The same can be said for standards in education. Without standards in education, some students will do just fine, and some will do very poorly. With standards in education and teacher accountability that standards bring, our poorest performing students at least have a chance. How can anyone argue against that?