The Secretary of Education says it. The New York Times says it. The President of the United States says it. So it must be true.
But it isn’t.
They all say that the Common Core State Standards will make graduates of our K-12 schools “college and career ready”
But they won’t.
I know the 42 Common Core Standards for English Language Arts really well.
For reading, those standards and the tests that assess those standards ask high school students to know the information in what they read, to objectively summarize what they read, to recognize elements of fiction such as plot, character, setting, point of view, and theme, to recognize elements in informational texts such as claims and evidence for the claims, to recognize structure in both kinds of texts, and to see how source materials influence later texts.
For writing, those standards and the tests that assess those standards ask high school students to write arguments in an impersonal, anonymous voice about assigned topics. The emphasis is on the writing of single draft essays. Revision will be done only “as needed” instead of as an integral part of developing thinking and improving written expression of that thinking. Students are asked to use technology to gain information for their written pieces.
We, as a country, got into the business (and it IS a business) of thinking that the purpose of K-12 education is to make graduates “college and career ready” instead of seeing learning as the means of personal fulfillment and growth or education as the means of creating an informed citizenry necessary for a functioning democracy. Education with the Common Core is regarded as a matter of national security.
The Common Core has as its major premise that those standards will insure that students are “ college and career ready” and that having all of our students “college and career ready” will then make the United States secure as an economic powerhouse.
There are three problems with that premise:
1. There is zero correlation between academic standards and the economic strength of any country.
2.The Common Core Standards have never been field-tested to ascertain if being proficient in meeting those standards means that the students will be successful in college or careers.
3. They are the wrong standards.
So what are the right standards?
There is near universal agreement, among both scholars and business leaders, about the competencies we need to teach today’s students. Not one of these competencies, however, is part of the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. Not one of these competencies is assessed on the standardized tests aligned with the Common Core.
Tony Wagner, lead scholar at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab and previously the first education fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, has written two books that discuss in depth the competencies that our students need. In The Global Achievement Gap, he interviews business leaders and asks them to tell him what they need in the people that they hire. In Creating Innovators. Wagner gives examples of what instruction that produces the needed competencies looks like.
Professor Wagner calls the competencies survival skills. The Seven Survival Skills are:
1. Critical thinking and problem solving: Approaching problems as learners as opposed to knowers, engaging in the inquiry process, asking provocative questions.
2. Collaboration: Engaging in dialogue with diverse people in order to explore questions, consider a wide range of possibilities, and identify solutions.
3. Agility and Adaptability: Being a life-long learner, being able to deal with ambiguity and new information, knowing that there are no right answers.
4. Initiative and Entrepreneurship: Taking initiative and trusting yourself to be creative.
5. Effective Written and Oral Communication: Expressing ideas with focus, clarity, and passion. Writing with a strong personal voice.
6.Assessing and Analyzing Information: Finding the important details and then saying, “ Here’s what we should do about it.”
7. Curiosity and Imagination: Being inquisitive, engaged, and interested in the world; creating something new.
What these core competencies have in common is that they are all about the construction of knowledge and the creating of personal meaning.
The Common Core Standards for English Language Arts, on the other hand, are all about the transmittal of information from teacher to student and then from student to teacher.
We can teach these competencies. I have been in English classes in the most privileged of Connecticut communities and in the neediest of Connecticut communities and have seen English teachers in both kinds of communities teaching their students those competencies. I have seen engaged and motivated students in both kinds of communities questioning, exploring, finding personal meaning, and growing as learners and thinkers as they increase their facility with those competencies. We can’t let test prep for the Common Core stop that energy, stop that rigor, or stop that learning.
Tony Wagner sums sit up:
“Increasingly in the twenty-first century, what you know is far less important than what you do with what you know. The interest in and ability to create new knowledge to solve new problems is the single most important skill that students must master today.”
Put the Common Core aside as a vestige of the past, and let educators prepare students for their future.