When I first heard a presentation on the Common Core, the new national standards to upgrade public schools and prepare students for 21st century challenges, I thought, “Oh, no,” another education fad. The list of innovations to make schools better is long and ever changing since reading, writing and arithmetic in the one-room school house. There was teaching to the whole child, open classrooms and team teaching, multi-culturism to replace the melting pot, no phonics, yes phonics (why Johnny can’t read), new math (Why Johnny can’t add), magnet schools, immersion programs, etc. History used to stand by itself but now it is folded into the social sciences which can include almost anything.
Arithmetic and spelling, while still taught, are obsolete with a calculator or computer spell check. But mathematics and writing skills count more than ever.
Unfortunately there has been a trend to dumb down education in the United States to make learning more accessible, some critics say. Results show that overall our kids are not doing as well as they should compared to other industrialized countries. Students in some states do much better than students in other states. Since everyone agrees education is critical to ensure a viable democratic government and a prospering economy, upgrading standards seems like a no-brainer.
But like almost everything else, it has become a political football. “With tensions running high over issues surrounding academic benchmarks, standardized testing and performance evaluations for educators, unlikely coalitions of teachers, lawmakers and parents from the left and the right are increasingly banding together to push back against what they see as onerous changes in education policy. Some have Tea Party Republicans and teachers unions on the same side.” (The New York Times, May 27, 2014).
For the tea party people, it’s another unwelcome federal government intrusion. For the unions, it’s a threat to jobs if tests get harder, students don’t do as well and teachers are evaluated on student performance.
What is the Common Core? It’s a set of standards for kindergarten through high school written by a panel of experts convened by governors and state superintendents. The focus is on critical thinking and analysis rather than memorization and formulas. The idea is to ensure that students generally learn the same thing in public schools across the country — to reduce high remediation rates at colleges and universities and help students compete for jobs which demand higher levels of skills than previous generations. According to Michael Kirst, president of the California Board of Education, the Common Core will focus on key knowledge students need in a logical sequence. Fourth-grade math concentrates on fractions since they are the key to algebra. Algebra is the gateway to probability, statistics and higher mathematics. New standards for reading and writing help students gradually understand more and more challenging texts. They will be expected to compose arguments based on evidence and research; they will write less about their feelings and more about what they can prove. Forty-four of the 50 states and the District of Columbia are members of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, with the states of Texas, Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska and Indiana not adopting the initiative at a state level.
Implementation is up to the states. Success will depend on how well teachers are trained and adapt to the new standards. In the beginning, I was not a complete fan of the Common Core, but understand the need. This is more than a fad. It’s a plan to address a national crisis. When I read whose against it, I am more enthusiastically for it.
Big news for football fans: Y.A. Tittle, San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants legend — seven pro bowls, four MVPs and 1971 inductee into the NFL Hall of Fame — will be the guest of honor at the History Makers dinner this fall. The event, sponsored by the San Mateo County Historical Association, will be Oct. 22. The famous quarterback has been a resident of Atherton since retiring. Master of ceremonies will be NFL official Jim Tunny. Better order your tickets early. It is sure to be a sellout.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs in the Monday edition. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.