When it comes to education, America finds itself in a challenging position. U.S. students consistently lag around the international average in science, math, and reading comprehension. According to the latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the average scores for U.S. students are generally in the middle of the pack. In mathematics literacy, the OECD average was 494; the U.S. average score was 481, lower than 29 other education systems. In science literacy, the OECD average was 501; the U.S. average score was 497, lower than 22 other education systems. And in reading literacy, the OECD average was 496; the U.S. average score was 498, lower than 19 education systems.
Shanghai dominated the PISA exam, taking the top slot in all three subjects (613 in mathematics; 580 in science; and 570 in reading). And after the PISA results were released, many questioned why our schools can’t be more like those in Shanghai, or Singapore, or Japan.
The truth is, however, that we wouldn’t really want them to be. Test scores should never be taken alone as a proxy for the quality of a countries schools. And it is worth remembering that U.S. students have never scored at or even near the top of international assessments. In fact, there appears to be little association between test scores and national success.
But while our schools may not need to be more like those in Shanghai, it is quite difficult to accept the current American educational mediocrity. Policymakers and educators must always be taking steps toward more focused, more rigorous standards for students. This should not be a political conversation. It is about refining our educational standards to improve teaching and ensuring our children reach their potential as thinkers in a rapidly changing world.
One way that state legislators are doing so is through the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS or simply “Common Core”).
The CCSS emerged from an absolutely private and state-led effort, largely in response to the shortcomings of No Child Left Behind-era standards and assessments. The CCSS in mathematics and English Language Arts were developed in 2009 by governors and chief state school officers in association with educators and researchers. The standards were rapidly adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia, red and blue states alike.
Despite the overwhelming initial support from Republicans and Democrats, however, the initiative is poised to become a political football. As the New York Times recently noted, “Conservatives denounce it as ‘Obamacore,’ in what has become a surefire applause line for potential presidential hopefuls.” What is at stake is the classroom experience and outcomes for over 40 million kids, so its important to get the facts straight.
The Common Core is neither “one-size-fits-all” approach to education nor a federally mandated curriculum. In America today, there is no current educational standards system. Each state has its own learning standards, which get translated through thousands of districts and schools and teachers. The CCSS, by defining the minimum skills a student should master in math and English, is aimed at unifying this patchwork of efforts across the country. That does not mean, however, that the Core creates a uniform standard of instruction. Although the standards set grade-specific standards, they do not define the intervention methods or materials necessary to support students who are above or below expectations. In other words, teachers still have the flexibility and responsibility to customize instruction depending on their students’ abilities, as long as students know what the Core says they should know by year’s end.
Most importantly, the Common Core standards are designed to promote critical thinking and deeper learning. The CCSS encourages teachers to move away from memorization and to ask students to show their work. In math, for example, the Core encourages students to use mental math instead of calculators to complete number problems. And in English Language Arts courses, students will spend more of their time reading complex, non-fiction informational texts.
There are two significant issues that could derail the Common Core: over-testing students and linking students’ test scores to teacher evaluations. But if the Core is implemented effectively, it will dramatically change what it means to be a student in American public schools. Only in time will we know whether those changes are positive or negative.
The U.S. education system is long overdue for an overhaul. Give Common Core a chance. Our children are worth it. So is their future.
Photo Credit: audiolucistore on Flickr