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Common Core: Rethinking Standards

If you haven’t been living under a rock, and you’re not still on a mental winter vacation, I am sure you have heard about the District’s plan to eventually toss the California state standards by the wayside and embrace the common core standards. Needless to say, our time of transition with the 5 Cs (which I have already forgotten… but Patrick Bernhardt reminded me that they are carat, cut, color, clarity, and collaboration) and 21st century skills has gotten a lot more, well, transitional.

First, let us discuss what common core is and why the California state standards are on their way out. Like any good student, I Googled “common core state standards” and found this mission statement on their website: “The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

I also took the time to look up the California Department of Education’s description of the content standards: “Content standards were designed to encourage the highest achievement of every student, by defining the knowledge, concepts, and skills that students should acquire at each grade level.”

There seems to be similar language between the two descriptions in terms of knowledge and skills. However, the common core mission statement makes explicit the idea of success in college and careers as well as including the phrase, “relevant to the real world.” This was a sticking point for me. It reminds me of a common question many students ask: “Do I really need to learn this?” Of course, we say “Yes.”  But then again, we are not always being entirely honest.

The question then becomes: What do students really need to know? If we want to send our children out into the world that we traverse everyday with the ability to be independent critical thinkers, what are the tools we need to give them? This is the heart of common core. From K-5 and 6-12, the common core standards attempt to create a relevant skills-based continuum that increases in rigor. It puts an emphasis on building fundamental and necessary skills that students will need in college and beyond. Never mind the curriculum itself, the focus is on those key relevant skills.

The linchpin for success is teacher buy-in. If we can guarantee certain skills at each grade level that build upon each other, then students might not feel like they constantly have to relearn how to do the same thing in new ways each year. If we can continue refining students’ abilities, and have them focus on and practice those core skills, maybe we can start to see headway in terms of improvement in capabilities. Maybe we will feel less like we oftentimes do, which is just treading water. In any case, it can’t be considered negative to discuss issues like this and try new ideas when we know not all of our students are as successful as they can and should be.

In the end, the most important thing, regardless of how you feel about common core, is that we as professionals are finally asking the hard, fundamental, and essentially right questions: What are we teaching our students? How are we teaching them? What do they really need to know? And isn’t that the behavior we ultimately want our students to exhibit as they are finding their place in this world?

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