By Pam Allyn, LitLife Inspiration Director
A firestorm has erupted around the Common Core Standards. Parents across the country have joined together to create an “opt out” movement, protesting time consuming standardized test preparation and assessment requirements that feel inhumane and developmentally unsound.
Many might think the Common Core Standards themselves dictate such practices. But this is not the case. Let us protest too much inauthentic and joy-stealing test preparation, but let us not miss the opportunity the Common Core Standards provide us to close a catastrophic learning and opportunity gap for every child, and to give every child a far richer classroom experience. Let us not opt out of the Common Core.
The Common Core debuted in 2010, when the National Governors Association commissioned a set of standards to build coherence in instruction and academic achievement across grade levels and zip codes. The Common Core is a bill of rights for learning and teaching, the first of its kind for literacy and math in the history of public education. It lays out a road map for the child’s academic journey through school, creating a safety net whereby teachers can compare outcomes, plan curriculum and assure a more continuous experience for the learning child.
Protest inhumane test prep, yes. Protest unfair and harsh assessment of teachers based on just one test score, yes. Protest the lack of access to resources and materials needed for children to meet standards. But let us stand up together for the Common Core itself, which stands up for the learning rights of every child, for equal access to resources and for professional development for teachers that will help them best meet the needs of all children in the 21st century.
State departments of education launched the Common Core by mandating assessments and linking them to teacher evaluations. In this crucial way, they put the cart before the horse. This all happened before ensuring that all schools had the resources needed (books and technology to start) and before training teachers effectively in new methodologies and best practices for the new era. This was not sensible. It was like demanding that everyone run a marathon without providing any time to exercise, build routine and stamina. It was like not providing basic running shoes to run that same hard race.
This misstep is an underlying cause for the confusion and anger towards the Common Core. I want to help correct the misunderstandings in the hopes that we can rally behind the standards themselves, so they can do the work I want them to do: close the learning gap.
Misunderstanding: The Common Core Standards are a test. Fact: The standards are a set of outcomes. (For example: “By the end of first grade, a student should be able to “use illustrations and details in a story to describe its characters, setting, or events”.) The standards clearly articulate goals for children as learners and outline well defined and robust skills in literacy and math. Yet districts jumped straight to assessing rather than implementing the standards through Common Core aligned curriculum and professional development.
I agree that excessive test prep and time spent testing disengages children, takes them away from genuine learning experiences, and produces results that are often not reflective of what students actually know and are able to do.
Let me be very clear: the Common Core does not harm children — the effects of the over-emphasis of preparation for standardized testing that have become conflated with the Common Core can cause harm.
Misunderstanding: The Common Core is a federally mandated curriculum that limits what schools can teach. Fact: The standards never, not once, dictate any curriculum or mandate any lesson plans. The standards do not so much as mention a specific book title that a teacher must teach. The standards specify what students must achieve, but educators are meant to work collaboratively in their schools to determine the best way to get there. They can create their own curriculum or choose to purchase Common Core aligned programs. They can choose the texts they love and that children love to help them meet the expectations of the standards. The standards provide a blueprint for analysis of these programs, helping educators to make sound decisions.
Misunderstanding: The standards are too rigorous, too intense and place unrealistic demands on children. Fact: The standards are purposefully designed with a child’s choice and voice in mind. Emphasis is placed upon a variety of writing types (narrative, informational and opinion writing). Speaking and listening skills and tools for collaboration are valued. Students are encouraged to develop critical thinking skills, not just responding to the “how” and “what” of a text, but to their own “why” questions. In the primary grades, the standards emphasize literacy as critical thinking but also as building and creating, as conversation and storytelling. The core heartbeat of the standards is that each child will reach independence. The role of independent practice, meaningful experience with authentic materials and a child’s own choices all play a vital role in the standards.
It seems as if the Common Core Standards themselves are provoking unnatural testing environments for children. But they are not. It is how some loud voices (very few of those actual educators or children or parents) interpret them that is provoking this kind of environment. It is time to tell a new Common Core story. Stories about how students are now given more access to authentic and diverse texts in the classroom, are being encouraged to talk more about the deeper ideas in the texts, are encouraged to do the kind of research that matters in their own lives, are given the opportunity to share their opinions in ways that enhance their skills. Stories about how families at home can also be Common Core ambassadors, listening to and sharing stories with their children, all a critical component of what the standards value.
The Common Core Standards are a once in a generation transformational moment for public education. Let’s use the standards as a clarion call for equity and opportunity for every child. No matter her zip code, she has the human right to an education that makes her truly college and career ready and well prepared for engaged citizenship. She has the right to experience the joy of learning and knowledge building in the 21st century.