By Maria Altepeter / Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society -
The recent implementation of the Common Core standards in an increasing number of states has given rise to debates and controversy about both the necessity and effectiveness of such standard-based curriculums.
In effort to “help prepare students for college, career, and life,” the Common Core standards have attempted to increase the skills and information that students are to acquire during their K-12 education. Such higher demands have proven effective (at least in terms of test scores) for some demographics (for instance, see here for the success that Massachusetts schools have had), but there is reason to think that the students who are suffering from poor education most are not reaping the benefits of Common Core. In fact, we shouldn’t just think that it is proving ineffective for such disadvantaged students, but also additionally that it is decreasing their academic success.
In a recent Business Insider article, an inner city teacher explains her skepticism of the Common Core:
[M]y students struggle with basic proficiency in many areas. Our high school's graduation rate was 43% last year — and of the kids who did graduate, they will most certainly struggle even if they do go on to college. To me, our main focus needs to be giving kids the basic skills in functional literacy and mathematics so they can graduate or get GEDs, which ultimately is their best pathway to opportunity.
When we try to implement Common Core, we find that the level of rigor is much higher, which is great for kids who are ready. One thing the Common Core curriculum stresses is reading informational texts — this seems really practical, and I like that focus. It asks that kids do close reading and answer text-based questions with evidence from the text. But my kids are reading so far below grade level that they just shut down and feel defeated. Also, as far as I know, Common Core doesn't really address the needs of students with disabilities.
Given that many disadvantaged children do not have the necessary skills (such as basic reading and math skills) to actually learn and benefit from what is being taught and tested in the Common Core, rather than having such children learn something, they are not learning anything at all. Teaching a high schooler calculus when she does not know addition is a recipe for failure.
This teacher points out something important: Certain kids – particularly those with learning disabilities or those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds – are in a different place than their advantaged, well-off peers. While children in Massachusetts may thrive with the Common Core, we should expect that children from inner-city New York who lack tutors, extracurricular academic clubs, summer programs, an intact family, and financial resources will be so underprepared for such a rigorous curriculum that they will be incapable of learning much of anything from their textbooks and teachers.
While some might think that it is always a good thing to see at least some students doing better, we would be mistaken to think that the worst-off should not be of our greatest concern. If advantaged children are scoring 24s rather than 23s on their ACTs, but the scores of disadvantaged children are decreasing and so minimizing the chances of graduating and entering college, we have a big problem. If we have such benevolent aims of helping the worst off (and it seems like we typically do), then surely we cannot continue to implement a curriculum that is not only ineffective at helping the worst off, but disadvantages them even more.
It seems like we have two solutions here: 1) Implement a one-size-fits-all-curriculum, where such implementation requires that students are of the same caliber, have the same support, and are capable of learning the same material, or 2) Allow for a more flexible curriculum, accommodating children where they are at. Many criticize the Common Core because a one-size-fits-all curriculum can never work for all children, given different learning styles. Yet, even if this is a concern, I don’t think this should be our only concern, for there are differences present that go beyond just different methods of learning. If the government wants to implement national standards which require such uniform learning, the state must also make sure that such (controllable) background factors are equalized. For instance, if we expect all children to be able to meet the same academic standards, shouldn’t we first concern ourselves with making sure that all children have a stable, secure, and supportive family? Shouldn’t we guarantee that children are physically, psychologically, and emotionally healthy and safe? If we cannot equalize these factors which do have a great impact on a child’s academic success, then trying to mask such detrimental differences via implementing a universal curriculum is doomed to fail. It seems like the state has jumped the gun. Before we implement a universal, more rigorous curriculum, perhaps we should seek to satisfy the conditions – like family stability and poverty – that must be met if such a curriculum is to have a chance at increasing the success of all students.
First published in The Family in America