Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Government Finally Gets It Right with Common Core

Public education has been on the front burner of government policy since President Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative. Unfortunately, that legislation has ushered in a new paradigm where testing and “edumetrics” (my term) have consumed most of the resources and dictated the flow of research and grant funds. We have become a nation obsessed with testing, making it the most prominent lens through which we assess success or failure. Unfortunately, reviewing the tests and much of the funds allocated through programs like Title I have produced empirical evidence that actually shows a negative correlation when looked at in terms of student achievement in the inner city. These disappointing results would leave one less than sanguine when word of new government initiatives is announced. That it is why I must admit to being pleasantly surprised by the new Common Core Standards being adopted by almost every state in the Union.  For once, the states-with support from the Federal government- are doing something right in public education, and it deserves acknowledgement.

The Common Core Standards, at least in the area of Social Studies (part of the English/Language Arts component), focus exclusively on skill development. Whether intentional or not, this focus gives tacit acknowledgement to the fact that our education policy makers are completely off base in their determination of what students learn in our social studies courses. New Jersey’s content standards are nothing more than an exercise in ego massaging for the academics responsible for determining required course content.

I won’t bore you with the details of the hundreds of “core progress indicators” and the ridiculous amount of minutiae integrated into the content standards, this even after a revision to reduce these metrics occurred several years ago. The basic problem is that these content requirements are more an expression of what these academics “would like” students to know rather than what they “must” know. Given the amount of time that is actually required to present, reinforce, and assess classroom material, the required content is rarely learned. Most of the content is remembered long enough to pass a test, then quickly forgotten. True learning is extremely time consuming and rarely occurs.

Current research in neuroscience on the "science of learning" confirms my suspicion that little true learning of the content takes place in the classroom. Most of us remember very little from high school; it is imperative that we both narrow down the required content to only those items students must learn as high school graduates,  and redefine what that required content should be.

Making these changes will serve two important goals. First, it will help our graduates become aware of our institutions, our economy, our culture, our history, our laws, and our future. And second, it will “liberate” teachers so that they will have more freedom to develop courses that reflect their passion and knowledge; this will have a dramatically positive impact on student achievement.

By combining the ambitious and meaningful Common Core skill requirements with new Core Content  requirements, the result will be independent, empowered, and aware young adults better equipped to succeed in our society. It is these goals, and not preparation for college, that should be our interest with regard to our next generation of citizens. The beauty of emphasizing skill development is that they can be reinforced "across the curriculum." It is these skills that we learn in high school that pay real dividends in college and the workplace. With the adoption of the Common Core, New Jersey and most other states have taken a huge step in the right direction. Well done, for a change.

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