Common Core or Common Sense?

Chatting with a friend a while back, I heard her say something that is as unlikely as it is obvious:

Every child deserves a good school.

Several months later, watching my second grader’s end-of-the-year presentation and hiding my tear-smeared face from fellow parents, I recalled that conversation. I watched in awe and amazement what my son got to learn over the course of the year and I thanked my luck. I thanked his luck, too, because he is a true benefactor of the knowledge he acquired. And I thanked the luck of other people in his life, because what he learned he could take on the road with him and contribute, in his way, to our world. Of course, as it usually happens to emotional saps like me, just as I basked in the joy of what my child got to experience I thought of other kids, who didn’t.

But, when we say that every child deserves a good school, what does good actually mean? The elements that parents look for in a successful learning environment are not universal. Some like a highly progressive model while others prefer a rigorous academic curriculum or believe that a program should provide sound athletic programs. So, I don’t think schools should be cookie-cutter establishments, offering the same roster of subjects, covering the same amount and variety of information, and using similar teaching style and lesson plans. Which is why, when I first heard about the Common Core Initiative, I promptly raised a condescending eyebrow. Why would anything common—prevalent, ordinary, general—be a good initiative for schools?

If you haven’t looked into it yet, Common Core is a controversial set of standards in Math and English Language Arts, published by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and recently introduced into the public school system. I say “controversial,” because while the program has already been adopted by forty-five states to be phased into their K-12 curriculum, some parents and educators are not on board.

As is, teachers have many tests to teach to and they want to make sure that the new program doesn’t increase this amount. Preferring that their kids do more learning than test cramming, parents are worried too.

And what about the idea that the state can suggest which material is being taught? Isn’t this where the teacher’s innovation should come into play?

Finally, what happens when the Core Standards are too low or too high for a given school? Students’ abilities vary drastically from class to class, school to school. Is it really fair to demand a common knowledge base?

But despite potential downsides of the initiative, I’ve decided that I like it!

The key word in the debate should be core—the seeds of learning, not the tree itself and certainly not its fruit. There is nothing wrong with the expectation of basic, essential knowledge from kids across the board. If the load is too high for a given school, then clearly teachers, parents, and students should put their heads together and work harder. And if the load is too low, then there’s plenty of time for further learning. In my mind, it’s okay if the school is judged based on how much it surpasses the standards rather than how far it lags behind!

And I wouldn’t stop at Math and English either. There is plenty of basic information in Social Studies and Science that we wouldn’t mind our kids learning, why not throw in some standards from these disciplines? Who knows, maybe at this rate, all elementary students will be able to find Belgium on the map one day. Or at least—just so we don’t push the envelope too far—realize that Alaska is nowhere near California.

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