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Cynthia Dagnal-Myron Headshot

Do You Really Know What the Common Core Is?

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Having written curricula and lesson plans geared to the high school level Common Core Standards, I just don't see what all the hub bub's about.

You've seen those yearly lists that tell us how our students fare in comparison to kids in other countries. The stats aren't so great, are they?

Our school system is broken. Badly. But it is not beyond repair.

And so in 2009, the leaders of 48 states, two territories and the District of Columbia enlisted the aid of hundreds of teachers and educational experts who eventually created the Common Core to help us fix it.

And what is the Common Core?

Easy peasy. It's a list of skills and concepts designed to ensure that all kids, no matter where they live or how much money they have or don't have, learn the same basic things. Or as the Common Core Initiative web site puts it, they were developed to:

"...establish clear, consistent guidelines for what every student should know and be able to do in math and English language arts from kindergarten through 12th grade."

The Common Core Standards do not dictate how they learn those things. Or what a district should do to make sure they learned or what a district should do if a teacher doesn't actually teach them. That's up to the district and states. And I think that's where some of the battles begin.

Many districts understand that a good teacher doesn't have to teach to the test to get great test results. Those districts also understand that if you test kids too many times, that old law of diminishing returns will kick in. So test scores fall not because the teachers aren't teaching, but because the kids are tired of and care much less about those tests over time.

Other districts...well, you see there's money attached to those scores most of the time. And money is one thing most districts do not have enough of these days. So even if the kids are tired of doing the math, the district bean counters aren't.

In those districts, the kids get bombarded with tests. And teachers are blamed when kids don't do well on them. Sometimes rightfully, sometimes not. Mostly not, I fear.

Having said that, as a former English teacher and assistant principal, I was thrilled when I first read the Common Core Standards in literature and language arts. Here are some of the things I loved most:

1. There's more emphasis on reading nonfiction, something today's kids are already doing quite naturally. Do they still read "The Classics?" Yes. There are long lists teachers can choose from. Or...not. It's up to the districts to decide what their kids will or will not read. But teachers are also encouraged to pick more challenging and contemporary material, regardless.

There are only a few "mandatory" readings. For instance, one standard requires that students, "Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance." That's right, they're asked to read and discuss the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and a few more documents written by the so-called founding fathers. The very ones many of the people who seem angriest about the CC love to pull out of a suit pocket and wave, very proudly, at the camera.

2. There's more emphasis on critical thinking, writing and reading. This means that kids will read those documents more thoughtfully. Which means they can explain, discuss and debate them as well. For me, this is the "money" standard. If kids learn to think, read and write more critically, they'll do better in lots of other subjects, too. And they'll fare well in the real world, where they'll have to make some big, life changing decisions. I do not have to tell you parents out there that young people do not always make very good decisions.

You may not like it when your teenager sits you down and states an airtight case for getting her own car or a higher allowance or being able to keep seeing that tattoo covered boyfriend you forbade her to even talk to ever again. But you'll thank those teachers later, when she kills that first interview and lands a job with a salary that gets her out of your house and into that first apartment. Or helps her start paying off some of those loans so she can move out a little sooner.

3. Technology is "blended" into the curriculum.
Which again, is something kids were doing anyway, even when teachers tried to take all of their gizmos away. And never fear. Teachers are being trained to use those gizmos in ways that put kids' brains to work. Yes, kids will still Google answers. But the great teachers will make sure they have to work really hard to figure out which of those answers is best. Or how to use all that data in some really complicated way that doesn't just let them copy and paste it into their essay and turn it in as their own work.

In fact, technology allows students to do something lots of parents beg teachers to let their kids do: prove that they've learned by doing something other than a written test. Kids can create multimedia presentations, music videos, video games, Web or Wiki pages, podcasts, Flash books, Flash cartoons, YouTube films--the list is endless. And now, kids all over the country will be learning how to do that, not just a privileged few.

So what's not to like? I have no idea. They address the needs of today's students in ways today's students might actually find more engaging. But boy, there are some angry people out there hell bent on making sure the Common Core goes away tout de suite.

I'm really sorry to hear that. I was hoping American kids were finally going to get the big boost they needed to catch up to the kids in other countries.

But I guess some our kids will be eating their dust a little while longer...

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