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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

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Common Core is no cure-all for readiness

By Sara Foss
Wednesday, June 11, 2014

So a new group, called Higher Ed for Higher Standards, has formed with the goal of supporting the implementation of the Common Core standards.

Heading up the group, which comprises more than 200 university and college leaders, is SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher.

She says that incoming freshmen are often unprepared for college course work, forcing schools to teach or reteach them information and skills they should have learned in middle school and high school.

“We must have students that are college- and career-ready in order for the United States to continue to compete and win in the 21st century global economy,” Zimpher said earlier this week at the launch of Higher Ed for Higher Standards.

Now, I am not opposed to higher standards.

A world filled with educated and knowledgeable people sounds like a wonderful thing. And I’m sorry to hear that colleges must offer remedial classes for all the under-educated students in their midst.

But what’s always missing from the Common Core discussion is how you get students who are already struggling to master tougher, more rigorous material. If the old standards were too difficult, won’t the new standards be too difficult, too? Wouldn’t marginal students be more likely to fail, get discouraged and drop out of school?

I’ve heard different things about the Common Core, but the actual quality of the curriculum is not my concern at the moment.

Right now, I’m more concerned with the magical thinking at the heart of the Common Core — that all you need to do to get people to meet higher standards is say, “Here are some higher standards. Go meet them.”

I often wish that the woman I tutor — I’m teaching her to read and write — would progress more quickly. It frustrates me that we’re still reading fairly easy children’s books, and stumbling over some fairly simple words. But simply replacing Dr. Seuss with “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” will not solve this problem. Like it not, I’ve got to meet her where she is, and figure out how to get her to where she needs to be.

Many of America’s public schools contain large achievement gaps, with affluent and middle-class students outperforming their poorer peers.

In a recent article in the New York Times, reporter Eduardo Porter described how the tests performed in 2012 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on 15-year-olds around the world found the United States in 26th place among 34 countries in math, 17th place in reading and 21st place in science.

“But perhaps even more disturbing, the report highlighted another trend: the persistent gulf in the test results between the rich and the poor,” Porter wrote. “According to calculations by the OECD, socioeconomic background explains 15 percent of the variation in the performance of American students, far more than in high-performing countries like Finland, Japan and Norway. Only one in 20 children coming from the most disadvantaged quarter of the population manages to excel at school and climb in the rankings.”

He added, “Addressing the vast disparities between students’ abilities will not be easy. In some public schools, children who are entering the sixth grade with the measured proficiency of first-graders are mixed in with children who perform well above the sixth-grade standard. Schools struggle to teach this mix. Teachers are frustrated: Almost half leave the profession within five years.”

Common Core proponents are mostly mum on the achievement gap issue, seldom veering from their script about how higher standards will ensure success in college and career. The troubling possibility that some students are lagging so far behind that getting them up to grade level might require intensive, remedial instruction never seems to enter the discussion.

Which might explain why Tom Loveless, an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution, sounded so down on the Common Core in a recent Washington Post article.

“Everyone who developed standards in the past has had a theory that standards will raise achievement, and that’s not happened,” Loveless said.

When I was in school, students were tracked — that is, we were separated into classes based on our grades and perceived abilities.

There are a lot of problems with this type of system. For instance, I’ve never been convinced that the best way to teach struggling and underperforming students is to group them together, in classrooms separated from their more accomplished peers. But tracking students does at least acknowledge a basic reality: the varied skills and talents that students bring to school.

It’s unfortunate that so many of today’s high school graduates are unprepared for higher education. This is a real problem, and it needs to be addressed. But I see no reason to believe that the Common Core is the solution.

 
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