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Thinking Critically About Common Core State Standards

Teacher Engages Classroom

by Jacquie McGregor

In recent years, most educators have undergone intensive in-services and professional development courses devoted to understanding the Common Core State Standards, usually without a chance to examine the pros and cons. We’re also familiar with the problems the CCSS movement aims to solve: in America, too many students remain unable to function at a basic level of academic achievement.  This leads to an important consideration for many educators: How can we incorporate Common Core ideals into our teaching while still maintaining the integrity of what we do?

How to think critically about CCSS

We strive to teach our students to be independent thinkers, capable of analyzing a problem and crafting a response. But when we are handed the Common Core Standards, we are expected to embrace the paradigm without meaningful discussion on the philosophical pros and cons. Common Core, at its heart, is a philosophical model. We are positing the educational belief that, in order to be successful in life, all students need the same academic foundation.

Common Core State Standards: pros

The upside of the Common Core standards is the most-often demarcated side of the issue. Proponents cite benefits including:

  • An internationally benchmarked system of standards that allows the United States to compete with other countries
  • The ability to compare academic results across multiple states
  • An increased focus on content literacy in English and mathematics
  • An emphasis on the ability to think, read, and write critically across the curriculum
  • A focus on college readiness for all students
  • An increased focus on classroom rigor and student expectations

Marc Tucker, president of the nonprofit National Center on Education and the Economy, has recently written extensively on the implementation of Common Core State Standards. He states, “It is now more important than ever to figure out what all young people need to know and be able to do. The literature is clear. Truly creative people know a lot and they have worked hard at learning it.” Tucker believes that the Common Core initiative will allow us to produce students with the skills necessary to become productive citizens in the future. For proponents of the movement, this is where the crux of the argument lies: without a clear and consistent vision of the skill and knowledge base needed by all students in the United States, how can we ever hope to compete on a global level?

Common Core State Standards: cons

Those who disagree are more focused on the philosophical concerns of dictating to teachers and students what types of knowledge are considered useful. The most often-cited concerns include:

  • The emphasis on English and math to the exclusion of other subject areas
  • A narrow interpretation of ideals that will lead to a generation of students who can test well, but not think creatively
  • U.S adoption of the Chinese model, eliminating some of the originality in thought that has been the foundation of American progress
  • A lack of attention to students with special needs
  • Too much emphasis on college-readiness without balanced preparation for career and technical education

In response to Tucker’s writings, Yong Zhao, Associate Dean for the University of Oregon’s College of Education, has outlined some of his concerns regarding Common Core standards. Zhao believes that, “…it is impossible, unnecessary, and harmful for a small group of individuals to predetermine and impose upon all students the same set of knowledge and skills and expect all students to progress at the same pace.” Essentially, Zhao has an issue with the fundamental concept of Common Core: “What I am against is Common and Core, that is, the same standards for all students and a few subjects… as the core of all children’s education diet.”

 Continuing to question CCSS

Whether educators fall on the pro side or the con side, it is far too early for those of us at the front lines of education to simply accept the paradigm and ignore the conversation.  We must continue to reevaluate, rethink, and reassess our own practices in order to provide the best experience we can for our students. Unless we continue to ask ourselves the bigger questions regarding new educational paradigms, we cannot hope to provoke positive change. We need to keep having the discussion while we push the boundaries. As we teach our students to become critical thinkers, so must we think critically about the knowledge we impart.

Jacquie McGregor has taught a wide variety of subjects in 15 years as an educator, including music, art, language arts and life skills. She currently works in online education as a course mentor, teacher and curriculum writer, at both the K-12 and university levels. She is completing her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focusing on arts programming in educational free markets.

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