Another bite at the common core debate

Since the purpose of this blog is to promote debate over educational issues, I’m especially pleased to post what may be the most intelligent debate I’ve seen between a proponent and critic of the common core standards.

The central question that both interlocutors address is: Do we really know what students need to know if they are to function in the world they will enter? In other words, can we even identify a “common” core?

According to common core critic Yong Zhao, presidential chair and associate dean for global education at the University of Oregon’s College of Education, the answer is no.

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 progress at the same pace (if the students don’t, it is the teachers’ and schools’ fault). I am not against standards per se for good standards can serve as a useful guide. What I am against is Common and Core, that is, the same standards for all students and a few subjects (currently math and English language arts) as the core of all children’s education diet. I might even love the Common Core if they were not common or core.

Marc Tucker, Marc Tucker, president of the non-profit National Center on Education and the Economy, disagrees:

This kind of thinking is, to my mind, seductive, but I cannot agree.  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.  They typically know a lot about unrelated things and their creativity comes from putting those unrelated things together in unusual ways.  Learning almost anything really well depends on mastering the conceptual structure of the underlying disciplines, because, without that scaffolding, we are not able to put new information and skills to work.  Zhao says that we will not be competitive simply by producing a nation of good test takers.  That is, of course, true.  Leading Asian educators are very much afraid that they have succeeded in producing good test takers who are not going to be very good at inventing the future.  But that does not absolve us of the responsibility for figuring out what all students will need to know to be competitive in a highly competitive global labor market, nor does it absolve us of the responsibility to figure out how to assess the skills we think are most important.

You can follow the first link to read the full debate . . . and enter into it as well.


  1. Carolyn Sharette

    This is a great discussion and I appreciate hearing both viewpoints. I believe they are both right but the timing is the question we need to address. I believe that there are some basic things that all students must learn, irrespective of their talents, interests, cultural heritage or anything else – skills such a how to read fluently and critically, how to do arithmetic quickly and accurately, and how to express thoughts with clarity in writing. These are academic skills ALL must learn to become truly educated, and are “common” to everyone and could be considered “core” to all subsequent academic learning.

    When it comes to academic content beyond academic skills, there I would agree that a “common core” may be most helpful in the elementary and middle grades where students really do need to learn the “core” of knowledge that will enable them to be “culturally literate” (E.D. Hirsch) – all American students really DO need to know about the revolutionary war, the struggle with slavery, the Civil War, who Shakespeare was and what some of his contributions were, what photosynthesis is, etc. A common core of knowledge for our elementary students is vital to enable them to move on to more advanced study in any discipline.

    But there is a “jumping off” point where students choose what they will study and perhaps form a life’s work around. In America, a typical path is to remain in a generalized setting (like the public high school) where you have a few choices in coursework but still learn a “common core”, and then jump off in college where you choose a major and focus on a particular area. In America, we have embraced the jumping off point being in college partly because it has been a very successful strategy for many, many thousands of people who gain a strong general education in high school, specialize in college or graduate school and are then able to live a life of fulfillment in their chosen field. This is part of the “American Dream” and a successful strategy perpetuated for generations by its success (and is the envy of many parts of the world who send their children to our colleges and universities).

    Other nations have earlier “jumping off” points where the students leave academic settings (the college track) and pursue vocational training. In some nations students take tests in as early as the 5th grade and depending upon their results, “track off” the university path – and also go on to live lives of fulfillment in their chosen fields.

    In America, we have rejected the idea that students should choose early and be “tracked” off the academic route. We hold fast to the hope that all students could have the college or university experience. I can see the reasoning behind this, as our college graduates ON AVERAGE earn more in their lifetimes than non-graduates, and we value education for education’s sake as well and believe an educated populace is important to perpetuating our society. We don’t want to pre-judge a 10 or 14 year old and limit their opportunities, which I think is wise.

    However, I think we could do a better job of being open minded about those students who really would benefit from “jumping off” the academic track earlier and following their chosen vocations. I think we are seeing a surge in interest in vocational and technical education, and I hope those opportunities become more visible to our mainstream students. Certainly, we are not trained as educators to “see” the gifts and talents of our students in the areas of non-academic vocations – and students do not receive much help or guidance on how to pursue non-academic paths in some of our high schools.

    Additionally, in high school I believe the graduation requirements need to be more based upon competency instead of a credit based measure. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if students could reach certain skills benchmarks, and then choose their courses from a wider range of options and still “graduate”? As long as the diploma represents a basic level of academic skill and knowledge, then it would be fun to see a student’s transcript as a reflection of their interests and talents instead of a record of them taking the exact same classes as everyone else. At this level, I agree the “common core” is probably not the best idea. Maybe the common core should end in 8th grade and high school should be based upon demonstrated competency in skills and basic content, with wide allowance for student interest and talent to dictate the majority of the courses of study.

  2. Yak_Herder

    The idea of developing a system that classifies and “tracks” students at a young age (at any age) is abhorrent to me. I can’t imagine a system of education that conflicts more with the distinctly American ideal of self-determination.

    I reject the idea that a liberal education is only valued by or should only be made available to those on an academic path. Removing those requirements from technical coursework is a disservice to the students who participate in them. There’s a term for doing that; it’s called “dumbing down”.

    This world will be a better place when we eliminate that kind of intellectual snobbery. I have every bit as much respect for a good plumbers and welders as I have for rocket scientists and surgeons. I really don’t see how a liberal education would benefit either group any more or less than the other. I certainly don’t why that benefit should stop in the 9th grade.

    • Mary McConnell

      I agree that students are often relegated too early, and too precipitously, to lower tracks. (I teach in the Catholic school system, to which many Hispanic teachers flee when they see their kids relegated to “resource” classes.)

      But – there’s a difference between saying that some students should never study algebra and saying that teachers shouldn’t try to teach every student at the same level. It seems pretty clear that this approach has hurt our most gifted students.

      We don’t like to admit that educational policy demands tradeoffs, and even tradeoffs that hurt some students even as they help others. I fear that tracking may involve some of these tradeoffs. One solution that some schools have tried is giving “lower” track students significantly more time with a subject, especially math. That seems like a sensible solution to me.

  3. Annabelle Howard

    What are you have described is essentially the UK system that’s been in place for 40 years. No system is perfect, but it’s pretty darn good. Personally, I loved giving up math after I took the math “O Level” (o for ordinary) at 16. For the last two years of what Americans call high school I was free to study art, French, and English “A Levels” ( a for advanced). No aptitude tests required. Then, a centralized application to university was so simple. The American college application process is a nightmare and very off-putting. I firmly believe that the CCSS is a step in the right direction.

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