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Common Core State Standards Focus on Thinking Not Reciting

If you have children in a public school, you’ve probably heard something about Common Core State Standards (CCSS). It’s an effort by states across the U.S. to establish national standards for K-12 education – although right now, they’re limited to English and math. Since CCSS’ launch in 2010, most states have adopted the standards, which are voluntary.

About a year ago, the California legislature voted to adopt the Common Core and Santa Clara Unified will be rolling out the new standards – and assessments – in 2014.

Proponents say national standards are essential in a mobile society to ensure that students get a consistent and comprehensive education even if they move or change schools. Further, the CCSS promise to save state education departments the expense of developing their own standards, and testing and reporting systems.


“It’s a more complex way of teaching and a more complex way of testing, because it tests thinking and expressing underlying understanding,” explains SCUSD Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Mary Kay Going, who has been with the district for 26 years as an elementary school teacher, principal, and curriculum chief.

The standards are benchmarked to international standards, and aim to ensure that students leave secondary school prepared for college or work. They’ve been benchmarked in different countries with different education systems.

“We’re looking globally to support what students need to live in a global economy,” says Going. “Other countries call ‘multiple choice’ tests an ‘American test.’ Those countries test the complexity of thinking behind answering the question. That’s how this standard has been developed.”

This isn’t a departure for SCUSD’s curriculum. “The instructional strategies that Santa Clara has used for a long time are, [like the CCSS], evidence-based and build on each other,” explains Going. “The thinking behind our curriculum mirrors that behind the Common Core.”

Some opponents worry that Common Core will stifle teachers. One opponent is NYU’s education policy guru Diane Ravitch, author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education.” Ravitch contends the standards are unproven, would intensify present trends toward “teaching to the test,” and further disadvantage students who are already struggling in the education system.

Going agrees that these are certainly challenges. “The amount of rich language used [in the teaching] is going to be hard for our English Language Learners.” However, she stresses that experience of a primary language carries over in a second language, and urges parents to “read, read, read” to their children in any language.

Educational reactionaries and the accountability-fanatics are likely to be critics because the standards place the emphasis on a variety of types of academic discussion and critical thinking – not just teacher-directed instruction and repetition. The Common Core is also opposed by the Tea Party, right-wing talking heads, and the conspiracist fringe, who label it everything from a federal education takeover, to Marxism 101, to the linchpin of a satanic New World Order plot.

However, the aim is really far more prosaic. It’s to make education more like the real-world processes that people use to solve problems and do their jobs every day. “It’s about deep understanding rather than facts and figures,” explains Going.

“What people are being asked to do in college and their jobs is not regurgitate facts and figures. Ask any engineer in the world about the process of invention. And they will tell you that it’s not done in isolation – it’s through shared knowledge and collaboration. So there’s a lot of language and vocabulary development and discussion.”

One area that will definitely advance as a result of the CCSS is educational technology. “It will be the catalyst for technology in education,” says Going. “It will demand that technology become an integral part of school.” And that means the timing is perfect for launching SCUSD’s new Altera-funded technology center, which will provide a regional resource for local teachers.

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