A rumination on “standards:” What the heck are the Common Core “standards?” And why are they called by that name?
The “standards movement” has been in vogue for many years now. In our view, the use of that term has always seemed a bit odd.
For starters, Wikipedia tells us this about the Common Core:
“The Common Core State Standards Initiative is an educational initiative in the United States that details what K-12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade.”
In fact, the Common Core “standards” are the skills students are supposed to be taught at each grade level. In Grade 6 math, these are the first two “standards” under the “Geometry” heading—and yes, that’s the actual numbering for each skill:
CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.6.G.A.1In common parlance, it seems to us that these would more naturally be referred to as “skills.” At any rate, you can review all the “standards” for all the grades at this, the “Read the Standards” page at the Common Core web site.
Find the area of right triangles, other triangles, special quadrilaterals, and polygons by composing into rectangles or decomposing into triangles and other shapes; apply these techniques in the context of solving real-world and mathematical problems.
Find the volume of a right rectangular prism with fractional edge lengths by packing it with unit cubes of the appropriate unit fraction edge lengths, and show that the volume is the same as would be found by multiplying the edge lengths of the prism. Apply the formulas V = l w h and V = b h to find volumes of right rectangular prisms with fractional edge lengths in the context of solving real-world and mathematical problems.
The Common Core lists the skills which should get taught in each grade. For that reason, we’re always a little bit puzzled when we’re told that this doesn’t constitute a “curriculum.”
David Brooks rattled this talking-point in a recent column (text below). In her valuable piece in Sunday’s Washington Post, Lyndsey Layton put it like this:
LAYTON (6/8/14): The math standards require students to learn multiple ways to solve problems and explain how they got their answers, while the English standards emphasize nonfiction and expect students to use evidence to back up oral and written arguments. The standards are not a curriculum but skills that students should acquire at each grade. How they are taught and materials used are decisions left to states and school districts.“The standards are not a curriculum but [are] skills that students should acquire at each grade?” In common parlance, once you’ve told a teacher what skills she must teach throughout the year, haven’t you pretty much defined her curriculum?
We’ll offer a guess. For legal and political reasons, Common Core moguls want to minimize the sense that the states and/or the feds are intruding on the community’s right to run its own local schools. We’ll guess this sound-bite was invented to promote this conception.
If our speculation is correct, that means that “not a curriculum” is part of the “messaging” Layton describes in her report. Ironically, it would mean that Layton repeated one of the messages, even as she described the source of the messaging.
Whatever! To us, the Common Core “standards” come pretty darn close to being a “curriculum.”
That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad curriculum, of course—we’re sorry, a bad set of “standards.” It may be a very good listing of Grade 6 math skills—but only for students who are functioning at an appropriate level.
For many sixth-graders, the Grade 6 math “standards” may be very good—perhaps an improvement on the way they otherwise would have been taught. That said, our basic question remains: Given our large achievement gaps, how can any set of math “standards” be appropriate for all the kids in all our sixth-grade classrooms all across the land?
For some high-functioning sixth-grade students, those Grade 6 “standards” may be hopelessly boring. For other sixth-graders, those “standards” may be years beyond their actual level of functioning.
Given our large achievement gaps, how can any set of standards be appropriate for all students in a given grade? We’ve been asking this obvious question for years.
Given the way our discourse works, we’ve never seen that question asked or answered anywhere else. As we’ve noted, our journalists are very good at disregarding the size of the gaps.
Brooks repeats the message: The standards aren’t a curriculum! All advocates of the Common Core know they should make that claim. Here’s the way Brooks put it:
BROOKS (4/18/14): About seven years ago, it was widely acknowledged that state education standards were a complete mess. Huge numbers of students were graduating from high school unprepared either for college work or modern employment. A student who was rated ''proficient'' in one state would be rated ''below basic'' in another. About 14 states had pretty good standards, according to studies at the time, but the rest had standards that were verbose, lax or wildly confusing.The Common Core standards do not determine how teachers should teach?
The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers set out to draft clearer, consistent and more rigorous standards. Remember, school standards are not curricula. They do not determine what students read or how teachers should teach. They are the goals for what students should know at the end of each grade.
That may be true, but they do determine what teachers should teach. In fact, they determine which skills a math teacher must teach. To us, that sounds a great deal like a curriculum.
Layton described the process by which the “messaging” was created. It seems to us that she proceeded to repeat one of the basic messages.
Brooks repeated the message too. To our highly sensitive ear, the message doesn’t make sense.