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Why the Common Core Could Bring the End of One-Size-Fits-All Learning

Overly standardized learning isn't working for anymore. The Common Core State Standards could be the answer.

Data surrounds us. It is everywhere in our daily lives—all day, every day. From business and politics to health care, we take it on faith that more data will help us perform better and make smarter decisions. In education, however, that faith has overreached reality. Over the past decade we have increasingly relied on standardized test results to judge students, teachers, and schools, but we still haven't created assessments that give a fully accurate picture of student learning.


Under the No Child Left Behind law, states have released test results that supposedly tell us how many students are proficient in math and reading. The problem is, each state sets its own benchmark for proficiency, and different students are held to different standards.

Imagine if the batting average of one baseball player was based on at-bats against Cy Young winners, while another average was compiled from plate appearances in the minors. You couldn't tell much by comparing the two numbers.

In this environment, and especially in this age of sophisticated data, we shouldn't put too much stock in an instrument as crude as a "one size fits all" standardized test. Fortunately, we have an opportunity to do better, as 46 states and the District of Columbia move to implement the Common Core State Standards.

The Common Core was developed through a partnership headed by the National Governor's Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The National Education Association has been closely involved as well, with members who are nationally certified teachers helping to draft and review the proposed standards.

These standards are voluntary and broad. They don't dictate how teachers should teach, but they do provide clear goals, such as saying that fourth-grade math students should be able to draw and identify lines and angles, or that seventh-graders should be able to compare a written work of literature to a film, audio, or stage adaptation.

The standards are intended to promote critical thinking as well as knowledge of specific content. Perhaps most important, these broad standards will be consistent from one state and school to another. Teachers and school districts will have flexibility to develop their own curriculum, yet there will also be a general accepted focus for each grade and subject.

If this all sounds too good to be true, well, there is a catch. Some teachers are wary of the Common Core. In most cases, I believe their anxiety arises from a fear of the unknown, because we haven't yet determined how to assess student learning under these new standards. Many teachers understand the what of Common Core, and now need to understand more of the how to implement it in the classroom.

Then there's the public, including parents of K-12 students. For the most part, they are starting the new school year oblivious to the Common Core, even as schools introduce more rigorous standards in classrooms across the country. This is the greatest challenge, and also the greatest opportunity, of the Common Core initiative. These standards can't succeed unless we create a new generation of student assessments that really measure the skills and knowledge so critical to success today—something we desperately need to do.

But the fact is, parents are generally clueless on how the Common Core broadens authentic teaching and learning. And those in the know—like teachers—are rightly worried that their districts are not ready for these new standards, and are desperate for more resources and training.

NEA is helping our members prepare for this important transition. We created a work-group of interested educators last year, and in May convened a strategy and ideas-sharing meeting of education professionals from the 46 states who have adopted the Common Core. They told us there's a lot of apprehension about the Common Core, and a lot of unanswered questions.

How do we best implement them? How do we help students master the new content? And what about testing? These are significant hurdles, but the overwhelming consensus of the educators we heard from is that the Common Core will ultimately be good for students and education.

As the Common Core is rolled out across the country, supporters like NEA must also step out of the echo chamber and help explain the Common Core to parents and the public. With misinformation flying from all corners, parent communication is necessary to advise parents what these instructional shifts mean for their child and what to expect from the new assessment results.

Those of us who believe the Common Core has the potential to provide all children access to a complete and challenging education have to speak up against misconceptions.

Next week I will travel to five states on a back-to-school tour to spotlight school districts that are leaders in student-centered, union-led change, and working with educators and community leaders to improve student learning. Encouraging parents and families to play an active role in students’ success is one of my objectives. Helping dispel myths about the Common Core is one of my tasks.

Change is always hard, but this work is too important for us to turn back. Only by seeing it through can we move education into the modern era, and gain more meaningful and relevant data about student learning.

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Student writing answer on whiteboard image via Shutterstock

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