From Education Week [America's ], Wednesday, December
5, 2012 [online], Volume 32, Issue 13, Pages 35,40. See
Common Core vs. Common Sense
By Ronald A. Wolk
The headline in a recent edition of Education Week read,
"Hopes Pinned on Standards to Boost College Readiness: SAT
results show no improvement in any tested subject."
We've been pinning our hopes on standards for more than two decades
with little to show for it. About half of our high school graduates
are no better prepared for college or work than they were 20 years
ago, when standards and testing became the nation's school improvement
Now, all but a few states are on the verge of implementing the
ultimate phase of that strategy: the new common-core standards in
mathematics and English/language arts for grades K-12, soon to be
followed by new assessments supported by $500 million in federal grant
The Common Core State Standards are much better than the state
standards they replace because they focus on analysis, understanding,
concepts, and skills more than specific content. A great deal of
thought has gone into formulating them. They are championed by
business leaders, politicians, foundations, and educators.
If a majority of American youngsters were to graduate from school
with the knowledge and skills embodied in these standards, they and
the larger society would benefit enormously.
But that would require a miracle.
* We still do not have the opportunity-to-learn standards called for
by the founders of the standards movement in the late 1980s. We still
have not eradicated the glaring and persistent discrimination that
condemns millions of low-income, minority, and immigrant students to a
poor or mediocre education that does not prepare them to meet the new
common standards. Last year, nearly half of the nation's schools
failed to make "adequately yearly progress" under the No
Child Left Behind Act. The evidence shows that efforts to "turn
around" failing schools seldom work and often are
* Our present teacher workforce has not been trained to teach the
way the new standards require, and prospective teachers are not being
adequately prepared for the challenge. Moreover, we need at least
200,000 additional math and science teachers to replace those retiring
or leaving for other jobs or who did not major in math or science.
According to a 2007 report from the National Academies Press, more
than two-thirds (69 percent) of 5th to 8th graders are being taught
math by teachers without a mathematics degree or certificate, and 93
percent of those same students are being taught physical sciences by
teachers with no physical science degree or certificate.
* The organization and scheduling of the traditional school are
incompatible with the kind of teaching and learning required by the
new standards. Time is still the constant, and learning is the
variable. Traditional schools largely ignore the diversity of today's
students-their socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, the way they
learn, their strengths and weaknesses, their interests and
aspirations-and deliver the same education to all students in the
same way at the same time.
* Society would have to commit substantially more financial
resources-not just to provide more teachers, up-to-date science
labs, renovated school buildings, and adequate learning materials, but
to address more effectively the rampant poverty in society that
undermines our educational efforts.
To have even a hope of overcoming those problems, we would need a
couple of decades, a herculean effort, and incredible luck.
So, at this critical point, the nation's governors and
legislators should pause to consider the unintended consequences of
fully implementing these new standards in the near future.
By compelling schools, teachers, and students to meet standards
they are not equipped to meet, we are likely to do serious harm to
millions of young people and the larger society.
Some 27 percent of our high school students now drop out of
schoolRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader-many because they fall behind
early, never catch up, and come to accept failure as inevitable. Half
of those who earn a diploma are not adequately prepared for college or
the modern workplace. And half of those who enter college drop out by
the end of senior year without a degree.
"By compelling schools, teachers, and students to meet standards
they are not equipped to meet, we are likely to do serious harm to
millions of young people and the larger society."
Even though student scores on the National Assessment of Educational
Progress in math have steadily improved since 1992 and are at their
highest point in 20 years, about 60 percent of our students are still
not proficient. Reading scores have remained virtually flat during
that period, and the percentage of students not proficient in reading
is also about 60 percent.
Is it reasonable to expect that just because the new common-core
standards are better and more demanding, these lagging students will
suddenly rise to meet them?
We know from experience that standards do not educate people. Without
the organization, resources, and trained workforce necessary to meet
them, standards are worth little, and people cannot be compelled to
meet them. Keep in mind that the U.S. Congress mandated that every
student would be proficient in reading and math by 2014. How's that
The common standards would be more likely to succeed ultimately if
they were initially limited to grades K-6, where the necessary
foundation must be laid for meeting the middle and high school
standards. Many students now in grades 7-12 cannot read for
comprehension and have not learned basic math. They have not been
prepared to meet the demands of the common core, and it is unfair to
raise the bar for them at this point. If we do, we will either lose
more of them or, as has been the case in the past, we will lower test
cutoff scores and pass them through the system without the skills and
knowledge that standards-makers deem to be indispensable.
During the next seven years that it takes a whole generation of
elementary students to meet the K-6 standards, educators and
policymakers should concentrate on redesigning the last six years of
school to align with reality and the needs of students and society and
to be compatible with the kind of teaching and learning embodied in
the new standards.
A dedicated minority of educators and policymakers have been working
over the past few decades to do just that. They have worked to create
schools where the student is at the center; where education is
personalized for each student and is anchored in the real world; where
teachers are "advisers" and students are busy educating
themselves under their guidance; where new technology is integral to
The best hope for the success of the common-core standards is to first
redesign schools so they provide the kind of learning environment
where the spirit of the new standards can flourish, and their
objectives are most likely to be met.
Ronald A. Wolk is the founder and former editor of Education
Week and the chair emeritus of the board of its nonprofit publisher,
Editorial Projects in Education. He is also the chairman of Big
Picture Learning, a nonprofit organization in Providence, R.I., that
creates innovative schools, and the author of Wasting Minds: Why
Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do About It (ASCD,
2011). The views expressed in this Commentary are his
SIDEBAR ILLUSTRATION - by Chris Whetzel
SIDEBAR: By compelling schools, teachers, and
students to meet standards they are not equipped to meet, we are
likely to do serious harm to millions of young people and the larger
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244