The Common Core

An editorial in the New York Times this morning advocates that states move forward with implementing the Common Core learning standards.  A majority of states have already adopted these standards, which is a surprising and welcome development in our overly-politicized, polarized educational climate. It’s good to see that the states can come together and agree on some common goals.

The Common Core does accomplish something great. It specifies the important skills that we all want our students to develop so that they are prepared for college level work. Students need to be able to analyze text in greater depth and to write about complex issues by citing sources, evaluating evidence and making and refuting arguments. The Common Core asks students to do all that and more, and we should all applaud these new, rigorous standards.

What the Common Core is missing, though, is a clear outline of course *content* for any grade or subject. The middle school social studies standards, for example, list no dates, no countries, no specific events or developments in the history of civilization. There is nothing like the “Table of Contents” you would find in a traditional textbook anywhere in the Common Core. Individual states and districts, schools and teachers are left to determine course content on their own. Without a common syllabus, a grade-by-grade list of specific concepts, or anything in the way of a common base of knowledge,  it is hard to see how the Common Core fulfills the promise of its name.

It is confounding that our current discussion around educational issues seems to conflate two very different  words- “curriculum” and “standards.” They are often used interchangeably, as they are in the New York Times editorial, but they aren’t exactly the same thing and we should be clear about the difference. “Standards” refer to the quality of the students’ work in those subjects. “Curriculum” is the actual course content and learning materials and activities around that content. The Common Core does a terrific job outlining “standards” but does not offer anything in the way of “curriculum.”  That is a *huge* missing piece that schools will have to fill in for themselves.

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