Just to briefly recap from my last post: The Common Core is a set of standards meant to raise students’ level of college-readiness and to help students stay on track when moving between schools in-state and out-of-state. Instead of focusing on whether a child learned a specific fact about a specific story, the Common Core states that teaching students math and English skills is more important and that this will prepare students for college and career more aptly than past methods.

Why Do We Need the Common Core (or something like it)?

You might be familiar with PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), which, according to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), “aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students old students.” According to these scores (which do not cover a set curriculum, but instead examine critical thinking and problem-solving skills in the areas of reading, mathematics, and science), over the past decade students from the United States have been performing significantly worse than many other developed economies worldwide (Click here to view the PISA rankings and results for the US from 2012). Basically, U.S. students do not rank as highly as places like Shanghai, New Zealand, and Finland when it comes to applying the knowledge they are gaining in schools.

The Common Core is the education community’s attempt to help resolve this problem. It leaves the how and the what up to teachers, schools, and districts, while maintaining that certain skills should be mastered within specific grades. We need something like the Common Core to help our students become ready for more than just an end of course test — we need something that prepares them for success that extends beyond the secondary classroom to real life in a very interconnected, international economy.

With that being said, I want to continue to address the last few FAQs from the Common Core FAQ sheet we were examining last month.

FAQ #16: Who is for and against the CCSS?

Unlike many other issues, this particular one draws criticism from both sides of the political aisle. Very rarely do you have conservative Republicans who agree with the teachers’ unions and business community leaders while simultaneously drawing criticism from Tea Party members, the homeschool community, and the Republican National Committee (who adopted a resolution calling the Common Core “an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.”)

Teachers’ unions support the Common Core but definitely agree that implementation has been “botched” and therefore are demanding more time and effective training be given before testing students on the standards. Business leaders (such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or Exxon Mobile) heavily support the CCSS because, in their words, they feel that it prepares students to compete for jobs with their international peers.

Many critics of the Common Core are suspicious of big corporations who are backing the standards, claiming that they obviously have some financial dog in the fight. Now, I’m not endorsing everything done by companies like Exxon Mobile, but I am saying that these companies do stand to gain something and, in their opinion, it’s graduates who are adequately prepared to become assets to domestic companies. Which I guess does, in fact, contribute to their bottom line eventually.

The homeschool community has become more vocal in their protests again Common Core, but I don’t believe that these protests are well-informed. They, as well as members of the RNC and the Tea Party, fear that Washington is once again over-stepping its bounds, but many blogs and articles that I read from these groups are unfortunately uninformed. To hear from an actual (informed) member of the homeschool community, check out this blog which does of a great job of explaining exactly what this means for homeschoolers.

The Common Core does not extend its reach into the curriculum that homeschoolers decide to teach their kids. (Isn’t curriculum that is independent from the state one of the hallmarks of homeschooling — and private schooling for that matter?) Additionally, an accurate understanding of the Common Core is that it specifies which skills students need to have mastered before graduating. The homeschooling community has already been capitalizing on this aspect of American education for many years. When homeschool students take the SAT or the ACT, they are not tested on their knowledge of a specific curriculum, but instead on their acquired skills. If they have been adequately prepared, they do well on these standardized tests.

The Common Core will not change anything for homeschool students. If anything, this general method is going to be applied to all U.S. students. Teachers will now have the liberty — albeit not as much liberty as what the private school teachers and homeschool parents enjoy — to teach their students the required skills in the manner they see fit (which is why more effective training is needed before implementation).

FAQ #24: How do teachers’ unions feel about the Common Core?

Teachers’ unions initially supported the Common Core and still do. Sort of. They, however, see the need for further training for teachers, especially since teachers are going to soon be held accountable for how students perform on state tests. Many surveyed teachers (about 70%) state that “they were not asked for input on how to develop the implementation plan” which perhaps could have averted the current implementation crisis teachers, students, and parents are now experiencing. Overall, many teachers’ unions are not ready to scrap the Common Core, as they appreciate the focus on standards, problem solving and critical thinking (as opposed to teaching to a multiple-choice test, something that No Child Left Behind ended up emphasizing). They also feel that continuity in education is important for both teachers and students — a fact that, as a former teacher, I could not agree with more.

FAQ #25: How will we know if it is working?

This is one of my favorite questions. Any initiative that dramatically changes the way things are done will take time in order to see results. It is a simple truth that many things do not reveal their consequences immediately after the fact — things take time. Even nature reflects this principle: you plant a seed, water it, wait for the sun to do its thing, and eventually it grows. If we criticize something for not working without waiting to see the actual results, then we are coming to conclusions without having all the information — never a wise thing to do.

The fact that many students are not performing as well on the new Common Core-aligned tests as they did on previous tests does not prove anything. According to this article by Time magazine, “In some schools, teachers were asked to administer Common Core exams before they’d been given [materials] indicating what would be tested.” In addition to this, many of these statistics are based on field-tests, tests which students know  do not count for anything in the grade book (and we all know how motivated students are to perform their best on a test they know doesn’t count). Couple that with the fact that the tests are given at times of the year when students have perhaps not even arrived at that particular lesson (for example, testing ninth graders on Shakespeare and drama during October even though they may not begin studying Shakespeare until March), and the results are sure to be unreliable.

We are going to have to spend more time and, unfortunately for anemic budgets, more money to adequately implement the standards — which includes providing appropriate instructional materials. Only then can we accurately gauge whether or not the standards are working. Until then, people need to become more informed by looking at the actual standards, by talking to active teachers who have hands-on experience with Common Core, and by reading (well-researched) information from both critics and supporters. Only then can we have a productive discussion on this important issue.