Common Core: A Necessary, But Insufficient, Change In Education Standards

Common Core: A Necessary, But Insufficient, Change In Education Standards

When I first started teaching in 2009, I was surprised by something that was missing from my classroom: We did not have any textbooks for the courses that I was supposed to teach. For the next 4 years, I worked hard handcrafting all of the assignments and notes for my math classes at Kealakehe High School on Hawaii’s Big Island. I took great pride in the curriculum I was developing and felt that it raised the bar on student expectations.

Last year, I was instructed to switch over to new Common Core Algebra I curriculum for the entire year. At first, my outrage was palpable. Several times in the past, the state had attempted to mandate these curricular changes and the outcomes were tragic. I was encouraged that two of my department colleagues were on the development committee, but I could not stomach switching over to new lessons in the middle of the year.

During fall break, I had the opportunity to sit down with all of the curriculum released thus far (the first 4 of the 8 units). I was completely taken aback by the content. I found the lessons were very well conceived, with a dramatic change in focus away from knowledge demonstration and towards skills application. I enjoyed the fact that not only was I given the freedom to incorporate the related physics content of quadratic functions and real-world modeling, the state assessment fully included these components.

Much of the criticism for Common Core has come from individuals and organizations that have not taught or used the material. As a strong skeptic in the beginning, I understand and appreciate that feedback. I do, however, believe that the new standards in math and science are substantially more rigorous and appropriate for a 21st century education. I have had the opportunity to look at the K‑12 alignment in math and science and believe the material has stronger vertical alignment and more appropriately meets the types of thinking needed for this century’s problems.

When I engage teachers in my local community about their thoughts on the subject, I find their feedback drifts to an often associated change in education. As a Race to the Top State, Hawaii DOE has attempted to make substantial changes in the way teaching performance is measured. This process has received tremendous negative feedback for implementation and the frequent, often jarring, changes that have happened as the first roll-outs began last year. The new Educator Effectiveness System (EES) has components related to Common Core standards; however, these tend not to be the components getting the most ardent feedback.

Within all of these changes, I, however, believe we as educators and education system architects have missed the real opportunity to transform education to address the employability needs of our students. Historically, schools and education entities have anchored their practices in the skills needed for the youth to eventually take leadership within the community. While civics education is certainly a major area that has suffered as the distance between education and community leader training has widened, I would like to focus on the economic impact of this divide. The jobs and industries our students will take hold of do not currently exist. This is a different paradigm than the one in which that most of us were educated.

I hear all the time the increasing need for engineers, computer programmers, GIS experts, and a wide sundry of STEM field experts. As the external call from business and higher education leaders has increased, substantive action at the school level has not followed suit. I personally believe that the Common Core State Standards are a better model for organizing and defining the learning sequence of our students. I am disappointed, however, that the largest concomitant changes have focused on teacher evaluation and left many hardworking professionals feeling degraded and isolated from their own work. The concomitant change I would like to see is serious and action-oriented conversation about how we can change the way the schools interact with the community, starting with a realignment to employment pathways. As these conversations and relationships develop, an urgency for high-level, universal STEM education will undoubtedly emerge as an area of mutual concern and action.

Justin Brown is a Hope Street Group Hawaii State Teacher Fellow and the Career and Technical Education Coordinator (CTE) and Robotics Program Manager at Kealakehe High School. He has taught math, engineering, CTE, and civics classes for the last six years.

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