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Why Common Core and Why Now? 

Why Common Core and Why Now?

By Susan Rich, Assistant Superintendent of Administrative Services, Stanislaus County Office of Education


Susan Rich

Susan Rich

In 1997, the world was different. The fax reigned at making speedy connections. The letter was still a viable means of communication. Business people found stacks of phone messages when returning to their offices after lunch. Students still looked to their teachers and textbooks for information, and there was no such thing as a smart phone.

 It was that same year that California adopted its first set of student content standards. The State Board of Education approved the California content standards to ensure that students, regardless of their California zip code, were provided with a high-level public education. There was an agreement about what a second grader should be able to do and what a junior in high school would learn in U.S. History.

 States across the U.S. created their own standards, state by state, with varying degrees of rigor. States also created their own testing systems linked to those standards. And those states, including California, always intended to revise their standards, but rarely attended to the promise of revision once the time-consuming and expensive process of aligning instruction, textbooks and testing was completed.

Fast-forward to 2009 when the Governors and State Superintendents of Public Instruction addressed revisions to student standards collectively. This grass roots movement pooled states’ resources and corrected issues that were discovered, but left unmitigated, in their own standards. This new set of standards, called Common Core State Standards (CCSS), began with the end in mind. The creators of the CCSS wrote exit standards first answering the pivotal question: what do we want a graduating senior to know and be able to do? They then worked backwards to ensure continuity through the grade levels.

Simply stated, the Common Core is a set of grade-level expectations that span kindergarten through the 12th grade in the content areas of English/Language Arts and Mathematics.

 The CCSS also addressed an unintentional consequence of the first set of California standards: segmenting skills and knowledge into discrete bits. This segmentation of standards was exacerbated by the multiple-choice testing that assessed student acquisition of those standards. Teachers, textbook adoptions, local testing and state-wide assessments looked at long lists of specifics, but rarely asked students to synthesize them into meaningful accomplishments. While schools offered A, B, C and D options for students for every problem, the real world required application, synthesis and cross-curricular performances.

Coupled with new standards is the opportunity to rethink assessment and how it can be improved by using current technology. The working world demands tech savvy employees, and the old #2 pencil and a bubble-in test are outdated. Current students are tomorrow’s work force, and they have already outstripped their parents and instructors in terms of their comfort with technology. Education needs to keep pace or at least try. Now, computer adaptations can do a much better job of helping teachers understand where student understanding falls apart. By adjusting questions to match performance, students can communicate what they do know and what they don’t. Additionally, students can create an isosceles triangle by clicking and dragging the corners of a three-sided figure instead of recognizing someone else’s geometric shapes.

 Change is uncomfortable, no doubt. And some are concerned with schools becoming something different than their own experience. But schools should prepare students to be productive citizens and enter the work force as skilled participants and creative thinkers. The Common Core State Standards acknowledge the need to realign expectations with the demands of the community and the working world.

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