Special Report

What to Make of the Debate Over Common Core

Across 45 states and the District of Columbia, teachers are working off the same set of standards. What makes that so controversial?

The Common Core State Standards is a new initiative that outlines literacy and mathematics expectations for K-12 schools across the country. (iStock)

For all of their superficial similarities, the cinderblock walls and bulletin boards with scalloped borders, schools in the United States have taken a historically disparate approach to what students are expected to learn. But that is now starting to change, thanks to the Common Core State Standards, a new initiative that lays out common literacy and mathematics expectations for K-12 schools across the country.

The initiative is breathtaking in scope. Not only have 45 states and the District of Columbia signed on, but the standards also are more challenging for K-12 students, requiring them to analyze and apply what they’ve learned, not merely commit it to memory.

Scholars’ Academy, a middle and high school located in Rockaway Park, New York City, is among the first schools in the nation where nearly all teachers have revamped their lessons to match the new standards. In fits and starts, teachers here have been overhauling their instruction over the past three years.

In Leslie Kohn’s ninth-grade humanities class, students work in small groups, discussing several texts about the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, a seminal event in U.S. history, which galvanized the labor movement and paved the way towards occupational safety standards.

Kohn, though, is not teaching this event in a traditional manner. No glossy textbooks sit open on the tables at which her students are gathered. Instead, the students are reading a 1911 New York Times article on the fire and examining records of the existing fire codes at that time. There are no pictures, no simplified narratives in colored boxes.

The discussions are in response to several prompts from Kohn: What factors contributed to the fire? Were the factory owners to blame for the deaths of the workers? What evidence from the readings can students cite to support their arguments?

One student points to a passage buried deep in the news article referring to four previous fires at the sweatshop. The key detail supports her thesis that the deaths were preventable.

“They could have made things safer,” she says.

Kohn’s lesson exemplifies major pieces of the Common Core State Standards in literacy.

While decisions about specific curricula and teaching methods will still fall to individual school districts and teachers, knowing how to weigh sources of information, cite evidence and digest nonfiction writing will be expected of all students.


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