What to Make of the Debate Over Common Core- page 5 | Innovation | Smithsonian
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The Common Core State Standards is a new initiative that outlines literacy and mathematics expectations for K-12 schools across the country. (iStock)

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?

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Pedagogical debates lurk, too. The English standards call for use of nonfiction texts in science and social studies classes, conflicting with the long-established focus on fiction to build literacy. (Critics such as the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, a think-tank, worry that the standards will crowd out literature. Kohn’s humanities unit will go on to explore E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, which takes place at the turn of the century and mixes historical figures with fictional characters.)

Teachers at Scholars’ Academy almost uniformly praise the standards for their rigor and for creating shared expectations across content areas. But they do harbor some practical and reasonable concerns about New York’s accelerated timeline for Common Core implementation.

The state administered the first exams measuring the harder standards this past spring, causing scores in most schools to drop. Many schools were not as prepared as Scholars’ Academy; schools and districts with more low-performing students especially struggled. In the Rochester district, in both English and in math, just 5 percent of students scored at the proficient level.

If the standards survive immolation on the altar of politics, they could face the slower death of bad implementation. More than 3 million teachers in the U.S. will need training, and quality materials are in short supply.

“It really requires the development of a strong curriculum to interpret the standards, and honestly, I do not see that capacity in any state, or in most districts,” says Nancy Grasmick, the former state superintendent of Maryland, who is now helping to incorporate the standards into teacher preparation at Towson University, the largest producer of teachers in the state.

The standards are an especially tough lift for teachers in subjects like science who may have no experience selecting appropriate nonfiction texts or designing writing assignments. To quote Scholars’ Academy science teacher Anna Bulatewicz, it is difficult to find scientific articles, rather than “articles about science,” at the right level of complexity for high school students.

But gradually, breakthroughs have occurred, and will hopefully continue as innovative teachers and schools across the country implement and explore the new standards.

Visual-arts teacher Kelly Trpic, another Scholars’ Academy teacher, retooled a research paper into a new assignment in which students analyze historical materials to interpret artworks in the context in which they were created. For her, the difference in results is no contest.

“I used to get the most boring biographies ever—you know, how many sisters and brothers the artist had. It had nothing to do with the artwork,” she says. “But this year, I got the most incredible essays.” 

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