Cutting to the Core
When lawmakers dictate curricula, the natural reaction from educators is to reject this top down approach which seeks to homogenize the lives of children without possibly taking into account the individual gifts and foibles that teachers recognize as indicators of learning style. When a nationwide blueprint for educational standards is unveiled, reaction within the states of our union is likely to be hostile as it can only be seen as further erosion of state constitutional power. However, the publication of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English and Mathematics has been met with surprisingly little hostility.
Although the Obama administration is strongly encouraging the standards, they are not a federal initiative. Sponsors are the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. States which opt to implement the standards will be better positioned to win grant money in the Race to the Top Program, which awards its second round of federal funds in September. An open letter supporting adoption of the standards was signed by over 50 superintendents and school chancellors from diverse cities such as Anchorage, Memphis and Omaha. In the missive, city leaders underscored the importance of a framework to which all states will be held accountable; “These standards will give us, for once, a common definition of what academic proficiency means and what it doesn’t mean, rather than having 50 different definitions,” they wrote.
Within the standards are relatively detailed guidelines (see News, page 10) on their application to English language learners (ELLs) which recognize from the outset that “ELLs are a heterogeneous group with differences in ethnic background, first language, socioeconomic status, quality of prior schooling, and levels of English language proficiency.” It is such recognition of the diversity of our schoolchildren that prevents the CCSS from being objectionable. As long as they are used as a structure and do not become a law of their own, they are a very useful tool for states to adapt.
But, we cannot expect these standards to suddenly improve our schools. Without equal distribution of resources to ensure that teachers are paid and trained sufficiently to be able to make a difference to the children who need it most, and schools that have equal resources to make sure that underprivileged kids have the environment and resources required to succeed, common standards have little bearing.
Per pupil funding varies enormously not only from state to state, but from school to school, and this problem is being made worse by the Race to the Top initiative. Deep budget crises in many states are threatening thousands of teachers' jobs and creating problems for schools and their students that no standards can hope to overcome.
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