Where's The Content?

Wednesday, 10 March 2010 10:31 by Eli Savit
Today, the Common Core working group--a panel of educators from 48 states--released a set of proposed common academic standards for public school students from grades K-12.  If adopted, the proposed standards would replace the current hodge-podge of state standards, which have been roundly criticized for setting the academic bar too low.  

Essentially, under the current system, students within a state have to reach a certain passing rate on a standardized test if that state is to receive federal funding.  But states themselves get to write their own tests--and states also  get to determine what score a student needs to receive to pass that test.  So, for example, a student in Mississippi might be presented with a test comprised of Celebrity Jeopardy-esque questions, while a student in Massachusetts could be faced with a much a harder exam.  And while the student from Mississippi might only need to get 30% of the questions correct to "pass," the student from Massachusetts might need to receive a 70%.   The overall result has been a race to the bottom, with states continually lowering their academic standards to compete for federal funding.

The Common Core standards released today are an attempt to end this academic race to the bottom.  The Common Core working group envisions states across the country collectively adopting its proposed standards.  In theory, with standards set at the same level nationwide, an individual state will have little incentive to lower the bar for its students. And, according to the Common Core task force, its standards are ambitious--aiming to ensure that all students are "college ready" by the end of their senior year of high school.

For uniformity's sake alone, the Common Core standards are a definite upgrade over the current standards.  But a quick look over the standards shows that they are incomplete, at best.  Although the standards nominally cover math, English, and "literacy in science and social studies," the standards for science and social studies say nothing about the  actual content students should be learning.   For example: under the Common Core standards, 11th and 12th grade students should be able to "analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured," and "interpret the meaning of words and phrases in a text."  And indeed they should.  But the standards say nothing about what kinds of primary sources students should be studying.  The Constitution?  A translated copy of Egyptian hieroglyphics?  An authentic 1990s Ren & Stimpy cartoon?  The Common Core standards provide a robust set of skill-based standards, but they almost completely ignore what content students are supposed to be learning in science and social studies classes.

The theory behind the skills-based approach is that schools should give students the capacity to engage with any text, rather than to pound home "rote" facts like "what does the Supreme Court do?" or "what is a covalent bond?"  But a solid basis in content is an integral part of learning to read a wide variety of texts.  If you don't understand what the Supreme Court does, or if you don't understand the First Amendment, you're not going to be able to understand articles like this one criticizing the Court's recent decision striking down campaign finance laws.  Similarly, if you don't understand the concept of global warming, you're sure not going to understand this article about the "beleaguered global warming panel."   And these are basic articles that one would hope any  "college ready" high school senior would be able to make sense of.

Were the Common Core standards supplemented with adequate content-based instruction, they could indeed leave American students "college ready."  But recent history suggests that states and schools are loathe to insist upon robust content standards on their own accord.  When standards are skill-based, schools focus on skills--leaving students in the dark about the most basic facts.  A recent study showed, for example, that fewer than half of 17-year-olds can place the Civil War in the proper half-century, nearly a quarter cannot identify Adolf Hitler, and a third do not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom of speech and religion.  

Ending the race to the bottom is a good thing, and the Common Core standards may well do just that.  But if we're really concerned about ensuring that state standards are adequately preparing students for college, any national standards must insist upon at least a baseline of basic content knowledge.

UPDATE: A blog post at CommonCore.org (which is, confusingly enough, not affiliated with the Common Core State Standards group that released the standards) argues that the new standards do an admirable job of importing content into a skills-based curriculum.  The author's essential point is that the new standards allow space for--and in fact, encourage--a content-rich curriculum.  It's a more optimistic take than what I've written here.  Let's hope schools follow through and use this as a vehicle for delivering core content.  

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Gift Idea: School Greenhouse

Tuesday, 16 February 2010 18:14 by Jessica Rauch

 

One of my favorite things to do is search online for ideas of gifts that donors might give.  I've been thinking a lot about healthy/organic/sustainable/local/insert-trend-here eating lately and know that it is something that is important to many of our donors.  In fact, we have a few gifts on our site available right now that are intended to help start a sustainable school garden ala Alice Waters.  (If you're an educator and are enticed by this possibility, login and search "garden.")

Growing up in Southern California, many of us had gardens in our backyards (although my green thumb was more brown, unfortunately).  Living in colder climates over the last few years, however, made me realize more acutely the challenges inherent in gardening during the school year.  I visited a school in Detroit last year that has a budding garden and aspirations of one day being able to supplement their school lunches with food they grow themselves.  The realities of living in a colder climate, however, make this challenging/nearly impossible.  

How amazing would it be, though, if they had the resources to do so?  I just came across a greenhouse that can be erected by students/volunteers on the side of a school building.  It would help any interested school realize their vision of a sustainable school lunch program and would supplement science curriculum.  Many groups we work with are raising large sums of money and hoping to find exciting ways to use their donations.  If you're with a group that is passionate about this issue (or you're an individual/family looking to make a big impact), you might consider this path.  The greenhouses start at around $11,000.  Click here if you'd like to check 'em out.

And, if you want to give a gift (of any variety)...create an account here and then login here to design your gift.  Happy and healthy eating to everyone.  

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