Why the Common Core Standards Are Good For Educators

1.  Eliminates the content specific standards that require students to take every science that has ever existed in the history of science.Illinois_State_Standards.jpg

For the state of Illinois, the science standards were so expansive a student would need to take biology, chemistry, earth science, physics, and health in order to cover each goal.  They would need to take these subjects all before the test their junior year.   To compensate for lack of time, teachers would speed through content or artificially implant unrelated content into their curriculum in an attempt to hit each of the topics required by the standards.  The result was a curriculum a mile wide and an inch deep.  Students didn’t retain much of what was tossed at them, test scores showed very little improvement.    District staff development would often focus on ways we could shove all this content into three years.  I know some schools even changed their class sequences to try to accommodate so many subjects.

The new standards scale back this mad rush for content learning.  It appears that someone finally got the memo that discreet units of information are not that important in an age when people carry computers in their pockets and can access any information with a click.    This doesn’t mean that you stop teaching your subjects core ideas, but it means you can spend more time going into depth with topics, allowing for students to explore and develop their own understandings of difficult ideas.

2.  Allows for flexibility

I think what most teachers fear when rumblings of new standards are heard in the distance is that their curriculum, their worksheets, their favorite topics are going to be on the chopping block.   The new literacy standards are actually very flexible, and are designed to work within any topic or subject area.  (I have yet to see the science specific standards).   For instance, you can still keep teaching your favorite unit on the cell or on evolution, but the standards will require you to add goals related to reading for information and understanding.   This actually fits well with most biology topics because you can find articles and news about almost all topics we cover.     You will have more time because you won’t need to cover everything in the history of science  as discussed in #1.

3.  The same standards apply across all grade levels (scaffolded).  By the time you get the students in high school, they should be very good at the standards.

Every literacy standard is repeated at each grade level, with the intent to make things more difficult as students go up in grades.   The final goal or outcome is for students to  be able to read and evaluate difficult  text.   For instance, one goal states that students will be able to  “cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts”.   These kids have the internet at their fingertips, with answers, articles, and video on any topic they can imagine.  Our job is to help them be able to read and critically evaluate this information.   If you start at kindergarten and work on it every year, it is not difficult to imagine that students can achieve mastery by the time they graduate.

4.   Less emphasis on memorizing facts and minutia  (is this a sacred cow?)

At my last department meeting, we discussed what words we were going to post for our “Word of the Week”.  This idea stems from the observation that students often see words in everyday texts, or on tests that they don’t know what they mean.  We are picking words such as “omit, spectrum, diversity” to post each week and make sure the students know.  These words are not necessarily specific to science, and there was some discussion over which words to include in the list.  The group was divided on whether to include the terms weight and mass.

Regardless of how the discussion ended, the discussion itself illustrates how we all have our sacred cows – the topics and ideas we feel are absolutely important for students to know and leaving them out would be akin to a crime, these are non negotiable and you can always identify a sacred cow by the fervor with which a teacher defends the teaching of the topic.   For instance, my sacred cow is evolution. I would feel any biology class would be incomplete and disjointed without its inclusion.

Luckily, the new common core will not touch your sacred cow, you can leave your most important favorite topics where they are and not change a thing.  In fact, you may have more time to work on that special project, that lab or that discussion because the  new standards will place less emphasis on memorizing a broad range of facts and figures.   It seems, at least in these preliminary days, that we are moving toward a more holistic view of education, where we will teach students skills that will transcend the subject matter.

5.  The standards just make sense.

To reiterate, the science specific standards have not been published, but the science literacy standards seem very workable.   When I started teaching there was not a computer in my classroom, but times have definitely changed, and the current standards seem woefully outdated and obsolete.   These new standards appear to have longevity because they tackle the problem of rapid change while keeping core values intact.   We cannot predict how science will change in the future and textbooks take years to print to account for new information.   The amount of information available to students is staggering, and as a teacher, the idea of trying to teach *everything* is not only daunting, but perhaps misguided.  Students don’t need to know everything, but they do need to have the tools to find and evaluate all the information that is so readily available to them.    I was particularly inspired by this video:

Teaching in the 21st Century

Stay tuned for more entries on the common core standards, changes in documents that I write for my classes, such as powerpoints, worksheets and labs, and a DISSECTION of each of the standards.    Don’t be afraid, for the first time in a while, I’m actually excited about the changes that are coming our way.