Opinions, Column

The Problem of Common Core

Most of the talk about the 2016 election has revolved around Donald Trump’s foolish antics and Hillary Clinton’s scandals, overlooking important issues like educational reform. As much as everyone seems to agree that education is the key to success in this country, candidates don’t often talk about how to fix the educational system. Over the past few years, the federal government has tried to answer this question through the implementation of the Common Core educational standards. Though Democrats tend to embrace federal control of education and conservatives tend to lambast it, a middle ground must be reached between federal standards and states’ rights if we are to set reformative educational policies.

In 2014, I was a student representative on my town’s school committee. It was a non-voting role, but I was able to fully debate and contribute. At the start of my tenure, I assumed the committee would be discussing various aspects of local education by debating issues like budgets and facilities, but I did not expect to be on the committee during one of the most contentious battles of the committee’s history, the adaptation of Common Core.

Though the state of Massachusetts was responsible for the decision to adopt Common Core, citizens of the town felt that it was the committee’s duty to rebuke the standards with a formal complaint to the state. As a conservative, I typically believe that the less interference the federal government has with the people, the better, and in this circumstance my beliefs held true. Teacher after teacher testified to how “teaching to the test” was going to further hinder their freedom as educators. I heard the voices of community members who did not want a “dumbing down” of the world-class standards of the Massachusetts educational system, which most students know as the MCAS. To me, this seemed like the clearest case of the federal government’s overreaching its bounds and bullying communities into accepting its view of a good education. How can a government official in Washington possibly know what the best educational strategy is for someone in Boston, San Francisco, Detroit, or New Orleans?

In Massachusetts and states like it around the country, top-down approaches to education directed by the federal government will only make the jobs of teachers more difficult. Many skilled teachers who have been doing their jobs effectively for years now have to change the way they teach their subjects to follow the new rules. All this does is put more obstacles in the way of children’s education. The freedom of teachers to be creative is part of the joy of education we must not take away from today’s youth.

Beyond just the teachers’ added stress, the Common Core educational standards are often unreasonable and simply not productive. To help convince kids to stay in school, it is critical that they are taught important skills and also how to enjoy learning, but many Common Core standards, especially for early elementary students, can be unreasonably challenging for students of their age.

The theory is that by throwing more difficult material at students they will be able to pick it up. But this is not the case. The added stress and additional work to the most vulnerable students fosters an early contempt for learning, something that will damage their long-term academic stamina and success.

Something that governments often overlook is the human element of every decision. Common Core and the PARCC and Smarter Balance exams that go with it are all data-driven. The government is convinced that data can help solve all of our educational woes. While data can be great, testing out entirely new educational standards on a national scale can do great damage by essentially using students all over the country as test cases. In some instances of underperforming academic states, the standards may drastically improve overall educational well-being, but in other states such as Massachusetts with a strong academic track record, student achievement could very well be significantly diminished.

Using an untested, unproven method all over the country is a risky and dangerous move. Educational standards should be created then reviewed and discussed with teachers, parents, students, and local governments around the country before they become the norm.

To automatically reject all types of government educational standards is not the right course of action either. It is evident that the governments of many states are failing their pupils. This sad truth cannot be overlooked, and for these states some federal guidelines or even requirements are necessary. The state government should still have a hand in setting up the standards for the educational system, but in severely underperforming areas some federal assistance is needed. I do not reject all federal educational standards, but I do reject the nature in which the new, untested Common Core standards have been pushed on to states.

The idea behind Common Core is to provide students with a consistent educational experience across the country. Surely the idea of all students’ having the necessary skill sets to succeed is attractive to everyone. Common Core does not have to be a divisive issue, as it has become. It does not have to be black and white. What does need to happen is a real discussion of the issues facing our educational system and how we can all work together to solve them.

Though I do not believe Common Core to be the correct next step toward educational reform, I disagree with the premise that all educational decisions rest with the states. We all have a vested interest in a well-educated population and every student in every city and town deserves the opportunity to learn.

Featured Image by Jordan Pentaleri / Heights Archives

March 16, 2016