In a time of unprecedented gridlock in Washington, education reform has managed to force its way into the daily lives of children across the country. No fewer than forty-five states and the District of Columbia have agreed to formally adopt the Common Core State Standards, a set of comprehensive math and language arts standards for students in kindergarten through the twelfth grade.
Developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core sets goals for students without mandating how to reach them, leaving states, schools, and teachers plenty of freedom to decide what goes on in the classroom. The idea behind this widely adopted set of standards is simple: There is no reason to hold students to different expectations just because they live in different places.
But when it comes to shaping the way students learn to think, nothing is ever simple. At Columbia, debate over a very different set of academic requirements has been smoldering for decades. Our Core Curriculum declares that every student, no matter her previous experience or future goals, can learn from the Western canon. Pushing beyond arguments over the merits of dead white men and the importance of scientific reasoning, the Core Curriculum presents a more fundamental philosophy of learning and a defined set of materials that can put each individual on the path to redefine the way she thinks.
Examining the new Common Core leads us to an important and perhaps uncomfortable truth about our Core Curriculum: It cannot and should not be the educational model for all. The American public education system today is one of rampant inequalities, rooted not in the ideal of federalism, but in revenue disparities between school districts. In such an environment, it is irresponsible to assume, as Columbia’s Core Curriculum does, that students will pull lifelong lessons from the material that is set before them. Such an approach allows the school to leave its graduates’ achievements undefined.
At Columbia, this means that students determine their own way of thinking, but outside the gates of 116th and Broadway, it is not the student but rather the environment that most determines what is learned. Defining the explicit goals – the standards – of education is a necessary step toward reducing the power that a child’s socioeconomic status holds over her education. Our refusal to set such standards makes Columbia’s Core Curriculum immensely valuable to each individual, but massive education reform must be the domain of the Common Core. Underlying any attempt to define what students learn is a philosophy of how students think – or, more importantly, how they ought to think. This is especially true of the Common Core, in which the standards are designed to create students who are “college and career ready.” This firmly grounds education in practical application.
But at Columbia, the Core Curriculum mission is to let students “cultivate a critical and creative intellectual capacity” that will serve them “in the pursuit and the fulfillment of meaningful lives.” But despite the best efforts of Plato, Aristotle, and almost every other author in the Core Curriculum, a “meaningful life” remains hard to identify. It is much easier to achieve and measure success through the Common Core – achieving a college degree or a career – than it is to understand success within the Core Curriculum. However, the outcry against the Common Core began as soon as it looked like it could become a viable national movement. Right-wing commentators bemoaned the loss of states’ individuality, lovers of literature condemned the emphasis on non-fiction texts, and education experts pointed out that it did not directly address the structural issues plaguing school systems.
To make matters worse, the early stages of implementation have been rocky at best. This past year, New York became one of the first states to implement the Common Core. A few weeks before Columbia freshmen trudged into Hamilton to take their first finals, students in the third through eighth grades sat down just a few blocks away at Public School 165 to take a very different exam: one aligned with the Common Core standards. The students struggled, asked suddenly to solve problems and analyze texts in ways they had never been taught. Statewide, scores plummeted: 31 percent of students were rated proficient in language arts, down from 55 percent last year, and proficiency levels in math dropped to 31 percent from last year’s 65 percent.
But state officials expected these sharp declines. After years of learning a completely different skill set, students could hardly be expected to think in new ways overnight. And with little time to design new lessons, schools and teachers were equally unprepared. Common Core textbooks did not even arrive until days into the new school year. Given these challenges, last year’s test scores are mostly important as a benchmark to measure progress in years to come. The more pressing issues lie in the way these scores have been used. Because the Common Core-based test was designed to measure progress toward each new standard, it should reveal precisely which skills students have and have not been developed. But despite this enormous potential to fuel data-driven instruction, teachers were provided with little more than a single numerical score for each student. According to a public school teacher at Middle School 324 in Washington Heights, even this information was not made available until late August.
These implementation issues have brought the broad, systemic goals of the Common Core into sharp focus at the classroom level. Creating Common Core standards is not enough; states, districts, and schools must also create mechanisms that allow teachers and students to work toward these standards. A teacher who is only told whether a child performed at a level of 1, 2, 3, or 4 cannot make effective use of that information, but a teacher who knows exactly what type of skills her students missed out on last year can work to improve those lessons in the next. And improving those lessons is far easier when updated resources are made available during summer, rather than in the hectic first week of school.
Despite these early difficulties, the school day for public school students in every state save Texas, Virginia, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Alaska will be shaped by the Common Core by 2015. The broad appeal of the Common Core lies in that it is simply a set of standards. It is not a national curriculum, a set of lesson plans, or instructions in the pedagogy of teaching. As stated in its mission, it defines a “consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn,” but does not mandate how these concepts should be taught. The measure of each state’s success in meeting Common Core standards comes at the end of the year, with a set of newly designed standardized tests like the one given in New York. Though the emphasis on testing will long linger as the legacy of the No Child Left Behind Act, the Common Core will at least guarantee that tests are designed to measure skills against consistent standards that are internationally competitive and shared by a majority of the states. Evaluating children according to such standards is a prerequisite for higher achievement across the country.
To ensure that states design their own curricula and teachers plan their own lessons, the Common Core separates skills from content. Its standards are presented as skills—or, in other words, specific ways of thinking to solve specific tasks. A sixth grader, for example, is expected to develop the skills to “solve real-world and mathematical problems by writing and solving equations of the form x + p = q and px = q for cases in which p, q and x are all nonnegative rational numbers.” The standards are explicit without requiring the use of certain textbooks or exercises. But content is much more contentious in language arts than it is in math. The text read in an English class will impact students’ analytical skills in ways that the text of a word problem will not. The Common Core therefore asks students to study classical world myths, America’s founding documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare. More controversially, it requires that texts across all subjects (including history and science) focus increasingly on non-fiction, which comprises 70 percent of the high school curriculum for juniors and seniors.
But by simply emphasizing this divide between skills and content, the Common Core demonstrates its commitment to set goals and backing away from materials, leaving content-based decisions in the hands of local authorities while ensuring national standards in literacy and mathematics. But at Columbia, materials rather than skills form the heart of the Core Curriculum. Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, the two courses most central to the Core, grow out of a list of texts, a classroom, a professor, and a group of students. Discussion, debate, and critical thinking transform these basic ingredients into an especially fulfilling, though expensive, education. This design rejects the importance of skills and standards. In fact, Frontiers of Science, the one core class that attempts to teach skills rather than content, has long been decried as the black sheep of the curriculum; students regularly scorn the “Scientific Habits of Mind” as little more than common sense. It is only when students engage with great works themselves that the classes have value. Columbia’s Core Curriculum tells students to take a class, read a book, and let that, not an arbitrarily-defined set of objectives, inform their way of thinking. But the Common Core takes the exact opposite stance, setting expectations for the way students should be able to think while leaving the works – the content – at the discretion of states, districts, and schools.
It is worth noting that the Core Curriculum bore a stronger resemblance to the Common Core at its inception than it does today. In 1919, in response to World War I, Columbia debuted a class on War Issues, which was later transformed into Contemporary Civilization. That year, an early architect of Columbia’s Core, Professor John Erskine, explained the course by saying, “Special skills, we observed, made possible the gathering and equipping of armies and navies … why then should not the problems of peace as well be solved by the trained mind?” As Erskine implies, skills were an early goal of Core Curriculum. The materials were chosen in accordance with the targeted skills, and after a few years students were even issued a handbook containing excerpted texts accompanied by in-depth analyses by academic experts.
This resonates strongly with the new Common Core and the textbooks that accompany it: The standards emphasize texts primarily for their ability to help students build civic skills. But today, Columbia’s Core Curriculum has deemphasized the skills needed to solve societal woes in favor of equipping students to see these problems for themselves. The content is no longer “planned to introduce the students to the insistent problems of to-day,” as Professor John J. Coss once described the highly structured maps, graphs, and texts that were included in the early years of the Core Curriculum. Instead of such secondary source materials, students now read classical texts and apply them to the modern world as they see fit. Like today’s nationwide Common Core, the early Core Curriculum had a specific, practical goal. But now, the value of the Columbia’s Core Curriculum lies in the fact that its goals cannot be standardized. Everyone who participates reads the same works, listens to the same music, picks from the same list of Global Core classes.
But beyond that, each individual experiences it differently; the skills you learn are your own. On a national level, that’s just not good enough. In a country where a white student in New Hampshire is almost twice as likely to graduate as a black student in Nevada, it is not enough to simply trust that each child will work with whatever material is put before them and grow into a well-educated adult. That leads to an education system that reflects each child’s socioeconomic conditions far more than effort, intelligence, or improvement. Though there is no quick fix for the American public school system, the Common Core is a good start. By declaring that students all across the country must be able to solve problems, analyze texts, and think critically, the Common Core sets us on the road toward a more equitable education for all.
Artwork by Claire Huang