Debates continue about the Common Core State Standards. Proponents and advocates write and speak with equal passion and conviction, and both sides offer important points as we reconsider the purpose of schooling in the twenty-first century. However, few debates about the CCSS actually discuss the purpose of schooling explicitly, which is a mistake. Few also address a second critical discussion about the role or purpose of standards in a school. Without a clear understanding of what we believe about the purpose of education and the proper role of standards, schools, parents, and educators will continue to be swayed back and forth, often taking a position on CCSS that is founded in conjecture. How can we agree upon which standards to use for a given school (or if we should use any standards) unless we are clear on the purpose of education?
With this in mind, what is the purpose of the Common Core State Standards? The CCSS main website states:
High standards that are consistent across states provide teachers, parents, and students with a set of clear expectations to ensure that all students have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life upon graduation from high school, regardless of where they live. These standards are aligned to the expectations of colleges, workforce training programs, and employers. (Why are the Common Core Standards important?, emphasis added)
These are standards based upon the belief that school exists to help young people “succeed in college, career, and life.” But if we look further into the documentation about the standards, this is one of the only places where “life” is emphasized. Notice the latter part of the quote. The CCSS are tied to skills important for college and certain jobs. (I write “certain jobs” because there are clearly thousands of jobs that can be fulfilled without one meeting the CCSS.) If CCSS is also about preparing young people for life beyond college and career, what data did the developers of CCSS use for this part of the stated purpose? For example, what math and language arts knowledge and skills best help one to “succeed in life”?
If we reduce life to little more than going to college and getting a good job, the answer is clear. However, what else is there in life? What about life with family and friends, hobbies and interests, financial life, community life, spiritual life, moral life, and more? Many will point out that nothing in the CCSS is against these parts of life, but that is much different from being designed to help people thrive in these areas of life. For example, the Council for Economic Education and similar organizations have aligned their curriculum on financial literacy to the CCSS. They likely did so to survive. If a curriculum provider does not align to CCSS, it reduces the provider’s ability to sell products to schools. The Common Core math standards only explicitly reference a concept tied to financial literacy once (in second grade). Proponents might note two reasons for this. First, financial literacy is not usually part of the math curriculum. Instead, it belongs in social studies, consumer education, or high school economics. Second, it could be argued that the underlying math skills for financial literacy are all over the place in the CCSS.
These are valid points, but it is equally true that it would be possible to meet all the Common Core math standards and still lack the ability to apply those math concepts to one’s financial life. So, the math standards may help prepare one for the demands of college, but are they also going to help students figure out how to use those concepts to address the challenges of college loans, credit card companies selling them “amazing deals,” and budgeting and saving? It can be argued that financial life is one of the areas where most adults are in the greatest need of math skills, but nothing in the Common Core explicitly leads toward such an outcome.
Many independent schools are also grappling with what to do with the CCSS. As they look at new curricular resources, most of the high-quality resources they find are now aligned to these standards. Yet, many private schools have stated purposes that will be undermined if they did nothing more than design a curriculum carefully aligned to the CCSS. For example, the language arts standards in Common Core have little or nothing to say about reading religious texts for spiritual edification, or how to read a text and compare/contrast it to one’s religious belief system.
This is because the CCSS is not a curriculum. A curriculum is the entire learning experience provided by a school. The CCSS is a set of standards that one can use as a resource when designing a school curriculum. In fact, CCSS is only two sets of standards: one for language arts and another for math.
A school based solely on the CCSS would be, in most people’s judgment, a subpar education. It is possible that some schools are building a curriculum that has the primary goal of helping students score well on tests aligned to the CCSS, and that is one of the problems with how standards are being used or abused. There is nothing inherent in the idea of using the CCSS that demands this type of flawed thinking.
Rather, thoughtful schools reference many sets of standards in the design and redesign of a school curriculum. The CCSS is not adequate. Giving the example of independent schools tied to a religious organization, the CCSS says nothing about the educational goals and values that align with that religious tradition. Yet, such a school is obligated by their stated reason for existence to design a curriculum that is aligned to more than these standards. It has religious goals and desired outcomes that have implications for college, work, and the rest of life. Such schools must be able to articulate how their curriculum is informed not only by something like CCSS, but also by the other standards and sources of guidance. I come from the tradition of Lutheran education. If a language arts teacher in such a school could say nothing more about her curriculum than how it aligns to CCSS, she would fail to meet the standard and expectation for teaching in a Lutheran school. Such teachers must also be able to articulate how the specific knowledge and skills emphasized in their language arts curriculum aid learners in their spiritual life. The same would be true for a math teacher in such a context.
This is not limited to faith-based schools. Public schools often have stated school or district goals for learners that will not be met simply by teaching a curriculum aligned to the CCSS. For example, the district in which I live has the following vision statement:
The vision of the Mequon-Thiensville School District is to be an exemplary educational leader that supports and challenges all students to achieve their full potential. (Mission and Vision Statement)
This vision calls for a curriculum that is focused upon helping students “achieve their full potential.” If taken seriously, this demands a drastically different type of school curriculum. Since each student’s potential is different and focused upon varying areas of strength, interest, and ability, I would expect to see a curriculum that is highly personalized. It would be a curriculum that allows learners to spend significant parts of their school day building knowledge and skills specific to their distinct gifts, interests, goals, and abilities. I would expect that every teacher could articulate this vision and how their work and efforts are focused upon this main goal of helping students reach their full potential. The CCSS does nothing to make sure this vision will become a reality for the students in the district; it is just a list of benchmarks for language arts and math. It is based upon nothing more than basic research on what it takes to succeed in college and some workplace environments (and only as it relates to math and language arts). It isn’t an adequate guide for the larger and more significant purposes of schools or an overall curriculum. It is just one potentially useful resource.
The more I follow debates and conversations about the CSSS and school standards in general, the more I realize that part of our struggle in these conversations is that parents and educators have an inadequate understanding of the vocabulary associated with the conversation (curriculum, standards, goals, outcomes, objectives, competencies, assessments, etc.). Most have an even more inadequate understanding of curriculum design and development. For many, you send your kids to school to get an education. Educators, school leaders, parents, students, and community members need to unpack this.
- What kind of education?
- What is the purpose of this education?
- What are the goals and desired outcomes for this education?
- What is the vision for learners who get this education?
- What standards and resources can we use to help us design a school learning experience that leads toward these goals and outcomes?
These are the types of questions that we must take seriously if we are going to make progress in the conversations about the proper role of CCSS in education. In fact, these are the questions we must explore if we are going to provide high-impact twenty-first- and twenty-second-century schools.