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Editorial: Common Core needs balance

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | AUGUST 25, 2014 5:00 AM

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With the start of a new school year comes the renewed start of a storied debate: how to handle education standards for the nation’s public schools.

These standards, called the Common Core, aim to raise student literacy and achievement in certain “core” areas by standardizing what is taught nationwide. While more people are aware of the standards than in years previous, a recent Gallup poll found they are also more wary of them — 81 percent of those polled had heard about the Common Core, compared with 38 percent last year. But 60 percent oppose the standards because of what they see as the rigid structure of the Core that limits educators’ flexibility in developing curricula.

Unsurprisingly, the poll also highlighted a partisan split — 76 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of independents opposed the standards, while 53 percent of Democrats favored them.

Given this difference, the question for those drafting the standards is how much of this opposition is due to ideology versus the content of the Common Core and how it is implemented.

Iowa’s iteration, the Iowa Core, goes above and beyond the national standards, which cover English and math. It is defined by the state Department of Education as a set of academic standards that articulate the concepts and skills Iowa students need to master in math, science, English language, and social studies as they move from kindergarten through grade 12.

Iowa was the last in the nation to adopt statewide testing standards, and one of only four states drafted their own versions. Though the Iowa Core has not been susceptible to the same kind of criticism that states with “rushed” standards have been, the way it has been rolled out has left something to be desired.

The problem has been taking rules that are written at the state level and applying them to individual districts. One of the goals of the program is to raise underperforming districts to the same level as their more well-off counterparts. Critics say this approach merely homogenizes school district performance, elevating poorer districts at the expense of stagnation in the rest.

Concerns have also been raised about “teaching to the test.” When a school’s funding depends on how well its students do on standardized tests, district administrators will place a heavy priority on ensuring results rather than actual learning. This phenomenon was a hot topic when these tests were mandated under the No Child Left Behind act, and the problem is exacerbated in poorer school districts, which rely heavily on government funding.

But at the same time, there is still a need for standardized testing. It’s important to benchmark student progress internationally (where there is much cause for alarm; the U.S. Education secretary called 2012’s test results “the picture of educational stagnation”). And in order to make sure our education achievement gap doesn’t stretch further, we need to measure student performance with standardized testing to see if they’re learning.

But it’s a paradoxical task. When we mandate test taking, teachers teach to the test. When that occurs, actual learning falls by the wayside. So what’s the solution?

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes there should be more flexibility built into the Core to allow local educators to prescribe just the right fix for their district. Schools will function more efficiently when they are not subjugated to a one-size-fits-all model. On the other hand, there still is a need for consistency across districts so that the state education board can see where changes need to be made.

There can be a balance struck between these two needs. And when that happens, the Common Core will become more favorable in the public eye.


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