Why I support the Common Core

What should be the end goal of K-12 education? To prepare students for college, the workforce, military, trade school, life?

I support Common Core standards because I believe including rigorous standards that require higher-order thinking skills prepare all students for a variety of career and educational paths.

The Common Core is a set of standards in mathematics and language arts/literacy that outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. The standards were developed in response to years of stagnant academic progress for K-12 students and high need for remedial work in colleges.

One cause of lagging performance was uneven standards across 50 states. The Common Core Standards were voluntarily adopted by 43 states, the District of Columbia and four territories. The idea is that no matter where students are educated in the United States they are held to the same standards of learning.

The N.C. State Board of Education and N.C. Department of Public Instruction adopted the Common Core Standards in 2010. They were fully implemented into classrooms during the 2012-2013 school year.

Controversy surrounds the Common Core standards. Many people are concerned that in North Carolina they were imposed all at once, instead of being phased in by grade, starting with younger students.

Others question the new standards because they are different from their own schooling and they find it challenging to help their children with schoolwork. Some people are concerned the standards do not allow states flexibility to teach what they choose. And many worry that new standards simply means more testing, thus more pressure on teachers, more teaching to the test, and less enjoyment in the learning process.

Many individuals incorrectly conflate the Common Core standards themselves with the standardized testing that comes with them. Often, in discussions of Common Core it seems dissatisfaction with one element causes people to dismiss the entire initiative. Concern about implementation and the additional testing are valid points to be considered, but my defense here concerns the Common Core standards themselves. It is crucial for all students to experience a rigorous K-12 education that sufficiently prepares them to pursue the life path they prefer.

My own education predated Common Core. I’m also a former middle school social studies teacher who began in North Carolina in 2012 and taught using Common Core standards. Because I was an American studies major with a focus on American history and literature, I also understand the higher-level thinking skills and prerequisite knowledge needed to be a historian. And some of those skills were ones I was never forced to use in middle school myself.

When I was in the eighth grade, each student in my social studies class was required to recite a portion of a founding document as part of our unit on the founding of the United States. While I believe all citizens should have an understanding of significant national documents, the project was pure recitation. It required no analysis, evaluation, or creativity. Those kinds of assignments were typical at that time.

Rote memorization in no way prepared me to use the higher-order thinking skills I needed to complete social studies assignments in college. You may conclude, well, you were in middle school and would learn more fundamentals in high school. But my high school teachers expected me to have already mastered certain fundamental higher-order thinking skills, and to an extent, I had not. In some subject areas I was simply unprepared because of how I was taught in earlier grades.

I know students at different schools have incredibly different educational experiences. Some have rigorous educational experiences that prepare them for any educational or career path they prefer. Others are never challenged and never equipped with the knowledge to choose an educational or career path, simply because of where they attend school.

The purpose of challenging students to use higher-order thinking skills in elementary and middle school is so they have time to practice and develop these skills over time. If students learn the tools at a young age, then high school teachers, college professors, and managers won’t have to waste time teaching remedial skills. Students may or may not master the concepts at first, but they will have exposure and practice with using higher-order thinking skills.

What if I were to ask my students to summarize, in their own words, the meaning of “all men are created equal” and present evidence to support their interpretation? Or what if I were to ask them to evaluate the extent to which they believe democratic ideals are evident in the Declaration of Independence compared to the U.S. Constitution? Those are viable assignment alternatives to reciting a founding document and all are example assignments, aligned to the Common Core, included in the Essential Standards for North Carolina eighth-grade social studies students.

Which assignments challenge students to use skills that are transferable within everyday life and marketable among different career fields? The types of assignments students are expected to complete under Common Core today are more aligned with the rigor of academic work they may face at the college and career levels. Even if students do not choose college, they can still apply the higher-order thinking skills to other occupational paths.

Should students merely memorize information someone tells them? Or should we challenge students to learn the tools necessary to analyze and interpret information for themselves?

Students should have the opportunity to pursue whichever career paths they prefer. To give students an advantage in today’s evolving economy, we must start preparing them from an early age with the higher-order thinking skills they will need to succeed. I support Common Core because I understand the end goal.

Commentary pieces reflect the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Lauren Zachary is a research analyst at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and a former middle school teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.