These days you hear a lot about “Common Core” — a set of national math and reading standards that have been adopted in more than 40 states and are supported by the Obama Administration. One recent article described a “populist uprising” against the standards. In Louisiana, the state board of education and Governor Bobby Jindal are suing each other about whether that state can nullify its agreement to participate in Common Core. This week, in Ohio, House Republicans have introduced a bill to replace Common Core standards, which could set up a clash with Governor John Kasich, who has supported the Common Core initiative.
The stated goal of Common Core is to develop critical thinking and better ready students for college and careers and — as its name indicates — establish a common set of standards between states. Supporters say the Common Core approach to learning about math and reading are better, and in any event it would be foolish to retreat from the standards after the participating states have spent years developing and implementing them. Common Core opponents object to “federalization” of education and raise questions about costs.
Richard and Russell are long past learning math and reading, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m not automatically opposed to trying new approaches or promoting standards that ensure that kids learn the basics; I remember taking “The Iowa Test of Basic Skills” when I was in grade school in the ’60s. At the same time, I’m often skeptical at claims that new approaches are better, particularly when it comes to subjects that have been taught for centuries.
With respect to Common Core, I’m more interested in the human element in these changes — which, I think, often get overlooked when huge national forces and politics enter the process. I became aware of that human element when I had lunch several weeks ago with two colleagues who have youngsters in grade school. Neither is a Republican or a reflexive opponent of “federalizing” standards, but both had serious concerns about Common Core. One related a story in which she sat down with her daughter to look at her math homework, which involved addition and subtraction problems. When the mother started to use the familiar right to left process, “carrying” numbers from column to column, the daughter said: “Mom, we don’t do it that way!” The Mom was embarrassed, and wondered why we are making this kind of change. NPR recently carried a report that raised that same issue of disconnect between parents and their kids that Common Core presents.
I think parental involvement helps to encourage kids to work hard in school, and homework assistance can also be one way of strengthening the parent-child bond. Those of us who learned the “carry” method have somehow managed to balance checkbooks, perform the basic math skills needed to function in modern society, and contribute to the economy. Why change the basic approach to addition and subtraction in a way that shuts parents out of the homework process even in the very early grades, and suggests to young children that their parents are old-fashioned and out of it? Isn’t it at least possible that there is an ultimate social cost in such a change that outweighs whatever incremental learning benefit the new approach is supposed to realize?