“How can we provide a good education for our children?” is a question asked by parents and politicians alike. Naturally, teachers have their opinions on the educational process, too – in fact, we’ll bet that you won’t find anyone who doesn’t have something to say about school quality or student achievement, whether that’s talking about their own experiences or what they think of “kids these days.” In the United States, the “No Child Left Behind” program was designed to raise the overall quality of education, by requiring schools to meet strict testing standards. In other words, if too many students tested in math and English skills failed to score highly enough, that school would be required to change its teaching practices, or replace its teachers, or even close down. A lot of argument has gone on over the last ten years about whether this approach has been working. Teachers complain that they’re required not to educate students, but instead to make sure they know how to pass the tests. That’s a superficial education, they say, and maybe not an education at all. Think about the difference between learning that 1492 was the year Columbus arrived in the Americas, and learning all about the political situation in Europe during this time of global trade and conquest as France, Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands, and England fought over territory around the world. If you only know the date, you might be able to answer a multiple-choice test question correctly, but you wouldn’t be able to write an answer to an essay question about why Columbus sailed for the New World.
In answer to some of these complaints, a new program called “Common Core Standards” has been developed and is being implemented across the United States. It’s designed to focus as much (or more) on the why of information as the what, according to its promoters. As part of the new system, reading skills will get a new focus. Teachers will work on getting students to read more deeply, to think about what they’re reading, and to be able to talk and write about the text. They’ll use both fiction and non-fiction in their classes, rather than fiction alone, to give students the opportunity to think about real-world situations and issues as well as literary devices, characterization, and plot. For some teachers, adjusting to the new standards has been difficult, because they have had to change lesson plans they’ve been using for years. Other teachers disagree with the use of third-party materials from businesses who are creating “ready-made” lesson plans and examinations, saying that these often fall back into the trap of “teaching to the test” with only one right answer possible, even in a case of opinion-based literary analysis.
Naturally, it will take a few years to see how this new system works, and whether it does have a positive impact on children’s reading skills. The theory is good – it’s always better to think about what you’re reading, rather than just skimming it and forgetting it – but it will take time to see how the Common Core program works in practice.
Does your child’s school use the Common Core program? Let us know what you think.