In the first year of his presidency, Barack Obama launched his “Educate to Innovate” campaign. The initiatives that came from this campaign are aimed at building a workforce strong in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. To strengthen student achievement in these fields, the administration endorses the Common Core Standards. While many in education and STEM fields embrace the new standards, many strongly oppose them. Some hold the belief that the Common Core will lead to a national curriculum, wresting local control from school districts. Others believe the standards are weaker than what states have already implemented.Standards-based education
Standards-based education is not new. Standards are simply benchmarks, developmental markers of what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. Many argued that a high school diploma has no value without a standard measure of achievement. Heeding the call for standard-based education reform, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as reauthorized under President Bill Clinton, included a requirement that states develop standards for their schools. By the end of the 20th century, most states had new standards in place. Yet, American students continued to fall behind their counterparts in other countries on international achievement tests.
The introduction of Common Core
The standards varied widely across the states. Governors sought guidance in bringing more rigor to their own states’ standards. In 2009, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers launched the Common Core initiative. The idea behind this project was to look at the standards of states and countries that showed high levels of student achievement to determine best practices.
A consortium of teachers, content area specialists and experts in pedagogy developed Core Standards in English Language Arts and Math, the two content areas that are the underpinnings of all academic content areas. By 2014, 43 states and the District of Columbia had adopted the Common Core. The Standards are not without controversy, and several states have proposed dropping them. Organizations dedicated to improving STEM education in the country say this would be a mistake.
Changing the Equation
Changing the Equation, an organization of U.S. business leaders created to advance STEM education, stresses that the problem-solving and critical thinking skills demanded by the Common Core are necessary for students’ success in STEM subjects. The Common Core Standards for math narrow and deepen what students are expected to learn. Rather than a cursory overview of multiple topics, students are given the time to master fundamental concepts and skills. For example, students in primary grades focus on whole numbers, addition, subtraction and measurement. This gives them a solid foundation for tackling more complex concepts such as time and money later on.
Understanding concepts instead of memorizing charts
Rather than focusing on memorization of multiplication tables and equations — although students must develop some automaticity with math facts — the Common Core is designed so that students will develop an understanding of concepts and knowledge of how to apply these concepts to different situations. The ability to apply learning in different ways to new situations is the hallmark of a good scientist or engineer.
Is Common Core coming up short?
Not everyone agrees the Common Core can graduate more students ready to pursue STEM fields. In “Lowering the Bar: How Common Core Math Fails to Prepare High School Students for STEM,” R. James Milgram and Sandra Stotsky argue that the Common Core’s emphasis on preparing all students for college has caused the Standard’s to require minimal levels of math achievement, levels that are inadequate preparation for students wishing to enroll in STEM college programs. Pre-calculus and trigonometry are missing from the Common Core.
Despite these shortcomings, several mathematics education organizations support the Common Core. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and others, cite the coherence of the Standards, and the emphasis on both conceptual and procedural knowledge as reasons for their support. In a joint statement, four math educator associations said they believe the Common Core Standards are an improvement over the system of individual state standards.
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Gillian Burdett is a freelance writer covering all things home and living. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.