By J. M. Anderson
It's no secret that most high school graduates are unprepared for college. Every year, 1.7 million first-year college students are enrolled in remedial classes at a cost of about $3 billion annually, the Associated Press recently reported. Scores on the 2011 ACT college entrance exam showed that only 1 in 4 high school graduates was ready for the first year of college.
Reading scores are especially bad. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) recently reported that more than 60 percent of twelfth-grade students were not reading at the appropriate level, and that 27 percent were not even reading at a basic level. Two other reports issued by the National Endowment for the Arts, "Reading at Risk (2004) and "To Read or Not To Read (2008), were just as dismal.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI), which has been adopted by forty-five states and three territories, and is scheduled to go into effect in 2014, is intended to fix this. Its goal is to make students "college- and career-ready" (CCR) when they graduate from high school. It will achieve this by prescribing K-12 standards that are rigorous in content and application and designed to develop high-order skills. All instruction will be aligned within a cohesive framework so that students progressively review and extend their learning during each subsequent grade.
For example, beginning in kindergarten, students might learn about the human body by exploring the five senses and the associated body parts. In addition, they would learn the importance of taking care of their bodies through an overview of hygiene, diet, exercise, and rest.
In grade 1, they would build on this foundation when they are introduced to the systems of the human body and the associated body parts. Likewise, they would learn about taking care of their bodies by studying germs, diseases, and preventing illness.
A Focus for Instruction
A similar pattern is repeated through the 5th grade, with new and more complex subjects added each year--e.g., the digestive, excretory, muscular, skeletal and nervous systems in grades 2 and 3, and the circulatory, respiratory, and endocrine systems in grades 4 and5, which in turn will serve as a foundation for studying advanced subjects like anatomy and physiology during junior high and high school.
What the Standards offer is "a focus for instruction" while ensuring "that students gain adequate exposure to a range of texts and tasks." Rigor is "infused through the requirements"so that "students read increasingly complex texts through the grades."
More importantly, students "advancing through the grades are expected to meet each year's grade-specific standards, retain or further develop skills and understandings mastered in preceding grades, and work steadily toward meeting the more general expectations described by the CCR standards."
By the time they graduate from high school, students will have developed skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, as well as content knowledge in multiple disciplines, such as mathematics, science, history, and English.
Such an initiative is long overdue. For far too long, grade schools and high schools have been inefficient and failing to educate students because of incoherent curricula and vacuous course offerings. As E. D. Hirsch writes in The Schools We Need, the "lack of shared knowledge among American students not only holds back their average progress, creating a national excellence gap, but, more drastically, holds back disadvantaged students, thus creating a fairness gap as well."
The CCSSI is designed to close these gaps in three important ways.
First, by attempting to convey knowledge cumulatively and coherently, grade by grade, it emphasizes the connection between prior knowledge and leaning that cognitive science tells us is essential for genuine learning to take place.
Promoting Higher-Order Thinking
A prescribed curriculum not only "encourages students to use their innate thinking abilities to process learning at higher levels of complexity," it teaches students "how to organize content in such a way that it facilities and promotes higher-order thinking," writes David Sousa in How the Brain Learns.
In fact, the "more connections that students can make between past learning and new learning, the more likely they are to determine sense and meaning and thus retain the new learning." And "when these connections can be extended across curriculum areas," adds Sousa, "they establish a framework of associative networks that will be recalled for future problem solving."
As things stand now, grade school and high school curricula are too diffuse, and individual classes are too tightly bound to their context--e.g., English is taught as the mastery of grammar, reading is seen as an all-purpose skill that can be equally applied to all subjects and problems. The result is students who do not retain what they learn and are unable to transfer knowledge or use their skills in different areas.
Second, the CCSSI is designed to close the knowledge gap by encouraging students to develop "mutually reinforcing skills and exhibit mastery of standards for reading and writing across a range of texts and classrooms."
For example, while editing papers, students address both Writing and Language standards; when analyzing and drawing evidence from texts, they address Writing and Reading standards; when discussing something they have read or written, they demonstrate speaking and listening skills.
Some critics, such as Sandra Stotsky find this approach flawed. She argues that it fails to take into account the current structure of schools, and that it is too restrictive because it relies on 2009 NAEP Reading Framework for Assessment of Educational Progress--which suggests that in grade 4, 50% of student readings must be literary and 50% informational; in grade 8, 45% must be literary and 55% information; and in grade 12, 30% is literary and 70 % information.
To make matters worse, the CCSSI "contains no content standards for history or science," while using English language arts to teach these subjects is likely promote "empty" literacy standards instead. In fact, she accuses David Coleman, the CCSSI's principle author, of not understanding "how a skill differs from a content standard."
But the percentages "reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA setting," and therefore would not necessarily reflect how teachers teach reading in the manner that Professor Stotsky describes. More to the point, she disregards the most critical feature of the Standards, its holistic nature, which calls for a more global approach to teaching and learning that (ideally) will promote strategic thinking, making connections between ideas, and greater coherence across disciplines, rather than perpetuating the current fragmentation.
The third, and perhaps most important, reason that the CCSSI is designed to close the knowledge gap is that it is language-centered (not image-centered) and reading-based. This is crucial for advanced cognitive development, not only because it requires students to develop habits of thought that force the brain to translate symbols into concepts, but also because it recognizes that facts and information acquired through careful and intensive reading are the foundation for all knowledge.
At bottom, the CSSSI is needed because it upholds rigorous standards and will challenge students a great deal more than they are being challenged now. And when teachers across the board demand more from students, they work harder and learn more.
J. M. Anderson is dean of Humanities, Fine Arts, and Social Sciences at Illinois Valley Community College, and author of The Skinny on Teaching: What You Don't Learn in Graduate School.