Bill Gates has called it a “big win for education”. Its website prominently displays the noble mission of “preparing America’s students for success”. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan claims that it will “set loose the creativity and innovation of educators at the local level”.
What am I talking about? That would be “Common Core”, the new set of U.S. guidelines for K-12 education. Introduced in 2009, Common Core provides standards for the nation’s math and English programs to meet, with the goal of raising the bar for American schools that generally lag behind their international counterparts. Even better, its designers claim that Common Core was “developed by building on the best state standards in the United States”. Common Core has also gained praise and support from many in high places. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has donated upwards of $150 million to the government and educational institutions, to aid in implementing the standards. On the surface, Common Core sounds like a natural step towards improving American education for generations to come.
However, it is below the surface where things begin to sour.
“I have a Ph.D., and I have no idea what is supposed to be done with this homework assignment,” one frustrated parent told the Daily Caller, referring to a Common Core-aligned worksheet his five-year-old brought home from school one day. He’s not the only one to express frustration with the standards; parents everywhere have taken to Twitter to post pictures of bizarre assignments and tests that they are struggling to understand. So for what reasons, other than the odd homework assignments, are more and more people voicing opposition to the new standards?
For many, the botched implementation makes for an easy way to criticize Common Core. Some also fear the potential Common Core brings for a federal takeover of education. At the very least, this is a very powerful talking point that resonates strongly with the American people. Additionally, many parents and educators are concerned that powerful organizations such as College Board have much to gain if they can create and administer (read: charge students to take) new standardized tests for elementary, middle, and high schools. Worse yet, contrary to claims of “setting loose the creativity and innovation of educators”, Common Core encourages not creativity but simply more teaching for the test so schools can appear to be better-performing; in reality, they are simply drilling disinterested students with definitions and equations that most will surely quickly forget. Rather, schools should move in the opposite direction, encouraging teachers to take creative freedom in the way that they present topics to their students.
All of these issues are important and need to be considered before Common Core is implemented. Alas, 45 states have already committed to the new standards despite a majority of people knowing very little about them. However, there is a perplexing issue that needs to be addresed which transcends Common Core.
Why, given the chance to reinvent education for the 21st century, have we instead decided to settle for more of the same?
The world moves at a brisk pace. Technology has changed nearly every aspect of our lives; most of us would probably go to Google for the answers to our everyday questions before a friend, and the combination of text messaging, email, and social media have blurred the lines between work and home life. Yet, our schools have remained fixed in the past. We have clung to the same, tired liberal arts education for the past 50 years. In fact, we have arguably worse programs of study today, since subjects such as civics and economics are no longer a fixture in most American schools. I do not bring this up as an attack on the liberal arts or traditional science and math classes; they are valuable and should remain a part of the American education. However, wouldn’t it make sense to evolve school to help students prepare for the modern workforce?
I think the answer is obvious, especially when we are told so often about the successes of those in the tech industry. The internet age has enabled America’s youth to pursue big ideas with little to no money behind them. In reality, all it takes to make a million doll ars in this day and age is an idea, motivation, and programming skills. Ask Larry Ellison, the modern embodiment of the rags-to-riches story that we all love to hear. Unfortunately, Ellison is an anomaly in the tech industry, because the skills needed to make it in the software world are not taught in public schools. As a result, most of today’s prominent people in tech come from relatively privileged backgrounds where they have private schooling or family members to teach them about business and programming.
Many in America are not so blessed. That is why incorporating basic computer and entrepreneurship skills into public classrooms is so crucial. Helping students become more independent through project-based learning and developing their own ideas would empower them more than any initiative or awareness campaign could ever dream to. And no, it wouldn’t be that expensive. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have vested interests in promoting a more modern education. After all, they have to hire people, and there simply aren’t enough qualified college graduates to fill the spots that tech companies have open. For all the talk about striving to improve minority and women’s representation in the computer industry, a vast majority of tech CEOs, be it Google’s or the average college startup’s, are white males that have had the advantage of supportive families and access to outside resources to gain the skills they needed.
This could be all be changed with the introduction of a more modern and modular curriculum in our public schools. Steps are being made to slowly integrate technology into classrooms, but unless it is forcefully advocated for and funded by the federal, state, and local government, as well as corporations, and is combined with a lessened focus on standardized testing, it will be a long time before American schools can truly live up to their goal of preparing students for the real world.
Kelley is a member of
the class of 2017.