Talk to personal trainers these days, and they will tell you that while bulging biceps and carved calves are valuable, what really matters is the strength of your core, the central muscles that ensure the body's stability and balance, the platform on which everything depends.
On that word "core" I want to hang an analogy that applies the notion of an indispensable platform to teaching and learning. In 2010 the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers unveiled the Common Core State Standards, adopted now by 46 states and the District of Columbia. The standards represent one of the most promising developments in the decades-long effort to improve our country’s public schools. You may be thinking that you've heard that before. In the 1980s and 90s states throughout the nation adopted curriculum standards that were supposed to transform education. Yet here we are today still struggling with the persistent problem of academic underachievement. Why did our earlier efforts to establish standards not have the intended effect, and how are these new standards different?
Some states developed robust, muscular learning goals; others turned out rather anemic and feeble guidelines. For example, on the vital skill of discerning cause and effect, one state specified three detailed goals: explain how a cause and effect relationship differs from a sequence of events, distinguish between long-term and short-term cause and effect relationships, and show causal connections between particular historical events and ideas and larger trends and developments. In contrast, another state simply asked students to relate the causes and consequences of historical events to subsequent events. Similarly, when it came to student performance assessments, some states adopted evaluations that require students to do heavy lifting; others asked students to do little more than breathe. The state-by-state unevenness of standards and their evaluative instruments rendered them ineffective as engines of coordinated national reform.
The Common Core State Standards are not designed to supplant any of those standards, weak or strong. Instead, they seek to bolster all standards, not by identifying content-specific goals but by promoting an "integrated model of literacy" that encompasses skills in writing, speaking, and listening. At their heart, however, is the skill of “close, attentive reading” that will enable students to “pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally,” a skill as necessary in the workplace as in the classroom.
So how might these standards, based on a "vision of what it means to be a literate person in the 21st century," change teaching? For one thing, they emphasize the close reading of complex, challenging texts in all subjects, including math and science. To illustrate what close reading might look like in a high school class, consider how a teacher might apply it to the Declaration of Independence. After discussing the Declaration’s role in the American Revolution, she might zero in on its structure and language. She might examine the logic of its argument, leading students to discover that it is actually a three-part syllogism with a major premise — when a government destroys the inalienable rights of the people, the people have a right to abolish it — a minor premise — the King of Great Britain is destroying our rights — and an inevitable conclusion — therefore we have a right to abolish his rule.
She might ask students to critique the rhetorical impact of Jefferson’s use of repetition, or she might help them unpack the word "people" to see how Jefferson employs it to suggest unity among thirteen contentious colonies. In keeping with the standards, throughout the discussion she would ask students to support their responses by citing evidence from the Declaration itself.
This sort of teaching would help students understand the structure of a text, assess the logic of an argument, and develop an awareness of how language is consciously deployed to achieve meaning and impact. If students entered college with even a rudimentary grasp of those skills, they would have a substantial head start in mastering college-level writing. Every freshman composition teacher in the nation would rejoice. I know because I taught freshman comp for years. My colleagues and I did not expect to turn out prose stylists in two semesters, but if we inculcated the skills I mentioned, we headed into summer satisfied with job well-done.
The rigorous and sophisticated instruction called for by the new standards will, in many cases, require considerable teacher training, just one of the many expenses involved in implementing them. Indeed, it is fair to wonder if states will spend the millions required at a time when they are cutting education budgets. Evidence suggests that they will and, in fact, are. California is shifting administrative funds to cover some implementation costs, and the Santa Fe school district is devoting federal funds to Common Core teacher training. In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels is leading education reform initiatives that include the standards. New York has developed EngageNY, a website that provides implementation resources to teachers, principals, and administrators. Kentucky has aligned its teacher education programs to comport with the standards. The list goes on.
It is important to stress that the Common Core Standards are not mandated by the federal government or anyone else. Moreover, they do not represent an effort to micromanage the classroom or tell teachers what to teach. Focusing on essential skills, they leave plenty of room for teachers and curriculum specialists to develop specific content, those bulging biceps and carved calves. As their name indicates, the Standards concentrate on the core, the sophisticated literacy that prepares students for college and career and that constitutes the indispensable intellectual platform on which everything depends.
Richard R. Schramm is vice president for education programs at the National Humanities Center.