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School & District Management Opinion

David Musselwhite: Values of the Common Core: Equity, Competition, and Collaboration

By Anthony Cody — May 15, 2012 6 min read
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A week ago I featured a guest post by Jack Hassard, Common Core Values: Do they include Authoritarianism? Today, in the spirit of promoting dialogue, I am sharing a response from a different point of view.

Guest post by David Musselwhite.

The Common Core State Standards and the values they espouse are not a threat to the tenets of progressive education. Far from reflecting authoritarianism, the true values of the Common Core movement are equity, competition, and collaboration.

Before the Common Core: Realities about Student Achievement

What do we really mean when we speak of the progressive education? According to Jack Hassard, this movement’s trademarks are individuality, creativity, and innovation. In his article Common Core Values: Do they Include Authoritarianism?, he assails the Common Core and many other aspects of the American education system as undemocratic. But others define progressivism differently: Andrew Fong of the Center for American Progress stated it this way: “Progressives believe in maximizing human freedom and helping society and its individual members achieve their full potential.” It is the latter purpose that drives educators and the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Data from international exams like the PIRLS, PISA, and TIMSS reveal just how far from our students’ full potential we are.

  • In 2007, 4th graders in 8 countries participating in the TIMSS scored higher on average in mathematics than students in the United States.
  • In 2006, 4th graders in 10 countries participating in the PIRLS scored higher on average in reading than students in the United States.
  • In 2007, 8th graders in 9 countries participating in the TIMSS scored higher on average in science than students in the United States.
  • In 2006, U.S. 15 year olds scored lower on average than students in 16 countries participating in the PISA science exam.

When compared to students from other countries, as our graduates more often are than at any previous point in history due to our increasingly global economy, our students leave much to be desired. Clearly, aspects of our education system need to be changed in order to produce results that will drive our continued economic prosperity and, as the recent report by Joel Klein and the Council on Foreign Relations made clear, our national security.

Can raising academic standards be a part of solving this problem? New research from Michigan State University indicates that it can. Dr. William Schmidt studied the Common Core math standards and compared them to states’ previously existing standards and international standards. He found that the Common Core closely resembles the standards of high-achieving countries. He also concluded that states whose previous standards more closely resembled the Common Core performed better on the NAEP than states whose standards were inferior in rigor, clarity, and coherence. While emphasizing that implementation is the key to making any set of standards effective in raising student achievement, Schmidt’s research clearly demonstrates the relationship between high expectations and high performance. “What is clear in the research,” Schmidt stated, “is that the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics are an important improvement over the state standards that they replaced.”

Values of the Common Core

When states voluntarily adopt the Common Core they are expressing a set of values and beliefs about American education, but authoritarianism is not among them. How can authoritarianism be involved when the states themselves were all involved in the development, review, approval, and adoption of the standards? The National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are not dictating the standards and their adoption from on high, they are responding to the needs of their members for a clear, consistent set of standards that will help more students be college- and career-ready.

Equity is the foremost value underlying the Common Core movement. For too long, inconsistencies have been allowed to persist in our education system. Disparate state standards have led to disparate achievement, with students being denied the kind of high-quality instruction they deserve simply because of their zip code. Yes, there are many other explanatory variables behind differences in student achievement, and those need to be addressed by educators, lawmakers, and parents. But the foundation of our education system must be high expectations for all students, and those expectations should be crafted so that American students are competitive not only in their home cities or states, but globally.

That is not to say that classroom instruction should not be individualized and driven by the interests of the students - of course it should. The Common Core simply tells all stakeholders what a child should be able to do by the end of a grade or course. Skilled educators know how to tailor their instructional materials and practices to the needs and interests of the students. Individuality and creativity must be important elements of the daily classroom, but they must be used in the service of achieving rigorous standards. It is through these rigorous standards that students develop the critical thinking skills and habits of mind that produce competent participants in our democracy.

Hassard’s article derides the “competitiveness” argument for its capitalist overtones. Ideological differences aside, we cannot deny that we want our students to stack up well against other countries in terms of skills and knowledge so that they can continue to drive American innovation and progress. Competitiveness is a side-effect, however, of high-quality instruction that pushes children to use cognitively demanding thinking processes. The Common Core State Standards do just this, and competitiveness will not be the only result. If implemented properly we will produce a generation of students who are well-equipped not only for the workplace, but for the public arena. Creating competent citizens - through more relevant exercises, a heavier reliance on informational text, requiring more writing and development of argument, etc. - will engender competitiveness. It need not (and, I would agree with Hassard, should not) be our primary goal. But to decry the Common Core because advocates claim it will make our students more competitive is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As an educator, I am most excited about the potential for collaboration the Common Core State Standards present. No other profession faces the same barriers to collaboration that hinder educators under the current system of disparate standards. The current context creates a chilling effect on teachers’ ability to collaboratively plan instructional strategies, create materials, share best practices, and experiment with innovative educational methodologies. Already I have seen efforts among mathematics teachers to develop open-source materials and lessons aligned to the Common Core. When you allow professionals to work together from a common set of blueprints, the innovation that Hassard so values will necessarily take place, helping us reimagine education for the 21st century. It is not publishing companies and business interests who will benefit most from the Common Core, but educators, parents, students, and ultimately our nation.

What do you think? Will the Common Core Standards bring us greater opportunities for collaboration? Will it make our schools more equitable?

David Musselwhite is the Common Core State Standards Initiative Team Leader for Michigan PTA. Through a generous grant from National PTA, the CCSSI Team seeks to educate parents and communities about the Common Core. A 2010 graduate of Cornell University, he currently teaches secondary mathematics in the Detroit Public Schools.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.