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Why Colleges Should Care About the Common Core

By Harold G. Levine & Michael W. Kirst — April 13, 2015 6 min read
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Now that the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and mathematics have been adopted in much of the country, states are busy with their implementation. We have no doubt that, over time, these new K-12 standards will produce larger numbers of college-ready (and career-ready) students—as promised. College-bound freshmen can expect to head off to their colleges of choice ready for the deeply engaging learning experiences that await them.

Or can they? We are concerned that the common-core learning experiences of these students can be a bridge to a more enriching educational experience only if the colleges and universities they are entering are ready for them. For the most part, we have doubts that they are.

Our observations and conversations with colleagues nationally indicate that, in general, higher education has only recently begun to appreciate the breadth of the potential impacts of the common core on their own practices, from admissions to instruction to student outcomes. In a recent letter to California’s state board of education, the leaders of all four public and private higher education segments wrote to affirm their support for the implementation of the common core: “We believe California’s implementation of the common-core standards and aligned assessments has the potential to dramatically improve college readiness and help close the preparation gap that exists for California students.”

Such across-the-board, state-level higher education support for a set of K-12 standards makes history, certainly in California and quite likely in the nation. Even so, California is not alone in higher education in making a public commitment to the common core; the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and a new organization named Higher Ed for Higher Standards, among others, have signed on. The support seems to be growing, despite state and local politics around state standards and high-stakes assessments tied to accountability.

In fact, higher education is increasingly coming to focus on what many of the proponents of the common core had hoped would be the positive outcomes of its adoption for colleges and universities: the reduction of remediation and associated costs, the alignment of standards of the two systems, a way to benchmark the high school common-core assessments for admissions and placement purposes, and the opportunity to rethink the curricula used in teacher education programs.

The common-core learning experiences of college-bound students can be a bridge to a more enriching educational experience only if the institutions they are entering are ready for them.”

It is also true that some faculty members are familiar with the common core because they had a role in shaping the standards. Others have a voice in their states in defining what “college readiness” means in the new assessments. And the research of many academicians was used both to identify college-ready knowledge and skills that would be central to the common core and to help construct new testing regimens consistent with the new standards. Finally, in some states—including California’s two- and four-year systems—faculty members are having a role in setting the criteria for course and subject-matter admissions requirements in English and mathematics that align with the common core.

So far, so good. But we have a different concern, one that stems from the historical disjuncture and lack of alignment between K-12 and higher education. As common-core implementation continues to expand and evolve in the K-12 system, how are the thousands of higher education faculty members who teach freshman and sophomore courses in English and mathematics (and the sciences, of course) preparing for their newly admitted students (roughly 3.3 million first-time freshmen projected for 2016), who will almost certainly have different expectations of what and how they learn and are taught? It is worrisome that we do not yet see the broad-based discussions, let alone planning initiatives, among either higher education leaders (including deans and department chairs) or, especially, their faculties and academic senates, to alter the curriculum or the pedagogy for all those introductory courses to take advantage of the new style of learning and teaching engendered by the common core.

An informed and engaged faculty is crucial to the success of common-core implementation. That’s why California was awarded a grant by the National Governors Association to focus on the role of higher education in this transition. The project has brought together representatives of the governor’s office, legislature, department of education, commission on teacher credentialing, and the four higher education systems to convene as a state team. The team identified a need for better communication with faculty members about the expectations for more rigor and instructional complexity within the standards, and assessment-system goals and expectations before institutions can begin to think seriously about the implications for placement; curricular alignment; and other complex, related matters.

What will be characteristic of common-core students entering college are learning experiences featuring more inquiry-based learning and collaborative problem-solving, sequenced skills by grade level and learning across the curriculum, and more hands-on work. In addition to the essential skills in math, students will focus on “conceptual” math, that is, understanding the reasoning behind the correct problem solution rather than the algorithm. They will also have experienced applying mathematical concepts to real-world problems, and will have been focused on fewer subject areas. Finally, students will be used to testing on computers and, in states with testing developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, testing that is adaptive.

These are not likely to be the skill sets or course-taking experiences called for in the majority of today’s college-level freshman and sophomore courses. Rather, these tend to be large-enrollment, minimally interactive, and textbook-based. For the sciences, there is likely to be a lab section, but as an adjunct to the lectures and where the experiments have known outcomes. Memorization of materials in the arts and sciences at the college level is critical to performing well on tests, as is performing procedures.

The shortcomings of undergraduate instruction, particularly in the sciences, have been known and debated for some time. Such peerless professional organizations as the American Physical Society, the American Chemical Society, and the American Institute of Biological Sciences have all raised important questions about undergraduate teaching in their fields. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has for a number of years sponsored a grant competition to try to change the trajectory of life sciences curricula and pedagogy. In a similar vein, the Mathematical Association of America and the American Mathematical Society have demonstrated interests in changing undergraduate teaching to make mathematics more accessible to students; both have formally supported the common core for mathematics. Finally, for the last several years, the annual conference of the Modern Language Association has had sessions that discuss how the common core will affect introductory college courses.

The support of all of these professional organizations, as well as foundations and government agencies such as the National Science Foundation, is critical to any changes in how undergraduate education is delivered. If leaders in the disciplines decry current teaching and curricular practices, there is a real likelihood for change and much-needed alignment with the common core’s principles.

We believe that with the support at the classroom level by university faculty and departments, and more concerted efforts toward the alignment of K-12 standards with higher education admission and “knowledge and skill” requirements, the common core that is implemented in our public K-12 schools will lead to a far more meaningful college learning experience for generations to come. It’s now time to ensure that when the common core creates more “college ready” students, the colleges they enter are ready for them—and what they know and don’t know, and how they have been taught to learn.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2015 edition of Education Week as Why Colleges Should Care About the Common Core

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