I’m no Common Core fan, but give it a chance

January 5

As our national battle over the Common Core standards escalates this year, remember that new standards and curricula rarely improve schools. What does work is families becoming more affluent, teachers becoming more proficient and students spending more time and energy on their studies.

New lesson plans and textbooks such as those being unleashed by the Common Core in nearly all states have no effect on parental income. Some teachers and students may do better when there are changes in what they study, but so far there is little proof of that.

That does not mean, however, that we should dump the new standards. The Common Core courses, background materials and exams may have no effect, but most of the teachers I have asked about this say they want to try them anyway.

Surveys suggest that such feelings are widespread in faculty rooms. If teachers are for it, that’s enough for me. Their happiness with what they are doing — and their confidence in it — always has been crucial to schools’ success.

The quality of teaching in the Washington area is high, largely because of the parental income factor. That means that Common Core methods are spreading far here, even in Virginia, where it is not official doctrine. Ann Dolin, author of a new book on local private schools, said they also “are looking closely at what the Common Core has to offer.”

The high rates of affluence in the Washington region mean our students tend to have above-average ambition and home support. Good teachers flock to schools with such students. Those same good teachers embrace the Common Core because many of its elements are what they already have been doing.

The Common Core standards, sponsored by the National Governors Association and other non-federal organizations, are difficult to summarize. Reading their jargon gives me headaches. But in general they encourage a deeper approach to teaching, with students reading more original sources and doing more writing and projects. The students still have to learn important facts and concepts, but the exams are designed to reward conceptual understanding and analysis more than state exams have in the past.

Opponents of the Common Core argue that the new rules would keep the best math students from taking calculus in high school and eliminate great works of literature in English classes in favor of business documents, boring books by people like me and other non-fiction. They say individual state standards are better.

Nonetheless, Maryland and the District are instituting the Common Core. Virginia is not, at least officially, because it likes the standards it has, which are in some ways similar to the Common Core.

I dismissed the Common Core two years ago as a waste of time and money, based on Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless’s research showing that raising standards doesn’t improve student achievement. That hasn’t stopped states from adopting the new approach. Since teachers are working hard to make it happen, why not at least wait and see what happens? The effort has provoked useful arguments and interesting tweaks in some challenging programs, like the College Board’s suggestion that Advanced Placement Statistics might be a better math course than AP Calculus for some students.

One of the many blessings of Washington area schools is that most of them are run by principals and teachers used to adopting what works in new programs and discarding what doesn’t. The Common Core is supposed to bring students deeper into their studies than before. Since our teachers are going to try it anyway, I will stop complaining until I see how they do.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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