Voices in Education

What You Might Not Know About “Common Core Standards.”
The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers have proposed a set of “common core standards” for English and math for children in kindergarten through grade 12. Forty-eight states (all but Alaska and Texas) agreed to participate in creating these standards. President Obama has announced his intention to link Title I funding to the adoption of the standards.

These new standards, which are highly prescriptive in the specific facts and skills that children are supposed to know at each grade level, will have a profound effect on public education. Yet most parents, teachers, and school principals don’t even know that this is happening. Many of those who have heard about it assume that it is a good idea. Who could be against “high standards,” after all?

But the proposed standards for kindergarten and the early grades have alarmed many people who actually work with young children. (Among the 135 people on the various committees that wrote and reviewed the standards there was not one regular K–3 classroom teacher.)

The standards call for all kindergartners, for example, to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.” Some five- and six-year-olds will have no trouble with this, but many others will. And there is no credible evidence that those who start to read at six or seven are at any disadvantage later on in school. Indeed, many countries whose students perform well on international tests do not begin formal reading instruction until six or seven.

The kindergarten math standards say that all children should be able to count to 100. But that’s not all. They have to count “forward or backward beginning from a given number within the known sequence (instead of always beginning at 1).” So, for example, start from 54 or 87 and count backwards. No one I have talked to has been able to explain why five-year-olds need to know how to do this.

Young children learn best through active, hands-on exploration of the world around them and through a variety of playful activities. Existing state standards for young children have already driven play out of most public kindergartens, which now subject children to long periods of didactic teaching. These standards have also led to the heavy use of standardized tests in kindergarten and the lower grades, despite their unreliability for assessing children under age eight. The new proposed standards will unquestionably intensify such testing.

The explosion of didactic teaching and testing in kindergarten is taking a terrible toll on children, especially boys, who need to move and use their bodies in exploring the world, not sit at desks doing worksheets.

The Alliance for Childhood has issued a statement calling for the withdrawal of the proposed K–3 standards and the creation of a consortium of early childhood researchers, developmental and cognitive scientists, master teachers, and school leaders to write comprehensive guidelines for effective early care and teaching. It has been signed by more than 400 early childhood health and education professionals, including Lilian Katz, David Elkind, Ellen Galinsky, and other renowned scholars.

The proposed standards are online at www.corestandards.org. At the same site is a feedback survey where parents, teachers, and other citizens can comment on the standards. The deadline for comments is April 2.

About the Author: Edward Miller is Senior Researcher for the Alliance for Childhood, Coordinator of the New York Coalition for Play, and Visiting Professor in the Psychology Department at the City College of New York. He is a former editor of the Harvard Education Letter.