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Will the Common Core Standards increase learning?

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Much has been written recently about the Common Core State Standards–an initiative to equalize and coordinate often discrete multi-state educational goals.

It’s the latest iteration by federal and state leaders to improve the quality of American education.  Whether the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 or the Common Core Standards State Standards of 2009, the objective is the same–to fix the failing education of elementary and secondary students in the United States.

Education experts are cracking the books trying to discover the best way to increase learning.  The various initiatives have ranged from elevating student scores on standardized tests, rewarding teachers for proven classroom performance, and measuring student outcomes in terms of graduation rates.

Despite some promising declines in high school dropout numbers, the consensus is that America education deserves a failing grade.  The Hoover Institute reported in 2003 that older Americans score higher on standardized exams than do currently enrolled students.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education predicted  in 2005 that if current trends continue, “…the proportion of workers with high school diplomas and college degrees will decrease and the personal income of Americans will decline over the next 15 years.”

Three years ago Education Week reported that U.S. graduation rates continued to drop.

Last year U.S. Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, decried the erosion of educational performance.

All of this reminds me of my own elementary and secondary school experience.  I was too young to have any sense of whether my teachers were doing a good job.  I realized that I did well in reading and writing, but poorly in mathematics.  I always considered that my academic performance was the product of environment and genes.

My parents valued education.  Dad was a linotype operator for several newspapers for three decades.  He never went to college but justifiably took great pride in his extensive vocabulary and correct spelling.  Mom was an English major in college and her father was a university professor.  She loved literature and gave poetry recitals until shortly before her death.

I grew up in a home where language was loved and correct use was expected.

Math, on the other hand, was a different story.  I never mastered it.  And beginning in the fifth grade knew that I never would.  When we had daily classroom work back then, the names of those  who did not finish their daily assignment were written prominently on the left side of the blackboard.  Often my name was the only one remaining prominently in view as the days passed and other students successfully completed their work. I did not. That did little to inspire confidence.

I never received more than a grade of C in any middle or high school math course.  And a semester grade of D was not uncommon.

Lack of interest was never the reason.  I truly wanted to be able to do word problems.  Today I still want to know where two trains will meet if “One train leaves Albany heading for New York City travelling 40 miles an hour and a second train leaves New York City heading for Albany at 60 miles an hour.”

Perhaps its my journalistic curiosity, but my mathematical skills fail me.

Would any recent proposals to improve American education have helped me?  I don’t know.

In high school I was more interested in sports than in academics.  My intellectual interests grew gradually in the three years between graduation from high school and my first year of college at age 21.

There is no doubt that we can do a better job of educating American students.  However, my own experience persuades me that–despite the best attempts at reform–some young people will always flourish in the classroom and others languish.

The best teaching begins at home with parents who value learning, who spend time reading to young children, helping kids who struggle with math, and reinforcing the importance of good education.

I applaud the goal of the Common Core State Standards. Nevertheless, not every child will master every academic discipline.

Even with this latest initiative, I suspect that I would still have to ask our son, who has two university degrees in mathematics, exactly where those trains will meet in New York State.


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