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Common Core & The Path Forward

The first law establishing a public school system in North America was issued in 1647. Known as the Massachusetts School Law, it ordered that schools prevent “that old deluder, Satan” from gaining a foothold among the youth. With much of the country adopting free, compulsory public schools centuries later, the road towards the education system we recognize today has been a long one. And that path forward continues as technological innovations and new societal demands shape what it takes to thrive in our world.

As the Internet has increasingly eclipsed the need for rote memorization, the differentiating skills nowadays are – more than ever – analytical thinking, ability to collaborate, and conceptual comprehension.

To address this jump in focus, education leaders need to answer: how can we create standards that reflect what young people actually need to know to succeed in the workplace and the world? The controversial Common Core State Standards Initiative has aimed to do just that – redefine the measure of student success based on the skills that will allow graduates to compete successfully beyond high school.

At City & State’s recent conference, “On Education,” New York’s top education brass opined on Common Core and how best to support the implementation of these new standards. The conference featured a keynote address by New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, two panel discussions on “Big Ideas in Education” and “Government and Labor Working Together,” and a one-on-one discussion with the New York State Education Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia.on edu

Though the conference conversation topics were wide-ranging, they all touched on reconciling the paradox between rapid adoption of reforms to the existing system and patience during the growing pains inherent in implementing these new reforms. Nothing exemplifies this paradox better than the ongoing debate surrounding Common Core.

Last week, the statewide Common Core test results were released. The modest gains in both English and Math amongst New York students was greatly overshadowed by the news that 20% of students had opted out of taking the tests. At the conference, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch attributed the high opt-out rate as “a failure on our part to communicate effectively about the relevance of testing and the importance of culling data for the purpose of improving instructional practice.” NYS Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia was similarly reflective, stating “we’ve got to go back and rethink some of the ways we’ve done things in the past in New York.”

Though New York’s education leaders all struck a conciliatory note when discussing the ongoing challenges of Common Core implementation, they also all confirmed the need to stick with it. Chancellor Tisch reminded us: “overnight success is impossible,” encouraging “the great state of New York to be patient, stay the course, adjust appropriately, but never back down from the movement to higher standards.”

Commissioner Elia focused on the importance of collaboration and incorporating feedback from parents and educators, stating, “I support the Common Core, but I support Common Core as it evolves.”

With only three years of test scores and rising opt-outs, it’s difficult to make a major pronouncement on Common Core’s success or failure without more information. In the meantime, there’s plenty of work to be done – more support for educators, more communication with the school community, and more forums for constructive feedback on how to effectively address implementation issues.

In an age where at the click of a button you can find the answer to almost anything, the question of how best to equip young people with the skills necessary to thrive in the modern world seems especially opaque and complicated. With the limited quantitative knowledge we have on Common Core’s success, it’s all too tempting to immediately charge these changes as a failure. The truth is, it’s too early to make an informed assessment one way or another.

In the final interview of the conference, Commissioner Elia shared some perspective, pointing out, “we’ve been changing standards in education since 1647.” With each new set of changes, the challenges inherent in adjusting can feel too large, too cumbersome, and too complicated to move forward. However, one thing New York’s education leaders agreed upon: the price we will pay for turning back is too great.

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