A Closer Look at Common Core Standards

by Senator Patrick Colbeck

Michigan has received a lot of federal attention lately regarding the legislature’s attempt to take a more introspective look at what is known as the Common Core Standards Initiative. The Common Core Standards Initiative is attempting to establish a common set of education standards for all states. 

The Michigan State Board of Education adopted the Common Core Standards on June 15, 2010.  At the present time, only the English and Math standards have been released. There are plans to release Science, Social Studies, World Language, and Arts standards in the future.

In all candor, my initial reaction to Common Core Standards was favorable. I liked the idea of establishing a common standard by which Michigan can measure its education prowess over that of other states. It fosters competition and competition breeds excellence. Upon further review, however, it is evident that the Common Core Standards Initiative goes well beyond establishing a common education benchmark for all states.

One of the most concerning features of the Common Core Standards is the increase in emphasis on methods at the expense of results. The following is an example of the math standard for 1st graders: “Add and subtract within 20, demonstrating fluency for addition and subtraction within 10. Use strategies such as counting on; making ten (e.g., 8 + 6 = 8 + 2 + 4 = 10 + 4 = 14); decomposing a number leading to a ten (e.g., 13 – 4 = 13 – 3 – 1 = 10 – 1 = 9); using the relationship between addition and subtraction (e.g., knowing that 8 + 4 = 12, one knows 12 – 8 = 4); and creating equivalent but easier or known sums (e.g., adding 6 + 7 by creating the known equivalent 6 + 6 + 1 = 12 + 1 = 13).” [CCS 1.OA.6]

At the University of Michigan, I was trained as an aerospace engineer. It might just be me, but I would think that most people who fly on an airplane would like to know that I correctly calculated the required airframe strength and would take less solace in knowing that I knew of several methods to get to the right answer. 

Teachers and students have a finite amount of time for instruction. We need to focus on the end objective, not a series of means-to-an-end objectives. We don’t need to have standards that tell

teachers how to teach. Teachers go to universities to learn how to teach. Standards should focus on what to teach.  When one micromanages the methods of teaching, one is saying in effect that a teacher does not know how to teach. Every student learns differently. We should give teachers the flexibility to teach each student in the method best suited to the needs of each student.

Additional concerns include the increasing role of the federal government in state education, the increasing role of international bodies in the American education system (international benchmarking is at the heart of each common core standard), the cost of implementation, the ability of the states to influence the governance of the standards, the manipulation of assessments to influence college acceptance criteria, the acceptance of standards before they have even been written, and the collection of data on parents as well as students.

Modifying education standards is not a simple flip of the switch. A change in the education standards requires a change in assessments. A change in assessments leads to changes in curricula. A change in curricula requires a change in education materials. A change in education materials leads to changes in lesson plans. As a former school board member and a current member of the Senate Education Policy committee, I appreciate that my colleagues in the legislature have voted to take a more substantive evaluation of Common Core before it leads us on a path that may adversely impact future generations.