From all sides, this appears to be the main question surrounding the Common Core State Standards – the set of K-12 math and English standards created by education professionals from all 50 states, which promote higher-order thinking skills aimed at preparing students for college, career and life.

My students ask why they are reading and writing in math and science class.

Their parents ask why their straight-A students are struggling in school this year.

As a high school math teacher in Charlotte, N.C., I find myself asking why we have waited so long to adopt standards like these that call for our students to think, discover, explain and truly understand concepts.

When I began teaching 10 years ago, our standards and state assessments did not require holistic understanding of concepts. Since districts, schools and teachers were judged based on scores from these low-level tests, my students weren’t developing the critical thinking skills they would need to navigate a world where a teacher isn’t there to provide all the information.

My students could do a thousand choral responses of formulas, but most couldn’t apply them to unrelated real-life situations. They weren’t the only ones: In 2010, 60 percent of students nationwide accepted to two-year colleges needed remedial classes before entering their undergraduate courses.

When educational standards set a low bar, and such an emphasis is placed on testing that teachers have limited time and power to push for integrated understanding, students don’t achieve at the levels they’re capable of.

Why would that ever be acceptable?

Bring in the Common Core, which, contrary to false accounts, is not a nationalized curriculum or the government telling educators what to teach. Common Core begins and ends with standards that promote student understanding and mastery. It’s left up to the states, districts, schools, and individual teachers to create a curriculum and lessons to reach these standards through stated instructional shifts.

In English and Language Arts, the emphasis is on close reading, writing, speaking, and using evidence from complex texts across the curriculum. In Mathematics, the emphasis is on rigorous, concept-based teaching that focuses deeply on a smaller number of overarching topics that are linked from grade to grade.

With the adoption of Common Core, teachers actually have more freedom than ever before on how to teach. The standards allow for multiple representations of concepts and place teachers in the role of facilitators while students create and discover their own learning.

Not all educators are on board with Common Core. Some point to a lack of teacher training, and others express uncertainty about assessments. While both concerns are valid, neither warrants putting a stop to the amazing impact these standards will have on our students’ development.

Some schools are training teachers on Common Core using curricular materials that select one strategy for students to express their understanding of a concept. But Common Core standards implicitly state that students should be allowed to solve a problem in any manner they see fit, provided they can explain their thinking.

When teachers are given misinformation and inadequate training around the standards, it’s no wonder they feel frustrated and apprehensive. Now that teachers have more freedom to determine how they will teach, they need the training, tools, and time to ensure they can be successful. Without that, children will be left behind.

With these new standards also come new accountability measures. There will be tests to ensure our students are mastering the skills they need to succeed in our knowledge-based global economy, and these tests must be excellent. They must require higher-level thinking, be aligned to the standards, and be accessible for all students. Previous standardized tests have fallen short of this bar.

By North Carolina Fellow Rob Leichner

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