Monday, August 6, 2012

Creative Ideas for Making Common Core State Educational Standards Work

By Timothy Collins, Assistant Director, Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, Western Illinois University

The Common Core standards, approved by most states after a push by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, are scheduled to begin rolling out between now and 2014. Without getting into the larger political discussions and controversy surrounding the new standards, I would like to discuss the Common Core’s local ramifications for communities.

One concern, of course, is related to problematic education budgets in the country’s school districts.

A second concern is partly a matter of community control, a deeply held tradition in the United States. The risk of core standards is that they will make all schools alike. But we already have standardized textbooks, based largely on the needs of states such as California and Texas, with their huge school systems. And frankly, it seems to me that many schools have already lost much of their local flavor (keep reading for more on this).

The question of national core standards need not focus on the purely problematic, however. It can be posed in a different way: How can we creatively use these standards to build stronger community schools?

It is how the new standards are used that matters.

The mission of Common Core Standards states:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

First, let’s be realistic about what standards can accomplish. I’m pretty sure not all communities can “compete successfully in the global economy”. Yet most communities want to survive and prosper as best they can. This does not mean isolation from global affairs. It entails a realistic assessment of the community’s assets, especially schools.

The school as community asset

Community schools are vital assets that shape a community’s future. Too often, they educate students using an already standardized curriculum, and many of those students move on, draining the community of the energy and vitality of young adults embarking on their life’s work.

I envision using schools as more than an assembly line. The school can be the heart of the community, using the community’s assets while at the same time building those assets.

Imagine if your school’s curriculum both used the resources of and accounted for its environment, namely your community. A place-based curriculum could teach students about their community, engage students in that community, and bring community members into the classroom as local experts and mentors.

It would require moving beyond standardized texts to build a curriculum that meets the standards and keeps students engaged in their home place. It would help students with different learning styles learn how to work in their community to solve problems and create opportunities, to work together and individually to develop crucial life skills and a better place to live.

The school as community development

Much of the recent community development literature has focused on building a culture of entrepreneurship, where middle-class business leaders revitalize local economies. Research also supports the role of schools in promoting youth entrepreneurs who create their own opportunities to stay in the community. The curriculum I described above has entrepreneurial elements.

Let’s take the idea of school-fostered entrepreneurship one more step. What about community schools that create “earthtrepreneurs,” small business men and women with strong math, science, and technical skills to address environmental quality of life issues and opportunities in and near their backyard?

We can complement those folks with earthtrepreneurial artists and other business leaders who share a passion for a clean environment, but appreciate it in different ways and want to share their appreciation with others inside and outside the community.

Easy? Yes and no.

The standards are there. The willingness of school boards, administrators, and teachers to engage themselves with the community is more problematic.

This approach does take extra effort. It takes creativity and extra dedication. It means retrofitting a model of schools and curriculum that have been around for at least a century to fit the needs of today.

Here are some questions for consideration:
  • How does your local school fit into the community?
  • Does it educate students not only in the community, but also for the community?
  • How could a locally based curriculum be used to improve the school’s standards and ensure the community’s future prospects of improved quality of life?
  • What would it take to increase the school’s presence in the community and the community’s presence in the school to help students learn about and appreciate their own back yard?

About the Author

Timothy Collins has been assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs since 2005. His roles include research, policy, outreach, and sustainability. He has authored more than 125 publications, reports, and essays on rural issues, including environmental policy, development, sustainable land use, and education. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

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