Monday, October 28, 2013

"College and Career Ready" is the Wrong Goal

Anyone having anything to do with education has been bombarded lately with information about how the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are going to fix what's wrong with American Education.  This national curriculum is supposed to ensure that every student who graduates from an American high school will leave prepared for either college or a career.  On the CCSS website, this idea is clearly written into the mission statement for the standards:
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.
The problem is that focusing on "college and career readiness" is the wrong goal.  Worse, it's a goal that will ensure that less students are prepared for college and/or careers. 

Let's break down that mission statement.
  • 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.
This sounds great, but it's founded in a false belief that anybody can predict what stuff kids will need to learn to do the jobs of the future.  We don't know that.  Nobody does.  Our current elementary students will graduate seven to thirteen years from now in the years 2020 through 2026.  Think about this.  Seven years ago, smartphones like the iPhone and tablets like the iPad didn't exist.  Could anyone back in early 2007 have envisioned how mobile technology would change the workplaces we have today?  What makes us think that we can predict what the workplace of 2020 will look like? 

In December of 2012 Forbes Magazine came out with a list of the top 10 skills that 2013 employers were looking for in employees.  Almost all of these qualities were not content based.  They were not skills that could be neatly written into standards.  These are traits like "critical thinking" and "complex problem solving" that require experience with solving real world problems.

And proponents of CCSS will tell you that those standards are designed to do just that.  But they aren't.  They can't do that.  Because CCSS are designed to be used to judge children, schools, and teachers on standardized tests.

So, here's what's really happening instead of that experience with solving real problems.  School districts are rushing to buy textbooks that are aligned to CCSS so that students can pass those tests.  Teachers are being told not to stray from teaching the lessons in those textbook programs so that students pass those tests.  Students are being taught how to pass those tests.  Nobody ever solved a real problem in their community by working out of a textbook or workbook. 

Here's the truth:  Focusing and measuring what students know will always prevent you from focusing on what students can do.  And they can do amazing things if we'll let them.
  • With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.
I don't think anyone can argue with this.  I just don't believe that CCSS is the best way to prepare students for the future.  And I certainly don't agree that this is should be the end-goal of education.

Instead of focusing on preparing students for "college and career", we should be preparing them for life.  Heaven knows, there are plenty of people who were successful in college and/or are successful in their careers that are miserable.  How many times have we heard about wildly "successful" people who, when we define success as more than "how much money you make", aren't? 

We're missing the forest by focusing on the trees.

So, instead of preparing students for college and career, I propose that we prepare students for life.  Teach them how to think for themselves.  Teach them how to solve real problems in society.  Teach them to come up with creative solutions, to make a difference, to experience the joy of being kind to others, to leave their communities better, and to advocate for the things they feel passionate about. 

Instead of discussing a list of things our students need to know that was lobbied for and developed with money from large profit-driven corporations (that may or may not have our children's best interests at heart), imagine if teachers all across the country spent professional development time discussing project, inquiry, problem, and service based learning projects that allow our students to learn content while also learning the very things that will help them succeed in an unknown future.  Imagine if our focus was on student learning instead of "standards implementation".   

The beauty of this goal is that, along with leaving students prepared for life in ways that our increasingly narrowed curriculum cannot, it will also prepare our students for their futures in every way possible.

Teach them to think for themselves, to love learning, to problem solve, to innovate, and to connect with others, and there will be nothing they cannot accomplish.

They'll even be prepared to be successful in college or their future career.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this because it's what I have been saying since I was still in high school. I think the entire curriculum needs to be restructured. There is a similar idea or movement that claims that current standardized tests and the textbook curriculum is "dangerously irrelevant." I think it has similar beliefs as yours. I'm so glad someone is writing about this. There are so many countless societal problems that need to be solved and the worst thing we can do for our children is to not teach them how to think for themselves. Instead we are teaching them to be trained robots that just regurgitate what they've read or been told. Maybe the new Common Core is not so much about regurgitation of facts, hopefully. I'm not a teacher, but I used to want to be one, and one reason I didn't become one is because I knew I would want to go against the system too much. I applaud Mr. Soskil for this article.

  2. Glad to have found your blog! Looking forward to following your blog! Congratulations on your critical analysis of a topic I am constantly reading and writing about!

    1. Thanks, Pat. Welcome! Happy to have you with us.

  3. Mike, this is an interesting and common perspective of adversaries of the CCSS. However, knowing the discussions we have had, I'd like to think you disagree more so with the legislation connected to the CCSS rather than the standards themselves. The reason I am saying this is the CCSS's 8 Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP) align to your beliefs that students should be thinking critically, as evidenced in SMP3: "Construct Viable Arguments and critique the reasoning of others". Students should be seeing mathematics in real world contexts as evidenced in SMP4: "Model with Mathematics". And they should become true problem solvers as evidenced in SMP1: "Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them." i believe that all 8 SMPs, if implemented in the classroom, hit at the heart of what you are saying about what students should know.

    Also, I think if you look into the biography and philosophical beliefs of the actual writers of the CCSS for mathematics, I think you will find MANY, if not all, have the same belief as you which is that we must teach children to be critical thinkers, problem solvers and learners in an inquiry based environment. I am wondering if you have looked into the backgrounds of the CCSS for Math writers such as Phil Daro and Doug Clements? I think if you watch some of their videos and read some of their work, you might have a different perspective on their development of the CCSS Math standards.

    In my personal experience, I find many people have fault with the legislation of the CCSS rather than the standards themselves. If you have problems with the actual standards, I am wondering which specific standards you might disagree with. I highly doubt you are saying students shouldn’t learn math so I am curious to know what specifically you disagree with regarding the CCSS for Math.

    I know you mentioned the career and college ready part is bad. I am wondering why that is so bad. What other option is there? Some might say “Life” but I would think that would mean one needs a career/job to be successful in life…wouldn’t it? So shouldn’t everyone have some type of job, preferably in a skilled area? I agree that not all students should be forced to go on to an academic college but I do think all students have the right to be “career and college ready” regardless of whether the student chooses to go to a tech school or an academic college. So I’m curious as to what the other option there is if we are not to prepare kids for a career.

    Looking forward to your thoughts…

    1. Hi Karla,

      Thanks for the well thought out reply. You and I are both "math" people, so we both have much more experience with those CC standards. And you are correct, I don't necessarily have great issues with the content of the math standards. As a matter of fact, they are very similar to the recommendations that NCTM has been pushing for years.

      And therein lies my issue. Where NCTM's standards were recommendations for building district curricula, these are not. These are concrete and tested with high stakes attached. And this makes all the difference in the world because it forces districts, schools, and states to narrowly focus on that which is tested. Rigidity is the enemy of critical thinking.

      For example, I have no problem with kindergarten children exploring addition, subtraction, having discussions that build number sense, etc. But I have a huge problem with kindergarten children filling out workbook pages that are "aligned to the Common Core State Standards" because the district that those children reside in is afraid of the ramifications of them not being prepared for tests they will take. This is happening all over the country.

      Maybe this wasn't the intended consequence of the developers of CCSS, but I think they knew exactly what they were doing. If you follow the money trail of who paid for these standards to be developed and look at the other "reforms" they support, it's pretty clear that this is part of their equation leading to profit.

      I don't believe that preparing students for college and/or career is bad. Rather, I think that focusing only on preparing students for college and career is disastrous. Students who graduate knowing enough "stuff" for college/career may or may not be ready. Students who can think for themselves, are innovative, possess entrepreneurial spirit, have passion, etc. will be very prepared for college/career. Our focus on mandatory standards at the expense of these vital skills will be disastrous.

      So, in a nutshell, great standards as guidelines to develop curriculum are an excellent help to teachers and districts, but they won't lead to great teaching. Only great professional development, autonomy, and passion in teachers will lead to this. Forced standards with high-stakes tests attached will always lead to mediocre/poor teaching. I don't care how good a scripted CCSS-alligned textbook lesson is - it will never match the lesson of a passionate teacher who is in tune with the needs, strengths, and passions of her/his students.

      Let me know your thoughts. This is a good conversation, and one that is important to have.