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Common Core will help provide boost to students

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on May 23, 2013)

There seems to be a lot of confusion as well as some concern about the new Common Core State Standards that Tennessee adopted in 2010 and has been gradually rolling out. Implementation of the new standards in math and English language arts began in 2011, and testing based on the new standards will be fully in use by 2014-15. Some critics see an unwanted federal intrusion into educational decisions they believe ought to be made locally. They also argue that the Common Core lowers standards.

It is true that the U.S. Department of Education tacitly supports the Common Core, but the federal government did not develop these standards.

Rather, they were created by a coalition of the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, a group of corporate and government leaders who want to reform schools to better prepare students for college or career readiness. All three groups are bipartisan. Gov. Bill Haslam is a member of the Achieve board.

The new standards are meant to help strengthen students’ ability to reason — to evaluate arguments, make arguments of their own and explain their rationales. They also create expectations for higher math achievement beginning in earlier grades.

Regardless of where a child lives, learning how to think critically about a text or to solve mathematical problems by applying a variety of techniques is a necessity. Moreover, we live in a highly mobile society. Families move from city to city and across the country. Our children will learn algebra and other subjects more easily by following a clear progression of learning objectives that build from year to year and are consistent from district to district and state to state.

Tennessee students have long performed below national averages in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, so we can be thankful for the Common Core’s more ambitious goals. If you expect more, you tend to get more.

This is not to say that the transition to the Common Core will be easy. Parents have every right to ask whether teachers have received the necessary training, just as they have a right to satisfy themselves that their school’s curriculum will continue to instill the cultural knowledge and civic values they want their children to hold. The Common Core is not a curriculum — decisions about that remain in the hands of the state and local districts.

Parents who want to help their children succeed should feel free to talk with teachers about the new standards. They may also wish to acquaint themselves with the parent guides and grade-level roadmaps available at At a minimum, parents can help by talking more with their children about how they arrive at homework answers or develop their arguments in writing assignments.

Researchers examining the new tests being developed to assess children’s learning under the Common Core say they are more intellectually demanding. In the short term, parents may worry about a drop in scores. But in the long run, Tennesseans can be thankful our students will finally have a level playing field.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.