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How Common Core promises to ready students for college-level humanities study

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The Common Core State Standards -- new, nationwide learning guidelines for what K-12 students should know and be able to do in English language arts (and math) at each grade level -- promise to ready students for the rigors of college study. That's because the new learning goals focus on teaching the cognitive strategies and learning skills typical of Colleges of Arts and Sciences.

In 45 states and the District of Columbia, all of which have adopted the new standards, students are now supposed to be learning how to collaborate with peers in formulating problems to be solved, researching and interpreting relevant sources and effectively and clearly communicating findings and conclusions in writing, among other things.

As education blogger Stephen Sawchuk reported in his excellent 2013 Smithsonian.com article, "What to Make of the Debate Over Common Core," students in Common-Core states should now be "analyzing and applying" what they learn in textually accountable ways, rather than trying to memorize a lot of content knowledge to be regurgitated on state tests.

As described by Sawchuk, ninth-grade teacher Leslie Kohn’s humanities classroom at Scholars’ Academy -- a New York city secondary school implementing the state-wide Common Core initiative -- now closely resembles the typical college humanities classroom:

In small groups, her students studied and discussed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, a watershed historical event "which galvanized the labor movement and paved the way towards occupational safety standards." Queries prompted students to discuss evidence from "a 1911 New York Times article on the fire and … records of the existing fire codes at that time" to identify the causes of the fire and to argue for or against blaming the factory owners for the deaths of workers.

Supporting these students in the discovery and use of evidence from sources to determine whether the factory owners or the old fire codes themselves were to blame for the tragic loss of life gave students the ownership over their own learning that is expected at the academy. Also typically expected of college and university students, these ninth graders did more important things with the historical facts and information presented than commit them to memory.

However, incompetent implementation of the new standards could lead to the failure of the Common Core initiative in many states. To illustrate, the "key ideas" mandated to be taught by the New York Board of Regents' 9-12 Social Studies Framework could undermine the very spirit of independent inquiry embodied by Common Core, according to Stephen Lazar, a National Board certified teacher and author of a 2013 Shanker Blog article titled "Poor Implementation Undermines Promise of the Common Core."

To illustrate, according to the current framework, eleventh-grade social studies and history teachers must profess that "The success of the revolution challenged Americans to establish a system of government that would provide for stability, while beginning to fulfill the promise of the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence," reported Lazar. He rightly complained that this "key idea" is an answer rather than a question, a conversation stopper rather than a conversation starter. Lazar criticizes the underlying assumption "that the Constitution provided stability, an idea challenged by the Civil War, and that it was a step on the road to certain ideals, despite its protection of slavery and the slave trade."

To fight the "key ideas" and other bad ideas in the framework, Lazar founded a group of like-minded New York social studies teachers called Insightful Social Studies, which argues that the framework should instead

1. emphasize questions and inquiry, not answers.
2. emphasize transformative depth rather than useless breadth.
3. provide the freedom for school communities to choose from a menu of paths and emphases to best serve their students.

Few in higher education would argue with such sage recommendations, which are core to the Common Core initiative.

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