I have emphasized many times that America’s laser-like focus on test scores has done a disservice to our children by stripping away their joy of learning, cutting off much of their access to art and other important classes, and emphasizing rote memorization over critical thinking.
In discussing international comparisons, I’ve written about the success of Finland, where, as part of their economic recovery plan, leaders have transformed the educational system over the past 40 years. By 2000, Finnish students scored the best in the world in reading. By 2003, they also led the world in math, and by 2006, they were second in science.
Finland reached these high levels of achievement without standardized tests and without a ranking system for students, schools or regions.
“We prepared children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” a teacher said.
Charles Blow, in a recent New York Times column, laments that U.S. students have gone from “leader to laggard” in international comparisons and concludes, “America, we have a problem. Any way you slice it, we’re not where we want or need to be.”
Americans strongly agree about what schools need to do to prepare our students for global leadership. Citing a recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, he points out that 80 percent of Americans strongly agree that schools should teach critical-thinking skills, 78 percent say they should teach communication skills, 57 percent want them to teach students how to collaborate and 52 percent believe they should help build students’ character. That sounds like the same investment strategy and common-sense approach that is being used in Finland — and like the approach that once made U.S. education the envy of the world.
Blow agrees with education leaders across the country that the new Common Core curriculum standards — which have been adopted by California and 44 other states, the District of Columbia and four territories — are the right vehicle for restoring U.S. education to prominence. The Common Core’s high standards are meant to teach children the skills they need to be successful in college and careers — skills like critical thinking and deep analysis.
Teachers, administrators, reformers and the public know the recipe for success: attracting, supporting and keeping the best teachers and investing in their development; providing “wrap-around” services for poor and struggling students; making schools safe, welcoming, fun places with recess and art and music and nutritious food; and strongly promoting parental engagement.
Blow points out that our educational system has become so tangled in exams and experiments that we’ve drifted away from the basis of what makes education great: learning to think critically and solve problems. The Common Core is designed to align a high-standards curriculum with methodology and assessment tools that teach critical thinking and problem solving, and restore joy to the learning process.
Blow concludes, “We have drifted away from the fundamentals of what makes a great teacher: the ability to light a fire in a child, to develop in him or her a level of intellectual curiosity, the grit to persevere and the capacity to expand. Great teachers help to activate a small thing that breeds great minds: thirst.
“The Common Core is meant to help bolster those forms of learning and teaching.
“The Common core is for the common good, if only we can … properly implement it.”
— Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools. The opinions expressed are his own.