Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Critical Look at Common Core

Uncommon Journalism speaks with a representative of the Foundation for Critical Thinking about the controversial education standards.

Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS.) Recently, Oklahoma and South Carolina approved legislation replacing CCSS, with North Carolina pushing bills that would that would require major revisions to its CCSS curricula. 

By: James Swift

In an op-ed penned in February, Linda Elder, senior fellow and president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, addressed the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

“We were increasingly being led to believe, through the usual propaganda, that critical thinking is the ‘hallmark’ of the Common Core and of Common Core classes,” she wrote. “I had found this view mystifying since, according to research into critical thinking conducted in the past 50 years, there is very little rigorous critical thinking occurring at any level of schooling in the U.S. today -- under any program.”

Elder, an educational psychologist who has written several books on the topic of critical thinking, suggests the underlying motives for Common Core have more to do with economics than education.

“It may help to remember that the National Governor’s Association supports these standards, and that big business has been boosting it up and pushing it forward from the beginning,” she wrote. “Unabashedly, a primary core curriculum webpage makes clear the connection between the core standards and our students’ ability to compete economically.”

While the last three U.S. Presidential administrations have called for critical thinking programming in schools, Elder believes that none of them supported critical thinking education with actions.

And she’s not optimistic that Common Core will buck that trend.

“To make matters worse, missing from the Core Curriculum are the essential ingredients for fostering a substantive, integrated, fair-minded conception of critical thinking,” she wrote. “Given our current political/economic/educational climate, these ingredients are likely to continue to be missing for many years to come.”

Defining and Defending Critical Thinking

Dr. Rush Cosgrove, research fellow and historian for the Foundation for Critical Thinking, recently spoke with Uncommon Journalism about Common Core.

“It is important to maintain a host of definitions of critical thinking,” Cosgrove said. “Each one offers insight in particular ways, each illuminates certain aspects of the phenomenon of criticality and obscures other aspects.”

In 1987, the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking described the skill as the “intellectually disciplined process” of applying, analyzing and evaluating information. “In its exemplary form,” the definition continues, “it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions.”

Any definition of critical thinking, Cosgrove said, should include a combination of process, object and intellectual standards.

“You have to have a process, and any process needs an object and intellectual standards define quality,” he added. “So if we look at some of the Common Core standards -- they aren’t intellectual because there isn’t an intellectual word in them to sort out quality.”

A Lack of Intellectual Standards?

As an example, Cosgrove examined a standard that encouraged children to collaborate online to produce texts.

“This has a process, collaborating online, and an object, producing texts, but no intellectual standard to determine good texts from bad texts,” he said. “Anyone who has ever entered a chatroom and typed something has collaborated online to produce a text…so we need a word like ‘clear’ or ‘accurate’ or ‘significant.’”

Collaborating online to produce clear, accurate and significant texts, Cosgrove said, was an important critical thinking skill for the 21st century. “It is a skill that can be measured," he said, "and assessed objectively with numerical rubrics."

Each intellectual standard, Cosgrove said, needs to be contextualized appropriately depending upon numerous variables, including age, developmental level and even issue sets.

“Consider the question ‘is this a good, sharp knife?,” he said. “Which standards of sharpness are relevant? This will depend upon the purpose of the task, and the needs of the moment.”

By drawing attention to articulation and development of “particular cross-curricular and fundamental intellectual skills,” Cosgrove said Common Core hits upon what he believes are important aspects of education reform.

“However,“ he said, “due to its intellectually limited nature, it is causing harm and chaos across educational systems.”

Not Just a Common Core Problem

Critical thinking isn’t just a component lacking in Common Core, Cosgrove argued. He said that programs developing and strengthening students skills are wanting all across the American educational landscape.

“Every major investigation into this problem has showed severe deficiencies in the teaching and learning of critical thinking across the curriculum and at every age level,” he said. He brings up findings from a report the Foundation produced alongside the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

“The central problem is that most faculty have not carefully thought through any concept of critical thinking, have no sense of intellectual standards they can put into words, and are, therefore, by any reasonable interpretation, in no position to foster critical thinking in their own students,” the study reads. “Or to help them to foster it in their future students-except to inculcate into their students the same vague views that they have.”

Cosgrove said that a truly critical education system does not exist anywhere in the world at the moment, although he believes many systems are attempting to move in that direction. Making the hypothetical transition even rougher, he said, is the need for far greater education investments.

“Even if it were a properly developed and intellectually rigorous system,” he said, “it would still need far more resources devoted to educating teachers into the new paradigm that is being demanded.”

In the meantime, Cosgrove said educators could benefit greatly from brushing up on their own homework.

“The most important thing for teachers to do is to understand critical thinking theory – to have goals and objectives for lessons, homework and testing,” Cosgrove concluded. “To have a model of intellectual development that stimulates powerful feedback to students, empowering them to learn intellectual standards of their own so that they might improve their own thinking and behavior throughout the rest of their lives.”

Uncommon Journalism, 2014.

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