A First Step, But Common Core Standards Must Meet the “Goldilocks Test”

It’s no surprise that the K-12 Common Core State Standards posted for comments by the Center for Best Practices at the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers received plenty of them from early childhood professionals. After all, this effort in standards-making, when complete, will directly impact teaching and curriculum, if used as intended, and clearly affect state policy pertaining to kindergarten and the early grades. If what we know about the way young children learn and what they know isn’t sufficiently taken into account, new standards could also have unintended negative consequences for the preschool years.

From my perspective, the standards are a step in the right direction, but definitely a work in progress. Standards for these grades already exist in every state, and this attempt to have common standards across states can help ensure equality of education for all America’s children. Of course, we have to start somewhere, but by covering only math and literacy as these initial standards do, we run the risk of implying that already neglected subjects like science and social studies aren’t all that important. Many in the early childhood field also worry that omitting social-emotional or pro-social education could be misinterpreted to mean that child growth in these areas is not necessary for later success and not the responsibility of public education.

As should be the case, the common core standards are outcome-focused, listing skills children should have achieved at the end of a given grade level, such as kindergarteners being able to count to 100 or know all of the upper and lower case letters. This focus on discrete skills makes it imperative that: (1) these benchmarks are accurate targets; (2) we ensure teachers know how to teach the skills in appropriate ways; and, (3)  that the child is never blamed for lack of mastery.

That’s not to say we don’t need clear standards. We do — but we need to use the “Goldilocks” test to ensure that the indicators aren’t too prescriptive or too general, but just right for the early years. Some have called for scrapping the standards effort altogether, believing no set of common standards can be drafted that won’t threaten play-based learning or lead to inappropriate teaching practices. Fueling this concern is the fact that the framers start with the aim of “college and career readiness” seemingly without consideration of what we know children entering kindergarten can do.   I don’t believe we should scrap the standards, but I do think that more early childhood experts need to be brought to the table to carefully analyze each outcome and ask:

  • Does it overestimate what children can do at this age based on our best knowledge?
  • Does it underestimate what children can do at this age based on our best knowledge, especially in the context of pre-K standards?
  • Is it too general leading to teachers not knowing how to use it?
  • Is it too specific leading to “a mile wide and an inch deep” curriculum?

The fact that 48 states have signed on to the common core standards effort is testimony that we have gone far too long without clear common standards to guide teaching.  A number of early childhood professionals have weighed in with constructive suggestions and the NAEYC and NAECS-SDE have developed a joint statement that contains specific responses. You can find it here: https://nieer.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/NAEYC-NAECS-SDE-Core-Standards-Statement.pdf.

Ellen Frede

Co-director, NIEER