Common Core Standards: Preparation for Life in the 21st Century

Submitted by Anthony Biscione, Senior Deputy Superintendent of Schools

In September of 1990, I began my tenure as principal of Most Precious Blood School in Long Island City. As I prepared for my first faculty meeting as a new principal, I recall hanging a poster in the school’s faculty room that posed the question, “Are we preparing students for their future or our past?” This question is more poignant today than it was in September of 1990.

In essence, the common core standards are the foundations upon which schools will build their curriculum to help prepare students for their future, not our past. The common core standards are preparation for life in the 21st Century.

Educational standards must change for one very simply reason – the world changes! As a result, what students need to know and to be able to do changes with each successive generation. 

The common core standards are more rigorous because there is a greater reliance on inculcating 21st Century skills in our classrooms. The problems and challenges of the 21st Century require creative thinkers and effective problem solvers. These include, but are not limited to collaboration, communication, creativity and competition – competition in the internal sense that one continually tries to do better than before. 

If someone my age, who attended elementary school in 1960, looked at a classroom today, there would be no doubt that technology has greatly changed and impacted classrooms. Why? Because it is part of the world we live in and it has brought about monumental changes in the world we live in, college life and careers. These changes require educational standards in our schools that are predicated on the pillars of depth, rigor and relevance. Accordingly, the three pillars of depth, rigor and relevance form the basis of curriculum. 

It is important for students to know the content they learn in school in greater depth. Basically, this means that they are able to delve into course materials and develop a keen understanding of what they are studying and why they are studying it. Deeply knowing something means that you can apply it in new and different situations. This depth of knowledge is made possible because the common core standards reduce the number of topics taught at each grade level, unlike the former standards where each topic was touched upon briefly only to move on to the next topic. The standards help provide for a more focused curriculum.

The second pillar, relevance, is part of what I mentioned earlier. Course content and curriculum need to be relevant to the world that students live in and it needs to include the tools of technology that are relevant to their lives. Students need to delve into real world problems and know when, how and what technological tools to use.

Do you remember encyclopedias? They were an essential part of my school classroom and home library. Today, they are a vestige of the past. Today, students can find all the facts, figures and data they need simply by “googling” a question or phrase. This, however, leads us to our third pillar, rigor. Just because students can find facts doesn’t necessarily mean that they know what to do with those facts. 

Rigor is a foundational piece of the common core and really is not new in education. We have talked for years about the importance of developing higher-order thinking skills. Facts and basic knowledge are important, but they are just that – basic. The world of the 21st Century requires students who can be effective problem solvers. An effective problem solver thinks outside the box, approaches a problem from multiple perspectives, and analyzes and poses solutions. It is wonderful if you know something, but what you can do with that knowledge is more important in the world of college and careers. Having a head full of scientific facts and figures is meaningless if I cannot use the facts and figures to solve a real world problem.

The New York State Common Core Learning Standards provide a foundation for curriculum. They are not an exhaustive list of all that can and should be taught. They are a set of foundational understandings that form a basis for us to establish curriculum and monitor student progress toward college and career readiness. In our Catholic schools, the standards – along with our traditions, rituals, beliefs and values – form the foundations for a strong curriculum, a curriculum predicated on rigorous academic standards and the fundamentals of our faith.

It is important to understand the relationship between standards and curriculum. Standards establish a baseline. In a sense, they serve as the skeletal structure that is fleshed out in the curriculum. In a classroom, curriculum is the lived reality of the standards because the curriculum involves the teaching strategies employed, the books used, the materials incorporated, the tools of technology utilized, and the form that homework and projects take on in the teaching and learning process.

More importantly, in our Catholic schools and academies, the curriculum is infused with our Catholic values, Catholic social teachings and doctrine. The standards form the baseline but it is important for us, as Catholic educators, to insure that the curriculum remains our own. I look forward to seeing schools and academies continue to use the common core to develop exceptional curriculums that will prepare our students not for our past, but for their future.