February 17, 2018

Common Core 101 for Academic Librarians | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellThe Common Core is said to be the most radical innovation to public education in a generation. The average academic librarian has paid little attention. What exactly do academic librarians need to know and does it matter to us?

I have paid no attention to the new Common Core standards. I knew little about it initially, and even after reading up on it, I feel mostly unqualified to write a column about this new attempt at academic standards for mathematics and English language arts. Then again, I paid little attention to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), except for some of the controversies it created—and even then, mostly as an interested citizen rather than as an academic librarian. After all, this is K-12 territory, so why should I bother trying to understand one more complicated and confusing set of educational standards, one that’s particularly controversial and not well liked by many a K-12 educator?

The difference this time appears to be the linkage between the Common Core and preparation for higher education. There is much agreement and recognition that far too many high school students arrive at college underprepared. This results in costly remediation and contributes to dismal retention rates in nearly all sectors of higher education. A better understanding of the Common Core may enlighten academic librarians about what they might expect from arriving students. In addition, there’s more emphasis on information literacy as a standardized set of skills.

Taking a Stand

If you know fairly little about Common Core, you’re not alone. A Gallup poll indicated that two-thirds of Americans have never heard of the Core. I decided to take a look into the Common Core when I discovered that 200 college presidents and other higher education leaders have formed a coalition called Higher Ed for Higher Standards to support the Core, among other K-12 standards. Admittedly, 200 presidents out of 4,000 higher education institutions hardly constitutes overwhelming support, but it signals the beginning of a movement to create more awareness and get more leaders behind the Common Core. As I explored the website and a few news items about the new coalition it struck me that with the Core there is more at stake for our parent institutions than I previously considered. Knowing that there are movements to reverse or stall the implementation across all the 43 states preparing to move to the Common Core, this new coalition seeks to eliminate misinformation while stressing the huge problems that lack of standardization creates for higher education. This being the first attempt by higher education leaders to call attention to the Common Core and to throw their support behind it, I needed to learn more to find out what’s driving the controversy.

Common Core Basics

The Core is a set of learning goals for what students should know and be able to do at every grade level. It was developed at the state level with the intent to encourage states to develop common learning material and assessments. That way both educators and parents know what to expect from the students. It would also seek to create more equity between students across the country, so that grading would be based on a common set of requirements. Currently, what passes for an “A” in one city might only cover what is required for a “C” elsewhere. No Child Left Behind, by comparison, is a federal program that connects funding to student performance, but it does encourage states to develop standards.

Digging into the Common Core appears overwhelming on the surface. The standards cover all the different grades and there are many of them to review. Despite not knowing exactly how to proceed, it didn’t take too long to find research standards for high school students. What I saw should gratify any academic librarian who would like to see more focus on information literacy skill building in grades 9-12. With their emphasis on critical thinking, the standards mesh well with the student learning outcomes of most library instruction advocates. Here’s an example of the grade 11 standards language for “Research to Build and Present Knowledge”:

Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the specific task, purpose, and audience; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and overreliance on any one source and following a standard format for citation.

Alternately, you may wish to consult resources already made available by the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), which has mapped the Core standards to AASL’s own learning standards. Another important thing to know is that there are loads of teachers, citizens, and politicians who are deeply against the Core. Whether they regard it as a liberal initiative to reform education, a project that will simply repeat what’s wrong with NCLB, as suffering from too little input from educators, the Core has many detractors. While that may create some barriers, groups like Higher Ed for Higher Standards will do all they can to bring the Core to fruition in all states.

Take a Look

Busy though you may be, I encourage you to take some time to look into the Common Core. Our school librarian colleagues, who see the Core as a great opportunity for librarianship, have invested considerable energy in preparing for the launch of the standards. That’s to be expected, since it will have far greater impact on their role as teacher-librarians in the K-12 environment. I’m encouraged that our K-12 librarian colleagues are on board with the Core and ready to integrate it into reading and research skills preparation. Take my own institution as an example. We enroll students from multiple states and a wide range of school systems. Based on the library exposure and research experience the incoming students bring to our instruction sessions, it is clear there is a wide discrepancy in their knowledge of libraries and research. If the goal of the Core is to create a common set of educational standards and expectations for high school graduates, it would be refreshing and desirable to walk into a classroom of freshman and know they all have a fairly similar degree of prior knowledge. I do wonder, given that some of our freshmen come from school districts with great libraries, while others attend schools with no libraries or librarians, how the Core is going to overcome such a massive differential in the learning resources available to students.

Must Start Somewhere

For those who oppose the Core, I can understand the frustration of having to once more adapt to a set of standards that will supposedly be the cure for whatever ails American public education. It must be even more difficult to deal with if classroom educators feel it’s being forced on them from the top. But it is also frustrating for higher education institutions to make a significant investment in remediating many students who are underprepared for college-level studies. Although it may takes years to fully implement the Common Core, we need to start somewhere to repair a broken K-12 education system producing too many graduates unprepared for the workplace or the college classroom. If Common Core succeeds where other attempts to standardize K-12 learning and assessment have failed, the true beneficiaries will be those high school graduates who come to college prepared to persist to graduation. The academic librarians who help them along the way will have much to be grateful for as well.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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