Tennessee's implementation of the new Common Core State Standards was a focal point of controversy during this year's legislative session. Kimberly L. King-Jupiter, Ph.D., dean of the College of Education and professor at Tennessee State University, is a veteran educator with experience in international comparative education and higher education administration. She shared a few perspectives on Common Core with New America Media editor Khalil Abdullah.
As the Common Core is being rolled out in Tennessee and other states, are people misinformed about what it is and what it aims to do?
It is less that people are misinformed and more that the conversation has become enmeshed in or overshadowed by partisan politics. What needs to be remembered is that the goal of the Common Core State Standards is to create a generation of students who can literally problem solve. It is now less about rote memorization. I think if you understand the intent, it's not something people could be opposed to.
A more accurate way to think about the Common Core State Standards is that students take ownership of their own learning and thought processes. The real discourse that should occur is that Common Core requires a paradigm shift. You are telling teachers and students it's not just about the outcome or students getting the answer right, it's about the process the student engages in to get the right answer.
Can you give an example of what that might look like for students?
Jane and John have 20 crayons. Jane groups her crayons into four groups; John groups his into five. Who has the most crayons in a group?
My third-grade daughter did a chart and under Jane, she did four times five equals 20, and under John, she put five times four equals 20. I had to explain to her that her answer was incorrect. She said, 'No it's not. Five times four is 20 and four times five is 20.'
That is correct, but what they want you to do is explain who has the most in a group. She had to understand that she could not answer that question with numbers, even though it was math. She had to use her words to answer the question.
How does this kind of problem help change the learning process?
What we know about kids, when they grasp problem solving, they figure out the answer by creating connections with previous experiences. The process you go through to arrive at a conclusion; that becomes the center of the process for learning. It's a paradigm shift for everyone involved, the teacher, the student – and the parent.
What's fascinating about Common Core is that we've always had this expectation of critical thinking skills for the privileged, the gifted, and the wealthy; the expectation that you learn to think deeply. The life of the mind, this involvement with intellect, this process of thinking that's elevated; that hasn't been the education we've wanted for certain types of kids.
Are there aspects of the transition to the new standards that concern you?
The implementation of Common Core does raise legitimate concerns. For one, the distribution of technology is not equitable. We have been talking about the digital divide for years. Common Core forces states and school districts to more equitably distribute resources so school districts can have access to the IT infrastructure, mobile devices, and computers in order for students to be able to respond to what Common Core requires.
One concern of teachers is that the assessments designed for Common Core are computer-based and kids don't know how to type. I don't think the designers of Common Core and those who adopted it really thought it through. You knew a transition to keyboarding would have to happen, but to have students learn keyboarding skills to enter answers correctly is another challenge. With that said, kids are far more adaptable to technology than we are.
Also, there has to be adequate time for teachers to reset their approach to instruction. With the rush to Common Core, the allowance for time for teachers to shift their paradigm has not necessarily occurred.
Given that Tennessee State University is a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), how do you view the challenge of attracting students who desire to be teachers in the era of Common Core?
If anything, Common Core makes TSU and HBCUs more relevant and necessary. Time and time again, HBCUs have shown their commitment not to just prepare the best and brightest teachers, but teachers who believe in all kids. One of the reasons why we can produce teachers who are capable of coping with a diverse student population and who can teach to all kids, is because HBCUs themselves are uniquely situated to provide a diverse environment.
TSU is my twelfth professional affiliation. This is the most diverse faculty I've had and the classes are more diverse than any you'll see. Common Core requires that teachers broaden their capacity, bridge that gap, to teach to kids of all backgrounds. As a teacher, you have to be willing to embrace diversity or Common Core will be yet another educational reform that contributes to the racial and class gaps in student performance.
How do you, as a dean of education, approach the task of training the next generation of teachers in Common Core?
TSU is an accredited institution and must align with whatever the accreditation standards are. Common Core is replacing one set of standards with another. We have a lot of people who teach what we call the general core. They teach in a very traditional way, using chalk and talk or PowerPoint. But when Common Core has been in place long enough, those teachers will start getting groups of students who will not find those techniques an engaging way to learn. If I had a crystal ball – and I don't – but if I did, I would tell you that the real question is, what will be the expectations of the next generation of students and how they learn in a university setting?