Like fashion, trends in public education come and go.
What's in vogue depends on the decade and often reflects which way the political wind blows, and what shiny gadgets have hit the market.
With the threat of Soviet innovation and Sputnik, old math became new math in the 1960s and then back to old arithmetic about 10 years later.
Phonics, like bellbottoms, always makes a comeback, although some fads are but brief historical blips. Think the metric system and mullets.
But with such limited time to teach, there have long been debates about what children need to know and how and when to teach it -- and when to stop teaching something altogether.
"Is it still necessary for kids to learn their times table when they can pick up their iPhone and ask Siri what is 20 times 2?" asked Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
A new set of national standards, called the Common Core, has sought to answer that, offering states a guide for what skills and knowledge children should have at the end of each grade level.
The ultimate goal is to get every child ready for college and career. That means cursive is out and keyboarding is in. Repetition and rote learning are passe, while critical thinking is, well, critical.
Literature and novels see less class time than literary nonfiction and informational texts, including essays and speeches. Spelling gets a cursory nod, with the caveat that kids can consult "references."
Critics have called the effort a federal push that weakens states' authority over public schools.
Yet the standards, a multistate effort coordinated by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, are optional, and states that do adopt them can choose to add more content.
And the Common Core State Standards don't dictate how to teach the knowledge and skills. That's up to districts and teachers.
Since the standards were released in 2010, nearly every state has signed up to use the new standards. Texas, Nebraska, Virginia and Alaska have opted out.
The new standards, which in the coming years will be incorporated into new textbooks and assessment tests, expect students to apply skills or information rather than, say, solve 50 multiplication problems on a worksheet.
In sixth grade, for example, that means "draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research," or "use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others."
In other words, the new system focuses less on learning facts and more on using that information to synthesize and create new ideas, said Domenech, a supporter of the national standards.
The Common Core doesn't skip over the basics, such as multiplication tables or spelling. It just doesn't dwell on them.
"We cannot lose sight of the basic skills," Domenech said. "On the other hand, we shouldn't spend 12 years teaching basic skills."
Parents might feel a bit uneasy with these changes as the textbooks get smaller and their children are spending less time studying flash cards, drilling arithmetic or memorizing facts, and more time on projects that, say, delve into space exploration.
It will require new teaching styles and classrooms, more like high-tech startups, with students clustered together in teams solving problems.
Whether Common Core will stand the test of time or fade away like feathered hair remains to be seen.
Copyright 2012 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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