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Education Nation

Commentary: What’s More Than the Common Core?

Jeremy Waltner / AP

“The Common Core isn’t the only thing kids need,” School Board Member Theresa Knox declared at Smithtown High School’s Business Olympics competition this past November in Smithtown, New York. “They say the banana is the perfect food – it’s got all the right nutrients. You don’t only eat bananas. You need a balanced diet. We need a balanced school experience for our kids.”

Forty-five of the 50 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core State Standards as the standards behind their local curriculums, and there is general agreement among education experts that the Standards will help place students on the path to success in college and careers. However, among the jargon surrounding the debate over the Core’s implantation, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that although the Standards support a college and career ready curriculum, they are not enough. As Dr. David Conley, Professor and Director of the Center on Educational Policy Research at University of Oregon and Co-Chair of the Common Core Validation Committee put it, “People lose sight of the fact that it’s meant to be only part of the curriculum, not the whole curriculum.”

The Smithtown School District administration believes its Business Olympics competition, among other initiatives, teaches essential, college and career ready skills that are outside the direct scope of the Common Core. The annual program helps students learn to apply foundational skills developed in traditional high school courses like math and ELA to real-world problems. Student teams work outside class to create a ten-minute pitch on a different topic each year for a panel of judges from the Smithtown community. Teams are evaluated on how well they solve a practical business case, using their research, writing, presentation, critical thinking, and teamwork skills along the way. In the 2013 competition, over 250 students pitched marketing plans to increase awareness of the Smithtown Children’s Foundation.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez echoes the importance of these applied skills to student success: "We live in an increasingly sophisticated economy that often demands from our workforce technical know-how and the mastery of complicated systems. But there are other skills – like leadership, professionalism and critical thinking – that are sought after by every employer in every industry. These so-called ‘soft skills’ are essential to finding and keeping a good job. There is, in fact, nothing soft about them.”

Dianne Elmore, Career and Technical Education (CTE) Chairperson for the Smithtown School District, runs Smithtown’s School of Business. She created Business Olympics 19 years ago in partnership with Smithtown’s Industry Advisory Board after recognizing a gap between the skills taught in school and those required in work. “What we do in Career and Technical Education is we put the icing on the cake,” she explained. “We allow them to apply what they learned in those other areas. When a kid is learning algebra, when they come to our CTE classes…they are then able to apply all of those concepts. They’re going to be doing that in life.”

If programs like the Business Olympics are the icing on the cake, today’s employers have a sweet tooth.

According to a study released in the fall of 2013 by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), employers rate, on average, the ability to work in a team structure as the most important skill or quality for the college Class of 2014. This is followed by the ability to make decisions and solve problems; the ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work; and the ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization.

A 2006 study on workforce readiness by The Conference Board, a nonpartisan business research organization, mirrors the 2013 NACE report but went one step further, finding applied skills trump basic skills in the workplace. More employers rated soft skills like oral communications and teamwork as “very important” than they did basic skills like reading comprehension and math. In fact, 95% of employers considered oral communications skills to be “very important.” These results suggest employers value the ability to apply skills rather than the skills themselves. In other words, mastering soft skills is imperative in today’s economy.

Studies show a comprehensive curriculum – one that truly prepares students for college and careers – therefore requires additional standards beyond the Common Core State Standards. It requires courses and programs like Business Olympics that teach students how to apply these skills in real-world situations.

“People have to remember it’s not just [the Common Core]…colleges are not just looking for that,” Chairperson Elmore explained, surrounded by the 57 teams that had just competed in this year’s Business Olympics. “Companies want people who can work together who don’t upset the apple cart.”