Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Common Core

Both in Massachusetts for my student teaching and in Maine for my five years in the classroom, the schools required me to follow a detailed state curriculum. When I heard of a national curriculum, I had no problems with it. Wasn't it just taking what I had at the state level and making it national? Sounds okay to me as long as the actual standards are appropriate. I figure what is good for a child in Maine is good for a child in California and Georgia and Alaska. Anything regional could be supplemented, but otherwise reading, writing, math, science, and social studies are the same everywhere.

I was a little worried that the new standards would be too rigid. I was concerned about loosing autonomy in my classroom. I did not want to be mandated by anyone, neither principal, superintendent, school board, or state or federal government, to teacher specific texts or highly sequenced or scripted lessons. I find it disrespectful to my capabilities as a teacher as well as ineffective for teaching real children with various abilities, needs, and strengths.

Since I was currently at home with my children, I did not have a reason to read the Common Core standards when they were first released. Instead, I waited until a time when my curiosity was peaked. I read all of the 9-10 ELA standards. I found them 100% acceptable. All the actual standards, the actual content and skills I was excepted to teach to my students, was exactly as I would expect it to be. I found nothing dumbed down nor too high of an expectation for the average student. I was pleasantly satisfied with this oncoming reform.

Then, I started to hear some radical rumors about Common Core. I wanted to dismiss them as fanatical, but there were too many.

Many of the complaints about CC revolved around outrage over mandated texts or lessons. I found some of the outrage to be censorship and ignorance. Other cases, I found valid. But, none of the cases I found to be mandated by the CC documents. In fact, I read right in the CC document that the curriculum was not intended to be rigid, but that teachers were expected to adapt it to their needs. Furthermore, there was an extensive list of exemplar readings. But they were not mandated readings. The list was to help teachers find texts that were appropriate in complexity, quality and range. No where did I see that all, or even any, of these texts must be used. I did learn that some states (specifically New York) are adopting text books and other such materials that are very scripted, but far as I know, that is a poor decision being made at the state level.  I have not seen evidence that it is required, or that my state is going that route. 

Similarly, there were lots of complaints about CC approved lessons. Many of them were controversial because they dealt with the ugly aspects of our history. For example, an essay asking high school students to think critically about primary source documents of Nazi propaganda and then write a persuasive essay from the Nazi point of view. Difficult both academically and emotionally? Yes. An excellent assignment? Yes. Can you really teach a child about the Holocaust without hurting them?   Isn't that kinda the point.  Not all learning is happy and feel good.  Some learning hurts, either because of the amount of work and failure to achieve the goal, or because the content is ugly.  Yet, the point remains that none of these lessons were mandated. There was no list attached to the CC that had lessons for every standard for every grade level. And even if there was, how could the state possibly hold anyone accountable for using them?

This leads to how teachers and schools will be held accountable: Standardized testing. I disagree with standardized testing, but will put up with it in small doses. One period of testing for my students twice a year. Okay, I'll accept that. The other 178 days we can assess in a way that actually has real meaning to students and teachers. But, the testing connected with the CC is not like this. First of all, its three times a year. Secondly, it starts at Kindergarten. I shouldn't even have to explain why a five year old taking a standardized test is wrong. But these tests aren't just for an hour one day and then an hour another day. They go on for several days to cover all subjects. And the teachers are being pushed to put great meaning on these tests, so it becomes a stressful event for a student, starting at much too young an age. Teaching to a test leads to many bad teaching practices. It takes away curiosity, creativity, and spontaneity in learning. It pushes a specific pace and sequence for material in order to hit everything before the test. It also requires excessive time working within the testing medium; in other words, more time preforming tasks that mirror the test. Instead of writing, talking, or creating to learn, students are preforming the same tasks over and over again to display what they have learned. These are not authentic learning situations, and do not mirror how a student will use their learning in a real situation.

But I knew all these negatives about standardized testing before hearing how much of it was attached to the Common Core. What I hadn't heard about was data being collected and distributed from a non-consenting party. In this case, the testing collects multiple points of data from all students. The goal is to have a longitudinal study giving tons of data to be analyzed. Not only are scores present over a child's school career, but other social factors are included as well. At this point, I'm still on board. It is when I heard that items like social security number, address and telephone number, and mother's maiden name are collected that I question. There is reason to have a number to identify a student for the length of their time in school, but other such identifiable data is not necessary. Furthermore, parents are not informed, nor are they given a chance to opt out of the study! That is unethical. The final nail in the coffin is that this data is claimed to be distributed. Within the government to agencies with interest in education? Okay, that makes sense. But to outside agencies and private corporations? Um, no. You can't collect my child's data and then sell it to a company so they can more successfully sell them something.

I've had to come to terms that money is involved with education. And I'm not just talking about lack of government funding. Schools want to make money. My child has been in school for two months now. I'd say 80% of the communications sent home which ask for something from parents has been about fund raising. Some people outraged at the Common Core are upset that it sets children to be workers in a global economy. They think their children are being used as pawns to make money. Well, they are. I wish I could be idealistic and think that we educate people for their own enlightenment and happiness, but we don't. We educate our population to create a work force to meet our society's needs, and to create citizens with the skills necessary to carry out our democratic government. When I see something asking community business to invest in education because it will improve their workforce and thus their revenues further down the road, it does make me feel sad momentarily. But, it is truth.

A lot of people have complaints about the people funding Common Core, such as the Gates. This is not as concerning to me, but also not a venue I've investigated. I don't think these people are out for world domination. Maybe I'm naive and am choosing to believe in the good in people, but I think the Gates are trying to fund education in the best way they think possible. Furthermore, I see that nationalizing a curriculum does make an entry point for some scary things to take place. I've read my 1984 and Brave New World and even Handmaid's Tale. I'm am well versed in the dystopian novel. I see that the curriculum we teach today creates the society we have years later. But I can not get behind claims that the government is deliberately crippling its people to control them. I guess I just can't believe that so many people would allow such a thing to occur outside of an Alan Moore comic. Besides, I don't see anything crippling about the curriculum, and while I do strongly disagree with the testing, I don't think its an effective plan for world domination on the part of an evil mastermind.  But, it is possible that those reforms could come later what the system is in place. 

I've seen a lot of ugliness from the people opposed to the Common Core. Maybe it is anger and fear bringing out the worst in them. What is most aggravating is so many people who claim to be enlightening the rest of that use so little evidence to back up their claims. I will see blog after blog with link after link embedded, but next to none of them are from a reputable, unbiased source. I see a lot of overgeneralizing. This one lesson, this one book, this one test question, this one teacher are endorsed somehow by Common Core, so Common Core is bad. But one of the more disturbing things I saw was a comment on a post about the supposed “fuzzy” new math being taught. People are outraged at their child getting no points when the correct answer for the math problem is given, yet they are ignoring that the assignment / test question is asking more more than that, for how the student arrived at the answer. How this is “fuzzy” I still don't know. I think metacognition is lacking in schools. That's how I had so many students who froze when given a classic text. They didn't know how they read, so they couldn't identify those strategies to apply them to a new and authentic situation. But, I digress. On one blog rip with complaints about this new math, parents were stating, “How dare the teacher question my child on how he got the answer? He got it right and that is all that matters.” Fundamentally, it is the job of a real teacher to ask such questions. That is real learning. If that is not what you want, employ a robot instead so your child can learn to memorize facts.