Links: What if the Common Core makers guessed wrong?

1. Here’s a post from a retired high school teacher making the point that the testing regimen of the last decade has created students who are not able to do college work. I’m not sure I fully accept the claim that students have been damaged by testing, but I agree that some worthwhile things have been sacrificed in the name of testing. I also appreciate the critique of AP courses — these classes, too, teach to the test.

2. On the other hand, The Atlantic posted this piece by college profs. Gerald Graff and Steve Benton, which argues that “the disconnected and muddled curriculum … does more damage to our schools and colleges than bad teachers do.” That is not a claim I would make or hold after my 12 years of teaching high school writing and science. This piece claims that “mixed messages about the do’s and don’ts of academic practices … leaves [students]

profoundly confused about the intellectual work they are expected to do.

These mixed messages include everything from whether it’s all right to use “I” in academic essays to whether summarizing and quoting other authors is standard practice or a sign of insufficient creativity. While some teachers are sticklers for grammar, others tell their students that grammatical correctness is far less important than expressing genuine feelings or having a strong thesis. In some courses, strong opinions are welcomed; in others they are shot down as symptoms of adolescent overconfidence. One class is all about coming up with the right answer, while the rule in the one next door is that there are no right answers, only endless questions. Some teachers design their classes as job-training workshops while others design theirs as antidotes to the dreary world of the bottom line.

Now, this doesn’t seem like a problem so much as a reality. Different people write and teach and do everything in varied ways, and thank goodness for diversity. There are no, or very few, rules about writing that aren’t merely conventions, and thus, are arbitrary. For instance, the Associated Press Style Guide requires one comma in a series of three things (bread, PB and J) and the Chicago Style Guide has two (bread, PB, and J). Who’s right? Neither of them. The question of “who’s right” isn’t even appropriate in this context.

Graff and Benton would like teachers to “still promote and encourage dramatically conflicting beliefs about their subjects,” even while Graff and Benton advocate the Common Core, which is a document that largely ends rather than begins debate among actual classroom teachers. (And as an aside, I’m not sure G&B’s “mantra: ‘Make argument the center of the curriculum'” —  what role does mantra ever play in argument? — really deserves being the guideline of all curricula. For one, argument is only one of the many modes of thinking and being, among others such as creativity, memorization (of poems, say), practice, etc. For another, I don’t have the confidence in the centrality of argument to our culture that I, as a philosophy student, once did. Recent political communications have contained many examples of people using rhetorical tools well outside those of mere argument — and argument is a game with rules that the participants agree to. If one arguer resorts to ad hominem attacks and lies, there is no real argument taking place.)

But I don’t want to just criticize without also asking a question, which is: What is it about a single, narrowly defined, national curriculum that appeals to those who advocate it? I don’t believe there’s any one royal road to becoming a knowledgeable, thoughtful, capable adult, and I don’t frankly see how any Common Core (especially one that’s less a “core” of knowledge and more of a full-fledged program) is necessary, let alone desirable.

So who advocates this? I can guess that politicians and ed-policy types would appreciate having a single set of rules to impose (that’s what it feels like to this classroom teacher) across the country. In a sense, sure, there’s no great reason why students in one state should be learning different things than students in another state. But why should any such document be imposed? Why should there be any such document? Life is complex, the economy is complex, the world of knowledge is complex, so why would we needlessly simplify what students should learn?

G&B write:

“teachers need to agree on the skills that will enable their students to graduate, to go to college, to do well there, and to eventually become articulate citizens and workers. In other words, the playbook needs not only to be a common one, but a good one.”

But how can anyone who lacks the power of seeing the future possibly know what skills will be needed in the future? What if the makers of the Common Core guessed wrong?

4 responses to “Links: What if the Common Core makers guessed wrong?

  1. Interesting reflection on Common Core. I do have to say that I, reluctantly, am a supporter of Common Core. (Note: My experience is in the elementary classroom) Here is why. I believe that you need to examine standards as the floor and not the ceiling. Standards of any kind should be established as the bare minimum that a child is guaranteed to receive as a participant in American education. When quality teachers look at the Common Core standards, they should say to themselves, I do all of this. Most of the time, quality teachers just need to refocus their curriculum to match the language and attributes that are being suggested. The challenge in American education is that our education system has been performing in such a fractured manner that no one knows what is being taught, why it is being taught and why “I” have to give up my favorite project for my students. Although components of the Common Core are being met, we have a large number of holes in our curriculum. I know that my 3rd grade Wyoming students did not meet the Common Core standards. This is not to suggest that they are less intelligent but rather they have been taught a floor level (Wyoming State Standards) that is below the demands of Common Core. My goal as an instructor was to provide additional support and resources to raise their floor and excel beyond. (I confess, it is not an easy job.) I attempted this by using more rigorous classroom language, establishing clear learning objectives that make learning less of a surprise (I have been reading a lot of Marzano as a guide.) and providing my students strategies to overcome text that challenges their abilities. Is it ok to teach 3rd grade students to think pragmatically? (and use the word pragmatically?)

    I think the disagreement that I have with the Common Core standards is the idea of official knowledge. The Common Core establishes a very distinct set of knowledge that is valued by American schools. In some ways this is beneficial. For example, they reduce the amount of racist and gender biased curriculum in schools. On the other end of the spectrum, curriculum developers also need to evaluate and reevaluate the standards to ensure that those writing the official knowledge do not abuse their power. Their are implied aspects of common core that strictly Judea-Christian, male and white dominated.

    This became much more of a diatribe than I intended. I hope it proves useful and sparks a few thoughts.


  2. I greatly appreciate your comments, as they do help explain the rationale of Common Core to me. I can understand your point about how they could be a floor rather than a ceiling, but at least with the high school English standards, they are so extensive that they feel like a ceiling, like an impossibly high ceiling that we’ll never reach.
    Maybe no one knew what was being taught nationally, but locally, school administrators should know what’s being taught, and how well it’s being taught. Maybe these standards do make more sense at a lower grade than at high school. In his book “Horace’s Compromise,” Ted Sizer made a point about making standards quite minimal — 8th-grade level reading and math skills. My impression of the high school English standards is that they are trying to make ALL high-schoolers do work that seems more typical of college classwork.

    (For example, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.9b Apply grades 11–12 Reading standards to literary nonfiction (e.g., “Delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning [e.g., in U.S. Supreme Court Case majority opinions and dissents] and the premises, purposes, and arguments in works of public advocacy [e.g., The Federalist, presidential addresses]” ).

    This is work that many students may not be developmentally ready to do no matter how well we teach, and so I fear we’ll be training students to take tests on these standards by following certain formulas rather than doing original, thoughtful work.

    These standards in themselves may not even bad, except that I fear what they will be used for. These standards will be the basis for new tests (and why there are two testing organizations, PARCC and Smart Balance — sorry — Smarter Balanced for one set of national standards beggars logic), and so again it will be what is on the test that will actually drive what gets taught, and these tests will likely be either multiple-choice and/or computer-graded essays, and so we’re back to the bullsh!t again. Or, maybe this is cynical, but I fear what’s being created is a brand-new system by which more and more students can be judged to be failing, and more schools can be judged as failing, both of which would benefit advocates of de-funding and micro-managing public schools.
    I guess I’d prefer to see students do actual work, including writing papers under real-world conditions (access to research, dictionaries, ability to revise over time, etc.), but then, it’s not so easy to standardize those. Of course, actual people aren’t so standardized themselves.
    Thanks again for your comments — as you can see, they did get me thinking!

  3. Yes, there will always be a diverse set of expectations from diverse teachers. I agree that is just the way education is, and probably should continue to be, because that is the way life is. For instance, bosses are not all going to have the same expectations for their employees, even when all the bosses are in the same line of work. All friends are not going to have the same expectations of friendship, even though they are all pleasant, valuable friends. Ditto for relatives, store clerks, doctors, police persons, etc. So, I taught my students that learning to cope with a variety of expectations is a good skill to acquire. It will stand them in good stead.

    And Common Core may be more integral to the elementary grades than secondary. But when has education ever stopped being invented? Our nation purports to education ALL children to certain levels ALL the time. But students are not steel ingots to be pounded on by teachers for nine months, and at the end of the year, a good teacher has produced a flawless gadget. Yet they keep trying, in spite of meddling and muddling by boards, parents, university experts, and the latest trend in psychology/sociology/child raising. Good luck.

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