Sunday, January 19, 2014

Rotten to the Core

The Common Core Standards (CCS) loom huge in the minds of teachers all across the nation, as 45 states have approved them to be adopted for their standards. Detractors, as well as proponents for CCS, have been very vocal on education websites and in the media. Although both the NEA and the AFT have rubber-stamped them, there is an awful lot of dissention among the rank-and-file union members who actually have to deal with them. Randi Weingarten recently affirmed her belief in the CCS but discouraged the use of evaluative tests in the implementation year, while teachers get training and feel comfortable dealing with the new standards. Diane Ravitch on the other hand is totally opposed to the CCS as more educational policy handed down from on high from non-educators. There is something to be said about each of those opinions.

States have always had education standards on which curricula is based. To be honest, until NCLB made a big thing about addressing the standards, districts typically expected the textbooks it approved to do that for us. I had been teaching a decade before I noticed the concepts the math curriculum didn’t emphasize, were the things that student really need help with. It seemed to me, as the Math teacher in the school that the district was more concerned with computation than Measurement, Geometry or Problem Solving, and Statistics didn’t even appear on the radar. At that time, we only took one standardized test a year, in May, and it was used to determine who was eligible for Title I services. The idea being, if you were doing your job, a goodly portion of the kids would score out of Title I services. Some did, but a large number stayed in Remedial Math and/or Reading throughout their elementary tenure.

Standards became big business in education in 2000 when NCLB was born. It was at this time that the Philadelphia realized the need to more adequately address the State Standards and called for a Core Curriculum with a pacing schedule, aligned with text books they had approved as likely to address as many standards as possible. It took more than 2 dozen teachers about 6 months of work to match the textbook lessons to the state standards, taking onto account re-teaching, background information and adaptations for ELL and Special Ed. Unfortunately, the ELL and Special Ed suggestions were removed before it went to print. I know this because I was one of the few dozen teachers working on it. It took so many hours! We worked a half-day at our schools and then 6-7 hours more every day for 6 months. Although we received a stipend for the work, we ended up making less than $2 an hour when we tallied it all up. Was it worth it? Maybe.

The unfortunate thing about the Core Curriculum was the rigidity of the pacing schedule and the lack of time to go back for kids that hadn’t mastered the concepts. But I was a master teacher by this time and figured out a way to review every day in small groups in math. I also had enough confidence to introduce concepts as I felt they needed to be for each class. That didn’t always jive with the pacing schedule. My principal gave me slack as my students generally did well in math. When she left it was a different story. The pacing schedule was written on stone tablets for all to follow. Our scores went down. I wonder why?

My nieces went to school in school districts in two states. There was a marked difference in the standards in each state and it appalled me. One state offered tough standards and advanced coursework, while the other one was sorely lacking. This is why I believe that there needs to be common standards throughout the nation. Why should students in one state be at a disadvantage where education is concerned, and other states like Massachusetts have an excellent set of standards and great outcomes in education? We need some way to straighten out the disparities, hence the Common Core Standards.

But I cannot endorse these Common Core Standards. Why? Because these standards were not written by educators. A very few educators had a chance to look them over after they had been written, but it was already a done deal. So who wrote the standards, if not educators? The head of the College Board chaired the committee, joined by a few teachers. The rest of the CCS authors were people appointed from the National Council of Governors and players in the test-prep industry. They looked at what you needed to know when you got to college and then backtracked the standards down to Kindergarten. Here’s where the troubles begin.

First of all, not every student needs to or is capable of attending college. Because of the “college ready” curriculum, Vo-Tech schools have been disappearing like bugs from Monsanto corn. We still need hairdressers, plumbers, electricians, roofers, and carpenters. Stonemasons and steel workers will continue to be needed in the future. None of these professions require a four-year college degree. They should have the opportunity to be apprenticed in high school and to be better equipped in finding a job when they graduate. Not all students should learn calculus, chemistry and physics, only if they are interested and it is needed in their future course of study. There need to be, but are not, common standards for these Vo-Tech courses so that jobs can be obtained upon graduation of they don’t intend to go to college or can’t afford it. Not everyone who is able wants to go to college.

Secondly, as they backed the standards down from college to kindergarten, no one took into account whether the concepts and activities they need to learn were developmentally appropriate. Some of the standards in the primary grades are just plain old impossible for most kids to grasp. They want abstract thinking when most of the kids still think concretely.

Third, some of the literature and writing standards are so limited on scope, most of the creativity has disappeared. In reading, what we learned was important in our teacher prep courses, has been thrown out the window. Prior knowledge and background knowledge, along with vocabulary, are out of favor and gathering information from the selection only is in. This is ridiculous. I taught in the inner city and if we were reading about the beach or a farm, I had to bring on books or show films about what goes on at the beach or the farm before we read the selection. The kids had no idea before they saw photos of a volcano, or a dogsled race why the characters in the story had to act the way they did. Each of those areas has special vocabulary words that sometimes are not explained fully in the essay. Those words must be introduced before reading so the kids have some context when they read. Otherwise it’s just words in the page. With the increased use of non-fiction books, this is even more critical.

Peter A. Greene states in his Curmudgucation blog, - “The literature standards in grades 9-12 complete ignore any study of the cultural context or background from which the literature emerges. This fits with CCSS ties to a twisted version of Close Reading, a vision of literature that exists in a cultural vacuum. In this world, we are supposed to read "A Modest Proposal" without knowing why Swift would suggest such terrible things, read The Great Gatsby with no knowledge of the 1920s, read Animal Farm without hearing about the Bolshevik Revolution, and read the Gettysburg Address without talking about Lincoln or the Civil War. (In short, we are to read all literature as if it's practice for cold reading excerpts on a standardized test).”

Writing is down to a science with the Common Core. Each type of writing has a template that must be followed, down to a certain number of sentences in a paragraph and a magic number of paragraphs to an essay. This is not necessary. Take out a book, open to any page. Chances are, both paragraphs and sentences are varying lengths. In examining the writing of some of the most treasured authors in America, you will even find paragraphs that are only one sentence or one word long. Those authors would not pass the Common Core Writing tests.

What should have happened is that the CCS should have been piloted in certain states, tweaked, piloted again, tested, tweaked, and then tested again, before they were rolled out to all the states. This rollout is the instant gratification of the authors, and should not have been.

So although I do agree that we need common standards, I do not agree with the current set of standards because the authors were overwhelmingly not educators, the activities are not developmental appropriate in the primary grades, the lack of alternatives for those who cannot or do not wish to go to college, and and the narrow interpretation of good methodology. I feel that’s enough for us to take a second look at CSS and to stop the rollout now.

And I haven’t even mentioned the assessments. That’s a whole ‘nother story.

Check out Peter Greens' blog here:

Everything you wanted to know about the common core but were afraid to ask:

A real look at the results of corporate control of education

A 45-minute eye opener about how Common Core came about.
Building the Machine



No comments:

Post a Comment