Common sense about the Common Core

Last modified: 11/5/2013 12:31:20 AM
Much as we might prefer to, we can’t have it all. We can’t maintain “local control” over what our children learn in school and also prepare our children to survive and thrive in a complex world economy. (Just think what would happen if one town’s “local control” led to a dumbed-down curriculum in order to save on taxes, while the next town refused to allow students to select vocational training programs because of a conviction that every student should go to a four-year college.)

We can’t give our teachers all the freedom they might like to have to fashion their lessons as their experience and interests dictate, while at the same time ensuring that parents can count on our schools to give all children a strong base for their future learning. (The question to ask parents is, “If you had no choice in who your child’s second-grade teacher would be, what do you absolutely need to count on from whomever your second-grader ends up with?”)

We can’t allow each state to define for itself what a student needs to know and be able to do to graduate high school and also guarantee that those students will be ready for college and careers. (We’ve learned that much from our experiment, during the Bush years, of leaving graduation criteria solely up to the states, resulting in huge variations between one state’s expectations and another’s.)

We can’t free our students from the pressure of having to pass standardized tests and also hold ourselves accountable for making sure that we leave, as it were, no child behind. (Too often we find well-behaved children getting patted on the head and passed along despite serious gaps in their skills and knowledge, and students with learning disabilities either forced to take tests they can’t cope with, or excused from being challenged because they have a diagnosis, while still other children complain of boredom.)

Enter the Common Core. At the point where many enlightened educators and concerned parents were despairing of the political fights over “No Child Left Behind” and its emphasis on high-stakes testing, and when our children were facing weeks of filling in bubble sheets with no apparent connection to their own learning styles or interests, a group of thoughtful educators accepted a daunting challenge – to put their heads together and decide what, for our time, is our best guess as to what all children should be learning, grade by grade, in our public schools.

They also vowed to find a way to personalize test-taking, so that, for example, students could take the tests at different times rather than all at once, and to make sure that such tests minimize student frustration or boredom by organizing tests on an individual basis, responded to each child’s strengths and weaknesses, such that a correct answer would lead to a harder question, while an incorrect answer led to a less-difficult question.

Astoundingly, this group of educators, often representing our best minds among practicing teachers, were able to come up with a “Core” of skills and knowledge that convinced almost every state – red and blue, alike – to sign on to this “Core,” thus making it “Common” to all the regions of the country.

Nobody got everything they wanted. Those who feel that “critical skills” are what matter most in this age of instant access to knowledge had to contend with those who are convinced that “content” really matters and that successful people are “people who know their facts.” The resulting compromises aren’t to everyone’s taste, and people who strongly object to the apparent “sameness” of the Common Core curriculum can opt to send their children to independent, charter, or church-related schools, or to homeschool, if they can afford to do so.

But the big gainers, under the Common Core, are likely to be what the late reformer Ted Sizer called “the un-special majority,” those nice, polite, ordinary kids who are rarely challenged to excel because there are always other kids in the class whose brilliance, or whose disabilities, draw so much of the teacher’s attention.

Might we be giving up something of a local school’s emphasis on what matters most in our own communities, in order to aspire to the kind of curriculum that our ever-more-mobile families can expect to see wherever they might move to? Of course we are. Are the Common Core standards likely to be imposed upon creative teachers by administrators who don’t sufficiently respect a teacher’s unique talents and passions? Doubtless. Will the weight of the Common Core seem one more burden on an already over-burdened school? Very likely.

But if we accept that the Common Core is a serious attempt by some of our best teachers to balance the need for consistency with the desire for flexibility and personalization – in an effort to say, for our time, that “this is what we want our children to know” – then perhaps we should stop fighting it and learn to make it work for us, as teachers, parents and students. Here are some of the things we can try:

As students: Ask your teacher or your principal for a copy of the Common Core as it pertains to the grade you are in. Ask your teacher to help the class talk about each standard and try to put it into “kid language.” Learn about the individualized tests and talk to others (parents, teachers, kids) about what it might be like for everyone to take a test that will be a different experience for each one who takes it.

As parents: Get a copy of the Common Core and read it, perhaps get together with other parents and invite a teacher or principal in to talk about it; try to break it down so our children will understand it, too. And offer to help your child’s teacher by making connections between the Common Core and our family and community values.

As teachers: Get a copy of the Common Core and read it. Form a small study group with colleagues to talk about the implications of the Core and the testing that goes with it. Find a good way to invite our students into the conversation so that they, too, can get their hands around each standard and try to make sense of it.

Here’s how Harrison Little, a teacher in his first year in a public middle school, decided to approach this challenge:

“I selected the first standard to tackle with my class and projected it on the front of the room. I explained to my students that their initial reaction was going to be one of confusion and possibly dismay. I assured them, however, that we would work through it together and that by the end of class they’d be laughing at just how accessible the standard really is, once you know how to read it.

“I was not disappointed. As soon as I cued up the next slide, I was met with deep sighs and blank faces. I read the standard aloud twice, and then asked my class to spend three or four minutes writing whatever came to mind pertaining to the standard.

“There were varying degrees of comprehension and comfort in regard to the standard, but everyone was further along than they had been upon the unveiling. . . . When all was said and done, I re-read the standard and asked, “How difficult does that standard sound now? Who has actually done what this standard is asking of us already?” Many hands in the air. Many nods of assent. I won’t say all, but most of my students left the classroom that day with newfound confidence and a feeling of accomplishment.

“Having taken the time to look back on this day of exploration, I realize that the Common Core had inadvertently become my content, my vehicle. We used the standards to guide our future study.

“But we also used the standards to practice deciphering a complicated text – isn’t the Common Core, after all, an informational text? Finally, we used the standard to expand our critical thinking skills and to flex our metacognitive muscles.”

That sounds like just the right approach.

(Robert L. Fried of Concord recently retired as director of the Upper Valley Educators Institute in Lebanon. He is the author of “The Passionate Teacher” and “The Game of School.”)


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