Common Core Confusion
Last Friday I was writing about my good mood as the week ended. Seven days later, I’m sorting through some confusion, and wondering how many other teachers out there are feeling it too.
The Common Core Standards are coming! They’ve been in the news quite a bit this week, and I must admit I’m finding the debates and the process are leaving me uncertain about the future. In this post, I look at the issues rather broadly, expressing more than a little doubt about what’s going on. (In Part Two, coming soon, I plan to look more closely at a related discussion on the Core Knowledge Blog, and dig into some of the statements made at this week’s meeting of the California State Board of Education. You might be surprised at my reactions).
I have never bought the idea that we needed these national curriculum standards, and wrote about my concerns in a blog post at Teacher Magazine back in 2009. In brief, that post suggested that we might benefit from national standards articulating expectations for professional practice, but professional practitioners must retain autonomy. That autonomy helps ensure innovation and customization that local schools and students deserve.
My skepticism on this front puts me in good company. Professor Yong Zhao has written eloquently about the risks of over-investing ourselves in standardization. Zhao gets to the heart of my concerns when he writes,
If thoughtfully developed and provided as a guide for teachers, students, parents, and curriculum/textbook developers, a curriculum standard can be a useful professional tool. However, when the standard becomes national or common across all states and high stakes tests are used to enforce its implementation across the nation, problems arise.
The idea of a single, national curriculum sounds appealing to some education outsiders, or those whose work in policy or research benefits from such consistency. Soon, we’ll have common tests to go with the common core, and then… imagine the data! We’ve seen how that plays out with No Child Left Behind. The current work around Common Core is guided by an understanding of those problems, and I believe that many fine people and organizations involved in the Common Core effort honestly believe that they will avoid the mistakes of the past.
Last month, I had the chance to listen to two presentations about the Common Core Standards while attending the annual conference of the California Association of Teachers of English. Both presentations included Carol Jago, the past president of the National Council of Teachers of English; to my knowledge, Jago was the only teacher involved in writing the Common Core Standards. Jago’s participation in the project, and its endorsement by NCTE, caused some division within NCTE. (See this NCTE Ning discussion, with links to other NCTE documents; see also Susan Ohanian’s most recent post on the topic). The latter presentation at CATE confirmed my sense that the standards alone might, as Zhao suggests, serve as a guide, but that teachers must be vigilant about implementation. I asked Jago about that after the presentation. One of my main concerns as an English teacher is that the “exemplar” texts will become a de facto national reading list, despite caveats and warnings that the list is not intended to be used that way. I suggested that the examples on the list should change – frequently – so that the text list becomes varied enough that it can’t box anyone in. Jago’s response to me: it’s simply not going to happen. I responded to her: maybe we’d have better safeguards in the standards if you’d had a critical mass of fellow teachers writing them.
Advocates of the standards include many people and organizations that I respect, but whose optimism strikes me as unfounded. In one case, the Shanker Institute, which is an excellent resource on many education issues, posted its endorsement of the standards (the common link being AFT’s involvement – which generated some criticism from teacher and blogger Michael Dunn at “Modern School”). There are some impressive names among the endorsers of the standards, people whose work and opinions I hold in high esteem. However, anticipating the concerns that I and many others have voiced, they felt the need to feature this clarifying text on their web page:
To be clear, by “curriculum” we mean a coherent, sequential set of guidelines in the core academic disciplines, specifying the content knowledge and skills that all students are expected to learn, over time, in a thoughtful progression across the grades. We do not mean performance standards, textbook offerings, daily lesson plans, or rigid pedagogical prescriptions.
So, is it wrong to be worried, skeptical about the motives behind the standards? Zhao’s blog post linked to this Alfie Kohn commentary in Education Week, which features more salient criticisms of the standards movement. I recommend reading the whole piece, but as an English teacher who appreciates close reading, I found this observation by Kohn particularly telling:
If you read the FAQs page on the common-core-standards Web site, don’t bother looking for words like “exploration,” “intrinsic motivation,” “developmentally appropriate,” or “democracy.” Instead, the very first sentence contains the phrase “success in the global economy,” followed immediately by “America’s competitive edge.”
The Common Core website has a Myths vs. Facts page to address the concerns that I and many others have raised. I suggest you read it. I don’t find it very reassuring, as some of answers are evasive (how many teachers involved, in what capacities), some offer distinctions without differences (federal initiative or not, we’re essentially getting national standards), and some could be summarized as “trust us” (regarding flexibility). But take a look for yourself – don’t just trust me.