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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Common Core—Cart Before Horse

“You know the Tasmanians, who never committed adultery are now extinct.” ----W. Somerset Maugham

Reading over most of the back and forth on common core feels like a massive waste of time. The subtext seems to be that we need common core to raise academic achievement. Those against common core point to poverty as the real issue, and lament handing out a lucrative opportunity to those poised to profit. Those for common core point out that high-achieving countries have common core. However, as we all know, correlation is not causation.

You might as well call for more chocolate in schools. After all, the higher a country's chocolate consumption, the more Nobel laureates it spawns per capita, according to a now famous study. I suggest that although it is true that high-performing countries have national standards, those standards are more a function of the political culture than a thoughtful education decision. The US education system was once upon a time world-class long before common core was a twinkle in someones' eye. I personally benefited from the education panic that ensued after Sputnik, when school districts all over the US implemented many wonderful curricular programs without bothering to worry about whether there were national standards.

The problem with common core is not the idea of a nationally agreed upon set of learning objectives. I have worked with so many predetermined sets of objectives, standards, curriculum, whatever, that long ago I learned quality teaching does not depend on them. So go ahead, approve and publish a common core. It will make no difference.

What irks me is that proponents seem to believe that teachers NEED a written set of standards in order to teach well. Or that administrators NEED a written set of standards to give orders to supposedly autonomous professional practitioners with professional judgment. The very push for common core is a national admission that either our teachers are not competent professionals (regardless of certification), or that we believe our teachers are not competent professionals.

Recent articles on Ed Week lend support to the notion that the real problem is not lack of standards, but teacher quality. One teacher writes that the standards improved her practice. Great, but she should not have needed the standards to chide her into implementing the improvements she writes about. She should have done it on her own long before.

And why do teachers “see interdisciplinary opportunities” in common core, as if they never saw them before? Good teachers make cross-curricular connections every day, like this teacher:

As an English teacher, I have taught units on Jacksonian Democracy, math vocabulary, map skills, Jane Goodall and her experience with apes, the Holocaust, the scientific revolution during the Victorian Era...I could go on and on. Each of these units tied to elements from my students' math, science, and social studies classes.
If common core will push mediocre teachers in the right direction, wonderful. Only let us not pretend that it is the common core that improved the teaching quality. The fact is common core is causing a number of teachers angst as they “grapple with” how to implement common core in an environment of little or no guidance. For example,
“In some states and districts, little or no guidance is being offered on the issue for teachers, leaving them to grapple with achieving the right balance of fiction and nonfiction on their own.

Are teachers really wringing their hands and waiting to be told how to put together a great program for their classroom? Apparently they are. They seem to need someone to rewrite the comprehension questions for their basal texts as if they cannot do it themselves.

Not long ago, we wrote about a project to revamp the teacher questions in the country's most popular basal readers. The idea, as you might recall, was to use the existing basal readers—since most districts and states can't cough up the cash for new ones just now—but rewrite the questions so they reflect the expectations of the Common Core State Standards. Many of the questions that the basals suggest for teachers, they noticed, don't actually require students to read the text passages. They solicit students' feelings, or their unsupported opinions. The aim of rewriting the questions was to make them "text dependent"—one of the biggest areas of emphasis in the English/language arts standards—so that students have to grapple with the text in order to supply a solid answer.
For heaven's sake, just simply be a great teacher, common core or no common core. If the questions in your basal text are poorly written, I hope you wrote your own questions long ago, common core or no common core. Good teachers already have. Personally, a road map for every year (we used to call it scope and sequence) is a good thing. I got so sick of my own children studying the Salem witch trials year in and year out. I make my own academic road map for every grade and every subject. I call it my year plan wherein I map the content I want to cover to a calendar. I may allot more time for one content area than another. I mean I do not mindlessly divide the number of book chapters by the number of school weeks. I actually think about content.

Sometimes I get tired of reinventing the wheel all the time. If the states adopt a multi-year plan (call it Common Core if you want), I would take it as my skeleton and modify it as I wish to provide my students with the best quality education I can provide. The US already has a sort of de facto common core. Just look at which textbooks have been widely adopted around the country. For many teachers, the curriculum IS the textbook the administration gives them. Standards generally beget curriculum, just as state standards have done. Depending on your viewpoint, this may or may not be a good thing. Curriculum begets textbook content. For many teachers, curriculum is nothing more than the table of contents in their textbook. Their curriculum was the table of contents before common core, and will be the table of contents after common core is adopted. I really do not expect there will be any changes in the classrooms. The table of contents have never had any power to encourage effective teaching.

Besides the prescriptive assumptions behind common core, a comment by one "MGN" succinctly stated the problem with standards

Standards, for the most part, are not the problem. The problems are a) confusing standards with curriculum; b) coercing states to adopt standards to get Federal funding; c) mandating high-stakes testing based on those standards; d) using test results to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers, principals, schools, or districts; and most especially e) awarding high-value contracts for testing, test grading, or textbooks to anyone who directly or indirectly helped to create those standards.

So, Fine, go ahead and publish a common core. Just do not expect it to make a difference in the absence of a cadre of highly qualified teachers.