Common Core, you saucy tease. What was once hinted at in education circles in hushed voices has arrived, promising drastic changes to the way that students are taught in the United States. The mythical behemoth of the federal government has finally found a program to turn America into a nightmarish dictatorship based on fear, coercion and the ultimate destruction of the American Dream. ALL HAIL KING OBAMA THE FASCIST COMMUNIST! My lesson plans are actually going to be a lot easier because all I am going to have to do is preach the merits of the welfare state to placate the 47% of people that are too stupid to realize that I am brainwashing them into joining the Democratic Party. I can abandon the countless hours I spend planning how to deliver instruction to students that have been so stultified by tests that they have given up.
The No Child Left Behind Act is probably the most unpopular topic in public schools. I think at most I have heard one person talk about the merits of the law. I was a young idealistic teacher with plans of inspiring generations with my love of learning and deep respect for the study of history, politics and literature. People told me it was a fool’s errand. “You are too smart to teach.” I cannot tell you how many times I heard that as I was working my way through my credential program. I suppose that reflects both an attitude and a reality of teaching in the United States. I’m too smart to try to reach the herds of huddled masses, texting to be free. During my credential program I began to see what they meant. The California standards for history are interesting. They have a lot to dive in to. In fact they have so much that you can never cover it all.
The best part? I know you are dying to know. The best part is watching students take mandatory state tests. The best part is being in Program Improvement schools that constantly have the threat of government intervention. Draconian punishments await those schools foolish enough to let their students bubble in the wrong multiple-choice answers. The energy I expended exhorting students to give their best on the tests… It didn’t matter that the test scores had absolutely no effect on their grades, their lives or their graduation. BUBBLE IT! They would ask why they had to take the tests. By the way, it is not one test. It is a battery of tests that assess students in many subjects. Schools block two weeks or JUST TO TAKE THE TESTS. I know that Common Core haters out there fondly remember their school days, the infinite joy of bubbling things in. Who doesn’t remember the inspiring lesson Mr. Whathisface delivered on the proper way to improve your test scores. Gone were the days of actually teaching content. Students were introduced to the world of bureaucracy. I had to try to explain why people they have never and would never met would use their results to punish the schools that tried to teach them. I had to try to explain that politicians would use their scores (Which had NO effect on the student) to further their own careers. The concept of state takeovers of schools. I am sure glad the Republicans created this law that was so clearly a reflection of minimal government interference.
A powerful memory. Graduation day in June. Beaming students, happy parents, incredibly hot weather. A former student walks up to me. “I will always remember how you had to spend a month teaching us how to improve our test scores. When I get a job filling in bubbles on scantrons and become rich and powerful, it will all be thanks to you.” I couldn’t help myself. I broke down and cried. This was why I teach!
Perhaps that last story didn’t happen the way I just described. The best part was watching students take the tests. Hour after hour, year after year, watching students spend their days in school staring at tests. Bubbling. I particularly liked policing the students, making sure they weren’t cheating on their tests (why they would cheat is beyond me). Even better was the fear of a random observer coming in to my classroom to check and make sure that nobody was cheating, or using a calculator. I desperately hoped that I had covered every single helpful poster in my room. I can’t tell you how much I loved taking down all my wall hangings like a paranoid troll. “IS THAT A MAP OF THE UNITED STATES ON THE WALL?! YOU’RE FIRED!”
Students are not as stupid as they look. Once they figured out that the tests had no practical consequences beyond a parent being disappointed it was all over. Even better, the test scores don’t arrive until the next school year. So teachers often don’t get the scores, they just get punished if their students do poorly. The students that needed the most help took the least amount of time on the tests. They were done in five minutes. How could I help them realize the majesty of randomly bubbling in answers? At least some were creative and bubbled in shapes or words. Even better, the tests are given at least a month before the school year ends. In fact, you have to teach all the standards before the year is over. Don’t get behind! The Grendel’s mother will get you! She will arise from the blackest depths of hell and demand that you choose a, b, c or d. Students that need the most help are drilled the most on standardized tests, having entire classes designed to raise their scores. The classes are inherently boring and lead students to hate school even more. I dare you to teach disgruntled teens strategies for test taking. It would be easier to pull teeth. I would rather chase down students and pull their teeth than force them to take these tests and these awful remedial classes. Even worse than teaching these classes is being a student in one.
As a response to millions of educators crying out, a movement the change the standards was formed. More rigorous they said (parents agreed). A different style that teaches useful skills instead of mindless bubbling. Actual reading! All teachers would be required to teach literacy in some way, to show students that all disciplines and occupations demand different methods of reading. Sounds crazy. Teach students how to read like historians, like mathematicians, like English teachers, like mechanics, like scientists. Give them new things to read. Read, write and speak. They also added listening to the standards, something today’s students sorely need help with.
When I was a new transfer student at U.C. Berkeley, I was introduced to a radical new way of reading. I already had some practice with it, but the history classes at Cal demanded a deeper level than I knew was possible. The professors gave out entire books that were primary documents and other texts. The graduate students said something about “close reading.” I learned how to analyze documents for meaning, to mark them up and struggle with their significance. How does this poem fit into history? This graph? This section of a novel, this propaganda, this newspaper article, this painting, this comic, this movie, this song. Analyze. Listen. Read. Write. Think. How complicated! How revolutionary! It is only the oldest and more effective form of education. My tests were one sheet of paper with two questions on them. Better learn to write.
The Common Core standards are much more like a college than the old standards. I also teach at a community college in addition to teaching middle and high school. The lack of reading and writing ability is ridiculous. Today’s first year college students are expected to make up a grade level of reading over the summer between graduation and university. The standards DON’T EVEN PREPARE THEM FOR ENTRY LEVEL WORK AT UNIVERSITY. Scores of college students have to take remedial English, costing them and the schools millions. The beauty and wonder of learning is once again drowned out by the need to hone basic skills. The Common Core is supposed to help with that.
I love the Common Core. It focuses on reading texts. Students are not expected to find easy answers, they are supposed to struggle with complicated material. They are required to make meaning out of multiple sources of information, to write about them and to formulate their own opinions. Math is not a simple regurgitation or a calculation. Now, you must justify your answer. It sounds like a bunch of bull until you actually do it. I had to take a math class for my job and the finals were written. They would provide a math problem and ask you to solve it AND explain your steps along the way. I actually learned a lot about math just from taking the test. As the Latin proverb goes: “By learning you will teach, by teaching you will learn.” Explaining your responses is a powerful tool.
An example of a Common Core history lesson. Instead of memorizing details like the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was written in 1789 by French revolutionaries, we read it. We annotate the actual document and struggle with its meaning. We talk to each other about it in groups. We explain our reasoning. It takes longer, but the learning is much deeper and more applicable. Students have learned about the historical context of the document, the meaning of the document and have learned how to read primary sources. That skill can transfer to other classes, and also to the world of work. We read actual letters from Federalist and Anti-Federalists as they debated the meaning of the Constitution and the need for a Bill of Rights. Or, we could memorize what those parties were with no understanding beyond the requirements of an exam. Tell me, how does memorizing dates help a student outside of a history class?
When students escape the bubble, how will minutiae help them?
The new tests are harder than the old ones. Students will struggle with the new way for a few years. That always happens when their is great change. Parents may not understand the homework that comes home with children because it goes beyond 2 +2 = 4. Perhaps people should extend just a little bit of trust to professionals that have spent untold hours in college, credential programs, in the classroom and in professional development studying how people learn? Perhaps? Probably too much to ask I admit. When a mechanic describes what is wrong with my car, I simply tune him out because he is a latte sippin’ liberal. What does he know about the inner workings of a car with his decades of experience? NOTHING! I’m calling the principal and the school board to complain.
The worse part of the roll out of the Common Core is the political grandstanding. Republicans have found out that confused PTA members are easy to rile up, so they have taken a few stupid examples of supposed “Common Core” questions and blasted them on the internet. The one second that people take to laugh at these questions is easy. Of course there will be flops. If you had studied with the Common Core method, perhaps you would ask questions like “Who made this question? What was the author’s purpose in sharing this text? I think I will discuss this with somebody.” Or you could grab the scantron you carry with you and bubble furiously until you reached the conclusion that Common Core is communism, pure and simple. They are probably coming for your guns next.
The worst flip-flopping turd of a politician is Bobby Jindal. First he likes the new standards, then he hates them. He smelled a political opportunity and is padding his conservative resume by suing the federal government over the standards. Let’s pretend Jindal gives a flip about the standards. When they were popular he was for it, now he is against it. A rising anti-intellectual, anti-improvement movement is engulfing parts of the United States. Yes, they are national standards. They are better standards. I have the feeling that Republicans would destroy this country just to embarrass Obama and the Democrats. Who cares that having common standards will make materials cheaper? Make collaboration easier? Who cares.
Nobody except for teachers.
Your homework assignment: read the following quote and write a response either agreeing or disagreeing with the speaker, Bobby Jindal.
“The proponents of Common Core will tell you that it’s simply about one test and about standards, but that’s a ruse,” he said Wednesday. “Common Core is about controlling curriculum. Educators know that what’s tested is what’s taught. Make no mistake — Common Core tests will drive curriculum. Common Core supporters should own up to this fact and finally admit they want to control curriculum. These are big government elitists that believe they know better than parents and local school boards.”
I am finally going to admit that I want to control curriculum. I am a big government elitist that works at a tiny rural school. Me big government elitist. Me went to Oxford – oh wait, Jindal went to Oxford.
I don’t want to control curriculum. I want students to learn and be literate. I want the political games to stop and for people to focus on students and their education. Stop pretending like your political crusade has anything to do with improving public education. Leave that to professionals that actually work in classrooms with the public. When I want to screw up the United States, I will consult the real professionals: politicians.
Further reading (another skill common core would help with)
Read the standards perhaps?