Teachers have less autonomy these than ever before. The predominant version of school reform, with its emphasis on “accountability” and it’s use of very specific curriculum standards enforced by tests, proceeds from the premise that teachers need to be told what, and how, to teach. At the same time, this movement confuses excellence with uniformity (“All students in ninth grade will…”) and with mere difficulty (as if that which is more “rigorous” were necessarily better). It’s now reaching its apotheosis with an initiative to impose the same core standards on every public school classroom in the nations. This effort has been sponsored primarily by corporate executives, politicians, and test manufacturers, but, shamefully, certain education organizations, including NCTE, have failed to take a principled stand in opposition. Instead, they have eagerly accepted whatever limited role in the design of standards they’re permitted by the corporate sponsors, thereby giving the impression that this prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach to schooling enjoys legitimacy and the support of educators.
Truth to tell, I’m suspicious of the Common Core Standards and confused by how many respected colleagues are jumping on this particular bandwagon. I’ve looked through the standards and they remind me of ones I saw in Rhode Island and here in New York. They remind me of standards that I have been looking at for many years and all of them remind me that they are designed for testing. So what’s the problem? Our job as teachers is to foster learning and that’s not what these things are about.
My two children attend public school in the city of Syracuse. They are tested every year over the course of three weeks worth of school days and their teachers prep them over many more days (the number varies by teacher and grade level). They get ready for these tests like there is no tomorrow. They do so because test results determine whether or not there is a tomorrow. My kids don’t spend a lot of time learning about the Iroquois, the contamination of Onondaga Lake, the carving of our landscape by mile-thick glaciers, how to grow tomatoes, or the part that salt played in the formation of our city. They don’t learn these things in school at least. It’s not that they have bad teachers or that there isn’t money to cover these topics. Instead, there is no time with all the test prep they do. Everything else is secondary.
I am not exaggerating.
I teach at an alternative school. The students with whom I work are in trouble. My first task is to develop a bond with them, to know them, to understand where they are and where they need to go. I have to be role-model, confidant and counselor, disciplinarian, coach, and a hundred other things. At the end of the school day, however, I will be rated on how many pass the Regents examination and the ELA tests and by how my scores compare across years and schools. Anything beyond the testing is so much hooey.
I need someone to explain how national Common Core Standards won’t lead to national standardized tests. My kids need to know about lake effect snow, but what about the kid in Hawaii? I have to know how covering these standards would be better than reading twenty books in a school year. And it’s paramount that someone explain how days of testing and months of test prep is the best service we can give our children.
Maybe I just need to get on board with the standards movement. Bill Gates thinks its great. Arne Duncan tells me it’s just dandy. And I’m being told that my job security and pay will be tied to these things. So what’s not to like?
Let’s go back to my kids for a moment. I talk with mine about how plumbing works. My wife explains how to dance ballet. I teach them how to multiply two-digit numbers in their heads by doing the opposite of what they are taught in school. Their uncle teaches them about fulcrums, epoxy, and the inner workings of a Model T. We teach them these things because we’re passionate about them, because we understand something and want to pass it on. I want my children’s teachers to pass on their passion and I want my children’s education to be unique to our community, to address our surroundings, and help us understand our relation to the world. Right now they’re too busy doing test prep to make much time for these things.
Sure, the standards allow for some of variation. However, I see what testing does to schools. There isn’t much testing of violin, dance, art, shop, home etc., or a hundred other programs which have been cut or minimized. Library time, recess, phys. ed., and field trips are all being sacrificed at the altar of ELA and math testing. I love English and math, but they aren’t more important than art, science, philosophy, or athletics.
The Common Core Standards are a prescription for education. They seek to cure a cancer in education that testing has discovered. But like some sort of x-ray machine, the testing is causing much of the cancer in schools. Education isn’t about testing. It’s about learning. Tests are supposed to be a very small part of that process.
I have heard the calls for teachers and schools to prepare students for a 21st century international economy and I agree that it is education’s job to prep kids for life, but I don’t agree that doing so means making sure that all kids know the same things and can recite the same lists of facts or fill in the same bubbles on the same standardized tests. Our new century, like those that came before it, is a complicated place for young and old alike. There is simply no chance that any of us can know all that there is to know and it is not the job of education to accomplish that goal.
Schools are about advancing the processes of thinking. Students come to school to learn to write, to read, to connect events in history into patterns, to detect patterns in the natural world and the worlds of numbers, to experience music, art, dance, games, and other children. Schools should be about fostering passion for learning, about the seeking of knowledge, about questioning and discussion. Sure, there are things we should all have in common and I would include in that list the alphabet and number system, but beyond that the subject matter works to serve the idea of learning itself. My daughters’ are served by learning about lake effect snow, salt mining, and the Iroquois just as well as a Midwesterner learns through discussions of tornadoes, the growing of corn, and the Cheyenne.
Above all this, schools are collections of people and at the head of that class, so to speak, are the teachers who have trained and practiced this craft. They came to this profession for many reasons, but I’ll wager that eighty-percent or more do it out of love and passion for the necessity of their work. Teachers know what schools are about and most of those I’ve known continue to think about that mission, their methods, and the needs of the children they serve. Without consulting a list of standards, without needing to sneak a peak at the next round of testing, they know what to teach and are eager to do it.
I’m suspicious of nationalized programs such as this. I’m suspicious of corporate agendas (consider the sponsors of the common core). I’ve been a teacher for sixteen years and I know about what kids need to know. I don’t know all of it and I continuously work to learn how best to help kids learn, but I don’t need a list or another test. I just can’t get behind that sort of thing. I just can’t get behind the Common Core Standards.
What I’m Reading (more to follow):
Ravitch, Diane. “We’ve Always Had National Standards.” Education Week, January 14, 2010. http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2010/01/14/17ravitch-comm.h29.html
Kohn, Alfie. “Debunking the Case for National Standards.” Education Week, January 14, 2010. http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/edweek/national.htm