Whose Core Is It?

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We’re a few years into the educational reform known as the Common Core, and its implementation has been anything but smooth.  Heralded as “standards…created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live,” the Core has been bombarded with criticism, not to mention five states dropping out after initially opting in.  From 2009 until now, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program and its millions in funding have been tied to states’ accepting the Common Core.  But both ends of the political spectrum have lambasted those standards:  Conservatives resent any “big” government program which intrudes into local control; Liberals have problems with inflexible standards which don’t take into account students’ past variable educational experiences.  Me, I think both sides have valid points, which I guess would qualify me as a Conserberal.  (Libservative?)

To start, though, the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) deserve credit for recognizing the importance of standards for any school.  Without goals, directions, ends, and/or purposes, no organization can focus on what it needs to be doing effectively.  For too long, schools had undefined standards (like, “educated students”) which sounded okay, but were way too vague to guide teachers in their implementation.  Sure, grades were decent predictors of future performance, especially in college, as long as the schools were good.  But far too often, those grades had little to do with the quality of the student who had allegedly earned them.  Schools also neglected regular discussions of just what their standards meant and jumped from fad to fad in the desire to be “cutting edge” while funneling way too much money into the coffers of curriculum providers (publishers, consultants, and the like).  They also regularly went off on tangents that were more public relations than significant reforms:  My school spent over a year designing a clumsy, useless “Mission Statement,” for example.  In offering national standards, the NGA/CCSSO got everyone refocused where the schools should have been all along—on what students should be able to do when they graduate.

But there are issues with the Core.  The first problem is just the opposite of the vagueness of previous local standards.  The Core tells schools precisely what a second-grader should be able to do in no uncertain terms:  “Identify the main topic of a multi-paragraph text as well as the focus of specific paragraphs within the text” (taken from the English Language Arts Standards: Reading: Informational Text , Grade 2, which can be found at http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/).  That standard should not be confused with “Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text,” which as any fool could tell you is the comparable goal for a ninth/tenth grader.  Neither of those goals is bad or poorly designed or worthless; all of the standards are things students should be able to do and clear enough to be applied to schools’ curriculums.  But who’s to say that second grade or ninth grade is the best time for every single school in the country to be expecting that skill to be mastered?  Apparently, the NGA/CCSSO is who, which is one reason the Core generated so much resentment and confusion in the schools.

As has always been the mantra of this retired teacher, individual teachers are the only ones who can make those kinds of decisions, which will vary for each group of students the current school year provides.  Sure, it would be one thing if every student showed up each year at exactly the same academic level with exactly the same learning history and readiness.  With those (somewhat creepy) givens, you could plug in the pre-conceived standards along with already written lesson plans to grind away at achieving exactly the same results year after year.  And corporate America would love that since all graduates could be plugged into various jobs without the slightest differences from the workers they were replacing.  But that’s not only impossible, but totally undesirable.

Every person is unique just as every school is unique since every community is…you got it—unique.  Just because we desperately need standards in our schools in no way means that we should be moving toward standardization.  Every teacher in the country understands this:  Second period with my English I Honors nerds might seem like a funeral parlor as nobody ever moves, much less raises a hand to answer a question or cracks a smile at my incredibly funny jokes.  Then comes seventh period with exactly the same lesson plan, but these guys demand digressions, react loudly to even the lamest pun, and crave the opportunity to express themselves regardless of my need to get through the material.  You simply can’t expect the wonder that is a human being to be identical to any other human being, no matter how many top education officials you put on the committee to design the standards.  It simply won’t happen.

And thank goodness it can’t, because what a horrible, gray, Orwellian world it would be if it did.  The speed at which the problems, joys, and challenges of our world change is only increasing; and we need our children to be ever more flexible and creative to deal with them.  And, getting back to the Core, that’s what’s happening in the places where there aren’t so many complaints.

Recently, I read an article entitled, “Teachers: Common Core standards working well,” analyzing a survey which found that where Core standards have been in place the longest, teachers feel better about how they are working.  (The article can be found at http://www.press-citizen.com/story/news/education/k-12/2014/10/03/teachers-common-core-standards-working/16679393/.)  Now, there are several issues with the survey right off the bat—number one being that it was sponsored by one of the Core’s biggest backers, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—but after giving the matter some thought, I came to the conclusion that the survey might actually reflect these teachers’ realities:  The longer the Core is in place, the more teachers will adapt them to their own situations to make them work with their students.

As pointed out earlier, these standards are clearly written and based on laudable goals; nobody seems to be attacking what students should be able to do based on the Core.  The criticisms focus largely on when students can achieve specific standards and that the standards weren’t developed locally.  So it makes perfect sense that the longer the Core is in place, the more teachers work their magic to lessen both those issues.

If a teacher’s students aren’t capable of mastering a standard, the teacher will modify it so that the students will have success while being challenged at the same time.  The standards are often abstract enough that there are numerous ways they can be achieved, not to mention various levels of mastery to which students can aspire.  In our previous examples, what reading sample you use will significantly impact how successful second graders are in figuring out the main idea and the focus of specific paragraphs.  As teachers take more control of the Core, I’m sure they are matching the text used to work on this goal to the abilities of their students, leading to greater success.  Initially, much of this was left to publishers and other “outsiders” unfamiliar with the students at any particular school, since teachers hadn’t been included in the Core’s creation.  Now that the teachers have had their hands on the standards for a couple of years, they know better how to pick out materials which will work well with their students’ abilities.

And local control becomes less of an issue the more that these modifications take place.  With teachers more in charge of which standards are emphasized, how they are taught, and the assessments used to measure them; they feel more on top of the whole situation, more able to address parental concerns, and less threatened by all these foundations, committees, and NGA/CCSSOs.  The longer the Common Core standards exist, the more each individual school and teacher will adapt them to meet the needs of the students who attend that particular school.  It won’t be some non-teaching “expert” dictating to them what they should do, but teachers doing what they have always done—teaching to goals in which they believe because they’ve used, revised, and created those goals themselves.

So the Common Core is rapidly becoming less common and more tailored to individual schools’ needs.  The next issue which will need addressing is how to make certain the concept of teachers’ focusing on standards remains a key part of how schools operate.  As the standards get modified and further removed from the original versions, there could be a slide toward ignoring them entirely.  Believe me; this tendency has undermined virtually every school reform I experienced during my thirty-three-year career teaching English in junior high and high school.  Because of all the flap surrounding the mistakes made in creating and implementing the Common Core, many might see their demise as a good thing, but that would be a big mistake.  One of the first things every faculty at every school should be doing as the school year begins is assessing the efficacy of student standards from the previous year with an eye toward modifications, deletions, and additions.  The Core has given American education a starting point for that important, on-going work, but all educators should be evaluating and revising their standards/goals all the time.  Just because the Core was issued as if the standards were “completed” in no way means that they are or ever will be.

There are plenty of issues to be addressed with the Common Core, but the vitally important task of every school’s having standards in place needs to remain at the forefront.  Of course there are and will continue to be problems with how the standards are used, how they are modified for each unique school system, and how relevant they remain as the years go by.  Teachers will continue to change them to meet the needs of their students, but we should make sure that they get the support required to adapt, create, and delete items from the Core as needed.

Lastly, the assessments used for the standards also need to be controlled by teachers.  It does seem as if the standardized testing frenzy of the last decade is finally losing some steam; the Core gave it a little bounce back towards prominence, but all the differences that every school possesses from every other school means that the only legitimate assessments that can take place will be designed and evaluated by on-site teachers.  Everyone loves to compare ACT and Iowa test scores, but that tail should no longer wag the dog.  The Core has highlighted the importance of hashing out what is important for students to learn, and we need to keep that emphasis.  One huge test shouldn’t determine how we evaluate the kids’ progress toward those standards, though.  Instead, teachers are the best people to determine what forms those evaluations take.  We’ll know that we’re making real strides forward when teacher-assigned grades have become more reliable and valid determinants of standards being achieved.  This journey has a long way to go before we can know that improved student learning has been achieved through Common Core-inspired standards, but as teachers control the Core more and more, that could be public education’s reality.

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