Yet Another Look at Common Core
The juxtaposition of two thought-provoking articles in Sunday’s New York Times was serendipitous for those of us who have been pondering the conflicted and complicated responses to Common Core. In the lead article Andrew Hacker, professor emeritus of political science at Queens College and Claudia Dreifus, adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs ask the question, “Who’s Minding the Schools?” Subsequently, Claire Needell Hollander, an English teacher at a public middle school in Manhattan, reminds us that there is “No Learning Without Feeling.”
Hacker and Dreifus succinctly review how Common Core almost surreptitiously became adopted by 45 states. They point out that a “radical” curriculum affecting more than 50 million children was introduced and accepted with little public comment. The disparity between educational results by state prompted the nation’s governors to embrace the idea of a common curriculum with common tests. While the feds weren’t involved in its creation, Common Core soon became a box that needed to be checked in a state’s application for Race to the Top Funds.
Of course, now that the first wave of students has performed poorly (as expected) on the first round of tests, we are just beginning to look at the collateral damage that the new program produces. Hacker and Dreifus believe that eventually kids who have always done well, namely affluent kids, will do well with Common Core. Kids for whom school is a challenge will continue to do poorly, and the gap between rich and poor kids will continue to grow. With the goal to produce kids who are “college and career ready,” vocational programs are no longer as important as they once were. “In sum,” say Hacker and Dreifus, “ Common Core takes as its model schools from which most students go on to selective colleges.” They note, however, that today about a quarter of students don’t even finish high school; in South Carolina nearly a third don’t finish, and in Nevada close to half. So how will toughening school standards help these kids?
For her part, English teacher Claire Needell Hollander takes on the Common Core’s intricately detailed standards that reduce literature to a series of analytical skills. In order for testing to be unbiased, Common Core suggests “agnostic texts,” books that can be included in the classroom curriculum without regard to student interest. That way, tests on these books can be free of outside variables like familiar contexts or emotion. Hollander says there is a lot of discussion among teachers about choosing texts that align to the standards, but little discussion about what students would want to read. “In a sense the students, with their curiosity, sadness, confusion, and knowledge deficits, are left out of the equation,” she writes. “They are on the receiving end of lessons planned for a language-skills learning abstraction.”
Having taught middle school for many years, I know that Needell is right about kids needing to connect to their reading. And Hacker and Dreifus raise important issues about educating all of our kids – questions that should have been raised before 45 states adopted Common Core. The real problem, I think, boils down to a distrust of teachers being able to do their jobs. Testing isn’t the answer to improved education; neither are minutely detailed standards. Nothing takes the place of the connection between teachers and students. As usual, the big money has been dumped into a place it will do the least good – testing. In the end, Hacker and Dreifus conclude, “It’s is time teachers are as revered in society as doctors or scientists, and allowed to work professionally without being bound by reams of rules.” Then maybe, just maybe, things would improve.