Steve Davis just finished his ninth year teaching English to high school sophomores and seniors in a large northern California urban school district. This is Part 1 of a two-part post.
The end of the year is always bittersweet for me. Feels much like Ernest Hemingway’s description of finishing a story. “After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy…and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day.”
I am sure that I did some good with my students this year although I will likely never know truly how much good, regardless of test scores or performance evaluations. But for now, we move on to another reform push: The Common Core Standards. Here come national education standards and California is on board
I received a copy of the Common Core Standards from my district complete with a “messaging toolkit” to address my FAQ’s and concerns. The toolkit also has talking points so I can stay on message should I choose to become an advocate. It’s safe to assume that I will come to know the Common Core Standards well. It shouldn’t be too hard; a cursory glance reveals standards that look much like the ones that I am already familiar with. The Common Core Standards for English Language Arts boil down to: read and understand a variety of genres of text, compose clear texts in a variety of genres, and engage in class discussions and presentations. Technology standards only get a wink and a nod even though they are considered essential for the 21st century workforce. Same as it ever was. Of course I am oversimplifying, but only a little.
Some will bemoan that the Common Core Standards are stifling, but a certain amount of standardization is necessary in any system. Systems naturally tend towards entropy so it’s necessary to periodically reestablish order and consistency. The fact that standardization is at the heart of the business model has made business and education unlikely and uneasy bedfellows since the Carnegie Foundation pushed the Carnegie Unit to standardize education with the implicit aim of creating better (or at least more standardized) workers for industry.
It may not seem like it on the surface, but the Common Core Standards are being backed by top business leaders. Both of the organizations behind the Common Core Standards, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) are beholden to corporate interests. I wonder what type of vested interests companies like McGraw Hill, ETS, Scantron, The College Board, and Apple might have in the adoption of The Common Core Standards? The NGA Center is a little less transparent. “NGA’s Center is funded primarily from federal grants and contracts and through private foundation grants.” Perhaps I am too cynical.
Maybe these partnerships and grants are just examples of corporate philanthropy intended to benefit society. On the other hand, we may be headed into an era where privatization may drive schools to become the new company store. Don’t worry teachers, they’re not going to tell you how to teach the standards, and that is one of the Common Core Standards’ weaknesses. National standards can’t hurt and don’t be fooled into thinking that their implementation will change the way teachers teach. Current political rhetoric casts aspersions on teachers, conjuring a false image of incompetent and lazy teachers refusing to educate students. It’s not that students aren’t exposed to the right concepts or standards. The problem is much more fundamental than that.
The achievement gap and the dropout problem stem from the fact that the schooling system, which mirrors and reinforces societal inequalities, doesn’t respond to a significant and growing proportion of its students’ needs. The idea that we need Common Core Standards presupposes that individual state standards are inadequate and further that teachers don’t know what students should learn. It’s more of a case of teachers struggling to find ways to engage students. We should be focused on methods not on laundry lists of vague skill sets with no real roadmaps showing us how to get our students there when they don’t really want to go along for the ride.
Reformers and business representatives don’t agree with me. “There is a common notion in American education reform circles that we are falling behind other countries with high-achieving school systems in large part because we don’t have national standards.” On the other side of the aisle, “Many educators and parents oppose national standards, fearing that this will lead to a national curriculum and national assessment test that would take away local control of education as well affect how teachers operate in the classroom.”
The real problem about the Common Core Standards is that they do not reconcile a disconnect between high school and college expectations, don’t address the soft skills that employers desire, and fail to prescribe effective methods for arriving at desired outcomes. Furthermore, it’s disingenuous for the Common Core Standards to expect rigid adherence to standards while differentiating six ways from Sunday to ensure access for the spectrum of learners in a class. Note that the standards movement of the last ten years has made very little impact on students’ performance as measured by standardized tests.