Friday, July 3, 2020
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What teachers really think of the Common Core

Jennifer Kelly, of Stanwood, Wash., writes in the Baltimore Sun that teachers should indeed question things, particularly the standards in the Common Core that have been foisted upon them without much input or feedback.

Think of learning standards as the floor. Look at all that beautiful stuff up there.

She was responding to a letter published a few days ago that said, “We don’t want you here,” which apparently referred to a teacher (we) saying that those who would question the standards are not welcome in the classrooms of this nation.

Ms Kelly inserts a few “wows” and “double wows” in her rebuttal, and I myself am not going to link to the original letter, which was closed-minded. But the letter to which Ms Kelly was responding does not represent the views of most teachers I know, who test everything, no matter from where or whom an idea may come, to improve education for their students.

In fact, the Common Core encourages this sort of exploring, this opening up of math and language arts to an expanding mind in students and teachers, this understanding that the standards in the Common Core are the floor, not the ceiling, of instruction. The standards are the ceiling of any test we make, in the sense that no test item is allowed to require knowledge not explicitly stated in a given standard, but teachers have been encouraged from the beginning to start with the standards and go way beyond them if their students are hungry for the understanding and knowledge they can deliver beyond the Common Core.

The crux of her argument is that we should let the standards evolve naturally, as teachers learn how to work with them in their classrooms, as schools learn how to develop and fine-tune curricula and lesson plans around and beyond them, and as states learn how to hold schools and districts—and possibly teachers—accountable for them:

  • Raising more tax revenue to revamp our educational system
  • Paying teachers to write standards, benchmarks, and objectives
  • Paying teachers to develop curricula that match those standards
  • Scaffolding the curriculum by starting at the bottom and working to the top over a period of several years

I am pleased to recommend this approach, though I’m not sure teachers have the time to write standards or that we should spend money paying them to do this when they are most at home in a classroom, not in front of a computer screen editing several versions of documents to incorporate feedback as appropriate.

But logically, people who have had good or excellent classroom experience should be the ones leading the charge to develop new curricula, at least in an advisory role if not totally in a writing or editing role. I agree with that.

I also agree we have to start at the bottom. That’s the Common Core, the floor, or minimal requirement, of what instruction should be for all children.

Unfortunately, the way most states write learning standards like those in the Common Core is to start at the top, with 12th grade or high school honors levels and work back from there. It’s like starting a project with the end goal in mind. Tests, on the other hand, are themselves a goal these days, which they shouldn’t be, and they therefore don’t have a convenient place in this development cycle. We have to kind of shoehorn them in.

But the idea of phasing in standards, as kids grow up through their school years, is a method we should consider more strongly than we did while developing the Common Core.

That being said, a careful look at the standards themselves will reveal several holes, bugs, places where improvement is needed. If we do not question them, we’ll never make them any better and would have to scrap the whole effort to develop better ones. Let’s not start all over again. Our kids just don’t have the time.

Ms Kelly’s response, however, is also a little naïve in that she assumes teachers don’t teach to the test. It is an unfortunate fact of life in today’s schools that what doesn’t get tested in math and language arts doesn’t get taught. Curricula are thus narrowed, especially in low-performing and under-resourced schools, to precisely what is written in the standards. So before any of Ms Kelly’s suggestions would actually work, we need teachers like her to understand the precise role standards play in our classrooms.

Other resources

EdSurge article from the floor of the ISTE conference, in which a reporter asked actual teachers in attendance what they thought about the Common Core. It’s not a scientific poll or anything, because it’s biased by teachers who attended a conference heavily geared toward the use of technology in education, but it has some very interesting insights from teachers on the ground.

An article in Politico that suggests teachers are most concerned about the standardized tests that will be used to assess the standards and how data from those tests might be used to evaluate their job performance and possibly fire them.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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