At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What's At The Core?

Wading into this discussion doesn't give me a lot of pleasure, and keep in mind I don't have much--if anything--to gain from it. But here I go nonetheless.

I am a teacher by profession. That is what pays the bills because writing certainly does not (at least not yet, if it ever will). Yet I teach because I enjoy it. I recognize that what I will say today deals with a game in play in the American public school system. And I have always taught in private schools, not public institutions. My middle brother teaches history and government in public school, so he could speak more to the specific items of this initiative.

Yet I think I can weigh in. I am a product of public schooling. My high school in central Maryland was, on balance, a great educational experience and I was pushed to succeed. Being average was not tolerated. Excellence was expected. I had many great teachers who inspired me. I was motivated internally but also externally. And I'm better for it.

But much has changed in the American educational landscape since my graduation from Westminster High School in June of 1988 (has it really been a quarter-century?). Curriculum, standards, testing measures. They've all come and gone; some have made marginal success, some have been a major Charlie Foxtrot, if you know what I mean. And now forty-five states have bought into another initiative that is passing through the land at rapid speed before we can even analyze it.

Yes, I'm talking about Common Core Standards.

Because I don't want you to merely take my opinion for it, at your own leisure check out Common Core yourself. Perhaps you'll have a different view of it and might debate what I have to say, and that's all well and good. But there's something about it that doesn't sit well with me.

Common Core advertises itself--not as a curriculum, but as a set of standards designed to be robust, relevant, and reachable. The main focus is in two areas: mathematics and English language arts. Now I'll admit I've only scratched the surface of Common Core's website and find some of the lesson plans--especially the ones pertaining to math--off my liberal arts radar. However, I scooped up a few of the "key points" they have in play for their standards.

One key point for math is a focus on utilizing math knowledge to solve not only math problems but also real-world problems. This is a good focus as long as a "real-world" situation is defined. I also agree that any time you show the applicability of math to wider situations around you, that's generally a good thing. One thing that needs to be clarified is that in order to solve math problems of any stripe, students need to have some robust math literacy (principle of causality: what is in the effect must be in the cause). In a world where so many students just punch digits into a calculator--or even worse, copy the answers from their friends in a complex buddy system that infiltrates both public and private schools--math literacy is paramount and I'd like to know more about how Common Core pulls that off because it's not apparent to me. (Could just be that I'm dense)

Where I start to get rankled is the key points under reading and writing. There is an emphasis on reading a "diverse array" of literature--which includes much of American fiction and nonfiction, foundational American government documents, and so on. I'm all for diversity over blandness. Don't get me wrong. But again, how do we define this "diverse array"? What is the selection process? And what is the interpretive grid through which teachers instruct in these matters? That to me is the key issue. What essential questions (because every teacher guides their students through some essential questions as part of their curriculum, whether they realize it or not) about morality or the human experience drive the discussion? In truth, when it comes to Common Core, I get more ticked by what's not said than what is said.

And then there is how this train is getting to the station, and to me, that's the biggest issue. A number of the snags are covered in this video synopsis of Common Core issues, but I'll detail a few of them here. As someone who believes education flourishes best at the local level with local participation from teachers and parents in the community, the fact that Common Core is being driven by outside interests through trade associations in the District of Columbia is quite disheartening. What the deuce does some lobbyist (come on, we know that's what these folks are) in D.C. know about the specific needs of Jill Q. Scholar in Topeka, Kansas. Or Jimmy T. Student in Dillon, Montana?

By the way, when Common Core supporters say "it's just a set of standards, not a designed curriculum," be wary. Why have a set of goals if you don't have a game plan to get you there? With top-down demands on standards will come (if it's not lurking already) a national curriculum. One size fits all does not create excellence, but rather it produces mediocrity.

The Common Core standards, even though they are being adopted by many states with the speed of a wildfire, are not state-led, even if the National Governors Association has given perfunctory assent to Common Core. What is putting financial gas in the tank are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Department of Education. The critical reason--and you can disagree with me all you want, but common sense says 'follow the money'--many of these states are adopting Common Core is to stay eligible for Race to the Top funding from the federal government. And when we're talking about student minds and hearts, and the chiefs at the top are holding the primary purse strings...well, disaster draweth nigh. For the life of me, I don't know why state and local levels would give up sovereignty on this issue. Then again, it does seem like a lot of those who should have say-so have been shut out of the discussion entirely. In my own state of Missouri, the state Board of Education made a fiat declaration of Common Core in 2010 for all public schools, with full implementation in the 2014-15 school year. Guess what? Local school boards were not allowed to vote on this! Are you kidding me? Why was debate muzzled, or at least bypassed? Why was this rammed through at the top with no opportunity to refuse from below?

In the film The Skulls, actor Hill Harper, referring to a secret society, mutters, "Trust me, if it's secret and if it's elite, it can't possibly be good."

Why do I keep getting that same feeling about Common Core? I hope I'm wrong. But by the time we get the answers, it may be too late to shoehorn schools out of it.

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