Fruit of Knowledge or Rotten to the Core?
by Christopher Yin
“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” – Margaret Mead
“Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.” – Leonardo da Vinci
“I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything, and by using fear as the basic motivation. Fear of getting failing grades, fear of not staying with your class, etc. Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker.” – Stanley Kubrick
Education is important. There’s not much controversy about that. It is widely accepted that we need education, that in order to succeed in life we must have some means of furthering our knowledge and intellect. The point of contention has always been- how? How best to prepare students for the “real world,” where grades don’t exist but bills do? And how do you measure a student’s readiness and progress, especially when the way every person learns is unique? People are constantly striving to come up with the answers, experimenting with structure and design to devise the perfect system. Yet perfection is an ideal, and in a supremely unideal world the best we can do often feels woefully inadequate. People will always yearn for progress, for movement, for change- even if the motion is sometimes more important than the direction.
Right now, the Common Core State Standards Initiative is the American education system’s latest attempt to wear the face of progress. Most students will probably have heard the words “Common Core” and the title of the new testing regiment, “Smarter Balance,” bandied about like so many other educational banalities (e.g. Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind), dismissing them as irrelevant and insignificant. Which means a lot of students have no idea what exactly Common Core is, and what it will entail for them. Will it be a step forward in that eternal pedagogical crusade? A purely cosmetic shift? Or something darker altogether, a corporate-sponsored descent into the terror of enforced uniformity?
Opinions differ, as they must. There are many who lean towards the final view. One of the biggest arguments against Common Core is that it threatens to erode individuality and creativity by forcing students nationwide to conform to the same standards. Moreover, many people decry the Common Core standards as the federal government overreaching itself by stepping in and forcing all states to follow the same guidelines. State and local leaders who opt in do not have the legal right or ability to alter Common Core content or the assessments, even though some believe the Common Core content to be inadequate. The Washington Policy Center (WPC, a self-described “independent think-tank,”) takes a standards-centric approach and claims that Common Core math standards do not conform to the expectations of “the National Mathematics Advisory Panel…of leading states, and [of] our international competitors.” The WPC also argues that English Language Arts (ELA) standards “can best be described as skill-sets” that “do not provide an intellectual framework for a coherent and demanding English curriculum.” In accordance with this opinion, University of Arkansas professor Sandra Stotsky- who actually served on the committee to validate Common Core standards- has stated that “the standards dumb American education by about two grades worth,” noting that some states will be forced to move their standards backwards.
Money is a big issue as well. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute estimated in 2012 that the nation will have to spend between $1 and $8 billion to implement Common Core, with the majority of profits going to publishers. Interestingly, Common Core was originally devised not by the Obama administration, nor by the federal government, but by the non-profit NGO the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, at a $170 million expense. And conspiracy theorists can start salivating- the conception of Common Core took place primarily independent of any input whatsoever (in terms of both consultation and funding) from actual school systems. The main contributors to Common Core? Corporations. Achieve, Inc., the nonprofit company that authored Common Core, boasts that it “is the only education reform organization led by a board of directors of governors and business leaders.” The astute reader will note that teachers are conspicuously absent from this accreditation. And the majority of these corporations are very much for profit, such as the Pearson company. It is estimated that over 25 million North Americans use Pearson’s digital learning products, and with the computer-based Smarter Balance testing program of Common Core, Pearson is looking to increase this number. Yet Pearson has paid over $20 million in fines due to “lost, misgraded, or otherwise mishandled student tests,” making it an interesting choice as a key sponsor of Common Core. Then there is the issue with the Google Chromebooks, for which Google has developed a collection of Google Apps for Education (GAFE). Many teachers are trained in GAFE and Google products by taking classes, attending conferences, and holding workshops (not all of which are funded by Google). After passing their GAFE exams, teachers earn a certification and proceed to propagate the program to other school districts as what some call “tax-subsidized lobbyists for the company.”
But what about the teachers- the real heart and soul of any education system? What do they have to say about Common Core? Well, both the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers support Common Core, but a closer look at their rank and file members tells a different story. According to an NPR survey, 7 out of 10 teachers say “the transition to a curriculum tied to Common Core isn’t working,” two-thirds of teachers say “they were not asked for input on how to develop the implementation plan,” and interestingly many unions are calling for a delay not in the implementation of Common Core but in the holding of teachers accountable for test results.
All this information may paint a deeply negative picture of America’s latest stab at education improvement. Yet from speaking with a few of Edison’s teachers, I gleaned an overall sense of optimism and excitement. What follows are the interviews I conducted with Mrs. Harrell and Mrs. Barro, Math and English teachers respectively.
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Me: Can you sum up the basics of the Common Core program, and what it’s about?
Mrs. Harrell: The main goal for Common Core is to create high school students that are ready to enter either college or careers.
Mrs. Barro: Common Core is just a new way that teachers are to teach, so that the whole nation (minus a few states) are on the same page. That’s why we’re “Common.” “Core” is that we’re teaching with rationale. That’s truly the main component of this whole thing, to simplify it, it’s that there’s rationale behind it. If we’re teaching 1 plus 1- so what if we get 2? So what? Why do kids need to know that? And why we are we teaching molecular structure, so what? What are they going to do with that? And that’s been the question all along, why are we doing this? Well, now we have rationale, more of why we’re doing this. Kids can take it to the real world.
Me: So what are the major differences between Common Core and the current curriculum?
Mrs. Barro: Well, in the English department there’s not much because the majority of what we teach anyway has always had the real world rationale with the idea of theme, of making connections to the real world. But in other subjects like math and science, and social studies- which, social studies is very similar to English- they’re taking a look at how can we take what we teach the kids, and have them learn what we’re teaching, and then take it another step forward.
Mrs. Barro: Yeah, through application of some sort. So if they’re learning fractions, why do they need to know fractions and how can they understand the idea of using fractions? Well, if you take a look at science, they’re going to learn fractions again, in the way things are put together, and in cooking, they’re going to have to understand if they double the recipe, how will one quarter plus one quarter equal- why do they need to know that? That kind of thing. So, I can see in math it’s a difficult process for them to take it to the next step, because it’s going to change the way they teach, but the outcomes will be more beneficial for the student. And, once they’re done, once they’ve adapted to the Common Core, they’re done. It will be easily implemented.
Mrs. Harrell: Before Common Core when we had just state standards- in the math department- we were focused on it felt like test prep. We were teaching kids how to prepare for a test. You were skilled at calculations and answering multiple choice questions. Common Core prepares you for the real world. It’s more applicable questions. Instead of just being calculations, it’s more theory involved, and we have more open-ended questions, so we have more preparing for reality versus preparing for a test.
Me: How do you think schools will be affected by the new program of standardized testing? How is it different from what we have been doing? Is that where you get the more open-ended questions?
Mrs. Barro: Well, teachers don’t really like teaching to a test. And this concept kind of breaks us away from having to teach to a test. Our teaching alone should be the guide to having kids do well, the tests that we give them. So the only problem I foresee is how do they give a test and who is going to grade it, how are they going to grade rationale. That would be more difficult, it seems.
Mrs. Harrell: Yes, and Smarter Balance is supposed to be- we haven’t seen this yet- but it’s supposed to be interactive in the sense that it will adapt itself to the level of the student. If you have a student who gets on and answers the first question correctly, the second one should then be more difficult. So you could in theory finish testing in ten, fifteen, twenty questions, if you’re one of those quicker kids. And on the other hand, if you’re not answering them correctly, then it takes a different path, and it keeps moving to try to meet the needs of the kid.
Me: But you don’t know how much testing has been done with that, or how successful…?
Mrs. Harrell: The only tests we have seen have been normal; the only thing that was different is it was on a computer. And it’s been set questions, you don’t see things moving around like it’s supposed to be, it’s not “smarter” or “balanced” in that sense.
Mrs. Barro: We have done a practice round, teachers all went and did a practice round of the Smarter Balance Test. Then we all gave our critique, and they’re going to listen to what we said… The questions seem good, because they are looking for thinking, because in the past it seems like we didn’t really push our children to think so much, and so now it’s going to cause changes in the way students take a test, because they have to truly think.
Me: Okay. Is that in every subject, or what subjects-?
Mrs. Harrell: The test is only being given in English and Math. But the way that they’re changing the curriculum with the standards is now in your English classes, or in your Math classes, you’re supposed to be reading texts from other classes. So it’s not just reading a book that’s a novel, it’s reading a journal that’s a scientific article. And that way you kind of hit on the other subjects.
Me: So do you know anything about how the implementation of Smarter Balance is going to work here at Edison? Because it’s all online, right? So you’re going to need all the computers, do you know how that’s going to go?
Mrs. Harrell: Okay, so we don’t actually have to take the test until next year. But this year, and I don’t know if it was as a school or as a district, we have decided that we will be running the test here. It all has to be done on computers so every student has to have access, but it’s only the juniors who take it. So every junior student has to be on a computer taking the test. That can be our computer labs, or it can be our Chromebooks via the Chrome carts. Now, what comes with that is the fact that we’re going to have all of these students, I believe somewhere between five and eight hundred, on the computer, at the same time. And if we’re having them on Chrome books, that means they’re using our wireless at the same time. So that cuts out computer use for anybody else, and even with that, we’ll be lucky if it works. And then the kids that are on the Chromebooks, the test fits better on a larger screen. So if you’re in the computer lab, you’re getting a pretty good screen of what’s happening, you can see the graph or math with the questions or the options next to it, but if you’re on a Chromebook… So, yeah. And the whole mouse situation versus the pad, that’s a whole other issue.
Me: Do you know what people are working on right now to try to fix that or deal with it?
Mrs. Harrell: Well, as far as the internet connection, we’ve had more of (and I don’t know the correct terminology) the ports put in, so we’re supposed to have a…wider band now, I don’t know if those are the right terms I’m supposed to use. They’re trying to increase that to be able to have more people on at the same time. Then as far as the computer usage, we’re trying to use computers more in our classes, especially in the math classes, because the students aren’t used to it. So we’ve been checking out the Chrome carts, getting kids on the Chromebooks, getting them used to using and manipulating equations. Like there’s something that asks you with transforming, we have kids learn how to literally take the graph and move it for the transformation instead of the normal paper graphs that you would do. So just teaching students how to do that on the computer is part of the problem.
Me: What extra work have you done or will you have to do as part of the implementation of Common Core?
Mrs. Harrell: As a teacher?
Me: Like attending conferences, or something like that?
Mrs. Harrell: Well, you don’t have to do any of those things. To best be prepared as a teacher, it is our professional responsibility to get our professional development. We have to develop ourselves to change the way we’re teaching. What we are teaching isn’t changing so much as how we are teaching it, so just trying new strategies and implementing new things in the classroom. It can come in the form of a conference; some of us in the math department, we’ve been to lots of conferences, we get all the curriculum. But we also just need time to be able to plan. Because it’s a matter of changing completely, instead of just- you know, before we would take a test, we would just change a couple problems on it, well now we have a new test. Now we’re changing the entire thing. So it’s just a lot of time to reconfigure all of those sorts of things.
Mrs. Barro: I’ve made a little bit more focus doing a lot more close reading, more deep analysis into certain things, and I now teach ERWC, which is Expository Reading and Writing Course, and that class alone is Common Core. Because they’re reading from real world sources, mainly nonfiction (they do have a few fictional pieces, but it’s mainly nonfiction), and then they understand “why” and “how.” And we teach them how to read things, how to read for detail, how to read for…honesty, for logic. So we’re looking at ethos, pathos, logos. What’s going on, what is the goal of the writer, and then what’s our goal as the reader, after we’ve read it? What do we want from it, and so what? That’s again leading to rationale.
Me: In your opinion, what are some positives about the program, and what are some negatives?
Mrs. Barro: My opinion: if I had children in school today, I would be happy that this has come about. Because I like to see that children are pushed to think, and they’re pushed to say so what. That’s what I want, I always want that, and that’s what I’ve said with the AP Exam, it’s always about rationale. I mean, what good is any information you get, unless you are able to apply it in the real world. And what we’re trying to do is create really good citizens in our community, in our society. And so I think that Common Core is a good direction. Negative thing I see about Common Core is the attitudes of many people who are unaware of what it really is, and then they take a negative approach because it’s change. When, it seems to me, America has voted to try to change many things in our society, they voted for change, their candidates are change candidates, but they don’t really like change.
Mrs. Harrell: I love Common Core. One of the reasons I teach AP Stats is to me the class is immediately applicable. You can take the class and know exactly, hey, I’m going to use this in my life. And I hate more than anything the question of, why do I have to learn this? In my other classes I’ve always had to answer that. Common Core does answer that for us, our goal is for that to be obvious to the student, so I like that part of it. To me, the drawbacks or the weaknesses of it- in a lot of ways it puts all students in one path. We say college and career readiness, but it ends up being more college, and then a career after college, not the students so much who are going to be in-
Mrs. Harrell: Yeah, regular vocation students, or going into the military, or anything along those lines. And it’s challenging. The rigor level on it is so high, and our kids, our Algebra 1 kids are being asked to do things that our Algebra 2 kids couldn’t do before. The level of rigor has increased dramatically, which means grades are suffering, and kids are freaking out. So that part of it is hard. Trying to calm parents down when they’re not getting the A they normally get.
Me: Because the grades aren’t as important as if they’re learning or not, and I think with the current education system there’s so much emphasis on grades, and it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing as long as you get the grade.
Mrs. Harrell: Yeah. Like today in my Algebra 1 class, we went through three different activities, we did three different things, and I did not give them a grade on one single thing. They spent an hour and forty minutes, so a hundred minutes here in class, completely busy the entire time, but did not receive a grade on one thing in there. But I think they had the best learning opportunity that they’ve had probably all year. So yeah, it’s an emphasis on learning for learning’s sake, rather than learning for the sake of a grade.
Me: What effects do you think Common Core will have on students and what effects will it have on teachers?
Mrs. Barro: I think it’ll make our job more interesting. And I think it will make our job more of a pleasure, because I think we’ll be learning. Teachers, in my opinion, are just lifelong learners, extremes when it comes to learning. So they should be taking this in because it’s all about learning, because we should be learning new things from our students, because they’re thinking, and they’re applying. So the application should be something that we are going to relish in. For students, it seems to be that they’re going to be expected to think more. And they can’t just regurgitate information. They have to figure out why that information is the way it is. Yeah, close reading is a really great thing! (laughs) I love close reading, because it makes you see things the way you should, because that’s what we as citizens in our society should all be aware of, that you have to look at things closely, you can’t just follow like sheep.
Mrs. Harrell: I would like to believe students will become more productive members of society. I don’t think they would leave here wanting to know what grade they got, or wanting to know “what are my options,” but instead being able to find their options, and being concerned of how much they have learned, how much they can apply, how much they’re now able to do. So I think that’s a good thing for students. I think we will have people who can enter real life (although, school is real life still), enter the reality outside of our classrooms, and be successful. For teachers, right now it’s pushing us to be better teachers. We need to change, whereas there are teachers who teach the same thing every year. You’re required to step out of that box, so that’s a good thing, it’s helping us to push ourselves and become better, and that’s always a good thing.
Me: So do you think- well, I can already tell- but do you think that Common Core will ultimately be good, bad, or neutral for American education?
Mrs. Harrell: I think it’ll ultimately be good. I think there’s definitely things we need to think through though. The idea of all kids kind of being on the same level, I think we’ve all seen that that’s not the case. College and career ready is good, and that’s what we’re trying to do, but we have to remember that some people are not going to go to college. So not leaving that part out.
Mrs. Barro: My opinion, though I just know what’s been told to me about Common Core, I know what I’ve read and looked at, I’ve close read some of the things that they’ve given me and looked at what it is they want from teachers and students- ultimately it’s all about the students. What do we want from them? And how are teachers going to get that information to them, and assess them for thinking. So I think that that whole concept is good. Give the kids something that they have purpose for knowing. And then assess them on the fact that they know something, that they have thought about it, and they now can produce something. I think that’s good.
Me: Last thing- is there anything else you want to add about your views on Common Core, that may not have been covered yet?
Mrs. Barro: Well, as we’re a high school it’s a little more difficult I think to implement it, but in the lower levels, in the elementary schools- if I were a teacher in Common Core I would have more fun. So I think kids are going to have more fun because we really do, as human beings, enjoy knowing. I think little kids even want to know. And what this is causing us is to push children to know things, not just regurgitate.
Me: More interaction, rather than just receiving and transmitting.
Mrs. Barro: Yeah, and so what? So what if our solar system is this way? Think beyond that. Think beyond what it is that we know, and go, take it to the why. And I love that.
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So, is Common Core “good” or “bad?” Can such a simple dichotomy ever really be applied to anything? On one hand you have the more sinister aspects of Common Core’s conception and implementation. On the other, you have changes to the focus of the entire education system about which at least some Edison teachers are very optimistic. There’s always more than meets the eye, and it’s important to look a bit deeper, read a bit closer, to analyze issues from multiple points of view. Consider, for instance, the concerns over implementing national standards; proponents of Common Core emphasize the need to take into account the factor of student mobility. A 2000 census (admittedly dated, but nonetheless useful in illustrating this point) found that 18% of kids had moved in the last year. So, the argument goes that “standardizing” the state standards will help students to cope with geographic relocations, making adjustments to new state school systems much smoother. In addition, the development of national assessments could end up saving states money in the long run, which they will then be able to put to use targeting their specific educational deficits. This is clearly a very, very multifaceted issue. There isn’t necessarily going to be an easy answer. And a single article isn’t nearly enough to encompass the terrifying scope of the Common Core debate. The important thing is, whether as a teacher, administrator, student, parent, or other concerned party, that you take the time to think critically about the program, that you push yourself to understand, that you ask yourself “so what?” And in that way, Common Core already has one thing to teach us.
For more information, check out the following links:
“Common Core and the EduTech Abyss”
“The real problem with US Common Core: it further outsources education”
“The Common Core: The Good, the Bad, the Possible”
“Q&A: A Crash Course on Common Core”