Op-ed: Foul shots in the classroom: A Fable
The NCAA Basketball Championship is based solely on free-throw shooting. Team practices are spent doing repetitive exercises of shooting from the foul line. All college players take the same free-throw shooting test. Their scores determine the excellence of the team, expertise of the coach and quality of the school. The team with the highest score becomes the national champion.
As a result of this new competition, the game of basketball is lost. The game, in which quick thinking, collaborative efforts and a whole array of athletic abilities are integral to the success of a team, is not played. The players begin to forget what it was to play 40 minutes of basketball. The coaches stop thinking about ways to develop talents of individual players and stop strategizing about how to make the team as a whole more successful. The fans forget about that long-ago game of basketball and enthusiastically cheer for their favorite foul shooters and compare them to foul shooters on other teams and in other countries.
Critics say that free-throw shooting is a simple skill and won’t prepare the college players for the basketball played in the NBA or WNBA. They also say that free-throw testing was chosen to replace playing games because the NCAA commissioned people in the test-making business to make that decision.
If this scenario were real, there would be quite an outcry…
But something scarier is happening in public school classrooms due to the Common Core State Standards. At stake there is not the game of basketball, but the development of students as thoughtful, engaged readers and effective writers. The Common Core requires the teaching of 200 narrow skills each year. Such skills will never foster students’ growth as readers and writers. The Common Core keeps students on the foul line, practicing limited skills.
In high school English classes, teaching Common Core skills in preparation for the accompanying test means that students are not asked to create meaning as they read, to think divergently and innovatively, nor learn a variety of ways to express their ideas orally and in writing. Instead, learning the isolated skills of the Common Core will keep students at the rudimentary level of simply finding information as they read and writing in a prescribed formula without any personal investment or even their personal voice.
Teachers of literature in love with ideas must be quiet. Teachers whose satisfaction is helping their students grow as thinkers by immersing them in reading and writing must be quiet. They must spend time at the foul line, urging their students to sink more shots, urging them to get higher and higher scores on tests that classify and rank them compared to other test-takers.
Executives of testing companies designed the Common Core. They wrote standards with skills that are measurable on computerized tests. Those skills are far too small a definition of literacy just as free-throw shooting is far too small a definition of playing basketball. We could benefit from authentic standards, written by those who know how to teach and not measured by computerized tests. Unfortunately, the Common Core committee didn’t have one English teacher in love with ideas on it, not one coach who knows the game.
A foul shooting test will never determine the NCAA championship because of the reality facing college players: The NBA and WNBA await. That world of professional sports demands experience in playing the whole game of basketball. Similarly, the world of higher education and the global workplace await current public school students. That world demands that graduates excel in the complex thinking that a rich literacy environment teaches.
College basketball players certainly will not spend the season just practicing free-throw shooting; instead, they will work at becoming accomplished and strategic basketball players. How our children, our students, our future citizens and leaders, spend their season, their school year, however, is up for grabs. They will spend it either preparing for Common Core tests or spend it becoming thoughtful readers, effective writers and complex thinkers. They can’t have it both ways.
What will we as parents, educators and taxpayers choose for them? It is our call. The time for our voice and our action in opposition to the Common Core is now.
Ann Policelli Cronin taught middle and high school English, was English curriculum leader for school districts, taught university courses in English education, was assistant director of the Connecticut Writing Project and is currently a consultant for English education for school districts and university schools of education. She was named Connecticut Outstanding English Teacher of the Year and has received national awards for middle and high school programs she designed and implemented.
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