Op-ed: Flawed at the core
Allan Taylor, chairman of the Connecticut State Board of Education, said at the legislative hearing on the Common Core (March 12, 2014): “It makes no sense to return to the mediocrity of our prior standards by delaying implementation of the Common Core. … Please don’t make Connecticut go backward.”
I disagree about where mediocrity lies. I have designed numerous middle and high school English curricula for Connecticut’s suburban towns and large cities, using both the Connecticut standards and Common Core standards. I know, without a doubt, that the Connecticut standards are superior to the Common Core because they provide learning experiences that better prepare students for college and the global workforce of the future.
Some would like us to believe that the Common Core standards are fine, and the problem is with teachers’ inability to make changes. That view does not do justice to teachers. I have, through my work, asked hundreds of Connecticut’s veteran teachers to consider new ideas about teaching and learning and invited them to change their practice. They have done so with enthusiasm because they tried those changes and realized their students could grow in new ways. When teachers see student growth, they don’t hesitate to change their practice. Teachers’ resistance to the Common Core is not based on their lack of flexibility but rather on their professional judgment. As Thomas Scarice, Madison Superintendent of Schools, asserted in his letter to legislators, the problem of the Common Core is not one of implementation but one of “substance.”
The outcry against the Common Core and the accompanying high-stakes tests is building. In New York, which implemented the Common Core last year, 545 principals have written a public statement, objecting to Common Core testing. Twenty-three states currently have pushbacks to the Common Core. Parents have begun an opt-out-of-testing movement. One hundred and thirty Catholic scholars have urged prohibition of the Common Core in parochial schools. Five hundred early childhood educators, pediatricians and professors of child development declared the Common Core harmful to young children. The National Council of Teachers of English declined to endorse the Common Core, expressing concern that 21st century learning-how-to-learn skills are absent from the Common Core although emphasized by other nations. No prep schools, bastions of “college-readiness,” have adopted the Common Core.
What is this ‘substance’ the Common Core lacks?
- The Common Core standards were not field-tested. No one really knows if they prepare students for college because they were not created by educators but rather by employees of companies that produce standardized tests. All we know for sure is that what is in the Common Core standards can be assessed on computerized, multiple-choice tests.
- The Common Core standards do not prepare students for the global economy of the future in which tasks measured by multiple-choice tests will be accomplished by workers in nations with low pay scales. Our workers will need to know how to problem solve when faced with new situations, how to question, how to be innovative and how to collaborate with people who have diverse backgrounds and belief systems.
- The Common Core standards are not developmental. They do not consider the physical, emotional and social stages of growth in children and adolescents in order to maximize their cognitive and intellectual growth.
- The Common Core math standards will not lead students to careers in the STEM disciplines because the math taught ends with Algebra II. Those intending to major in a STEM subject in college need additional math in high school. With the emphasis on test scores, many schools will teach to the test, and their students will not have enough math for a STEM major.
- The Common Core English standards are based on an outmoded pedagogy prevalent in the 1940s and 50s, which does not prepare students for the world of higher education or work in which they must learn to think complexly by interpreting information in multiple and divergent ways and engaging in narrative thinking and inductive and deductive reasoning.
David Coleman, chief architect of the Common Core English standards, demonstrates a model English lesson in which he teaches Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (YouTube: “Text-dependent Analysis in Action”). In it, Coleman never asks for student engagement, such as asking students what connections they make with King’s experiences, what questions they have about civil disobedience or racial issues, what lines they find the most moving, what word they find the most important, or whether they agree or disagree with the ideas. In fact, in the entire lesson, Coleman never mentions the word racism. He simply transmits information about text structure to passive listeners. Our students don’t need that kind of education. They need to be immersed in reading, discussing and writing — the interactions of a rich literacy environment that promote complex thinking.
How will the Common Core hurt Connecticut?
First of all, all students will not reach their potential as learners and thinkers.
Secondly, the opportunity gap between the state’s most underserved children and its most privileged children will widen. Many schools attended by privileged students will work around the Common Core, addressing some standards, paying lip service to others and enriching their classes by what they add to them. Other schools, attended by underserved students, however, are under pressure to close the “achievement gap,” which means only one thing: getting higher test scores. The teachers in these schools will teach to the test in hopes of increasing test scores. Already disadvantaged students will receive an education not equal to their more affluent peers, and many of them will drop out of school, unable to “pass the test.”
So what are we to do?
- First: Stop the madness. As parents, educators and citizens of Connecticut, reject the Common Core, based on its lack of substance.
- Create new national standards, in an open and transparent way, written by those who know how to teach, with the goal of developing students’ minds and promoting their achievement as complex thinkers and motivated learners.
- Insist that the conversation about standards begin with early childhood professionals. Determine what is the best that kindergarteners can do and then figure out how to teach all kids to do that. Move on to Grade 1, then Grade 2….. Ultimately, students in Grade 12 will exceed all expectations we currently have for them. Guaranteed!
- Disengage standards from high-stakes testing; standardized tests always correlate with family income, and we already know well enough the Connecticut story of the haves and have-nots.
- Use the millions to be spent on testing to reduce class size, offer enrichment programs, and provide mentoring; give our students, disadvantaged by poverty and/or racism, the benefits their more privileged peers have.
These recommendations are a far cry from the suggestion made by Patti Fusco, a West Haven teacher on the committee charged with improving the rollout of Common Core. She said: “We are going to roll up our sleeves and fix the problem. … Any new thing needs to be tweaked.”
Patti Fusco is wrong. The Common Core standards do not need “tweaking.” They are terribly flawed and must go. That is how we, as a state, will move forward.
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 to 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 curricula she designed and implemented.
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