Wednesday, January 6, 2016

My Response To a High School Student Writing an Article About The Common Core State Standards

Dear High School Dude from Connecticut, 

I’m trying to model good citizenship by responding to you,  a student reporter. I am impressed that you are working on a story about the Common Core and know that you are in the hands of one of the most remarkable human beings I know. If a teacher is assigning this, then I know that teacher is thinking strategically about engaging his or her students as citizens. There's no way to articulate all that needs to be said in such a concise way, but I will try to initiate responses for you to think about. These are my responses and I am a human being - hence flawed (which frustrates the #$#@$ out of individuals who want to know what is right, correct, and the proper choice for what is the best answer).

I am sending a link to how I responded to Paul Schott, a reporter for the Greenwich Times, on this very topic: If you follow the link, you might be able to find other coverage by him when he was writing about CCSS a few years ago.

I could write abundantly on this topic, but know you probably want “quotes” to use in your own writing, so I’ll try to be concise (besides, you probably have other homework to do). I recommend you check out the writing of Diane Ravitch and, in Connecticut, Jonathan Pelto. They've done a remarkable job addressing CCSS as it relates locally and nationally. I admire their stances and trust much of what they've written.

1. Overall, do you believe the Common Core impacts students and teachers positively or negatively? Common Core State Standards were a remarkable federal undertaking that I feel are necessary for educators across the United States. Before them, individual states had different standards and there was not a unifying “core” to what teachers were to achieve. That is a positive. The negative, as it turns out, is that the core was built from a troupe of individuals who are not educators and, hence, do not understand the development of the K-12 student. Sadly, these creators missed the incredible standards already in place by National organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English, the International Reading Association, the National Council for History Education, National Science Teachers Association, etc. Because consultation was limited, educators were somewhat de-professionalized very quickly (follow the $$$, follow the $$$, follow the $$$ - this is a political and corporate movement). Rather that acknowledging the expertise of experienced teachers with decades of research to back up practices, a new “core” was built that was not necessarily the greatest skill-set for teachers to emphasize. CCSS emphasizes literacy and math, which almost erases the hard work of art, music, science, history, physical education and health teachers. They matter, too. They are virtually ignored by the standards adopted across the U.S.

I actually admire and acknowledge the standards for English teachers and feel that good teachers will cover the territories they outline rather proficiently. The trouble (SNAFU, if you will) is with assessment, which is the bane of the schooling exercise everywhere. George Hillocks wrote in The Test Trap that, sadly, teachers are policed to instruct specifically for the tests - as the tests become the measurement of a school. What a nation tests is what a school must emphasize. With the CCSS, creativity was thrown out the door as was individuality, personality, perspective, and voice. The core limited the types of reading and writing expected of kids and moved towards three genres: narrative, informational, and argumentative writing (note, I am biased to thinking about writing standards). These categories are good, but genres for writing far extend the ways CCSS assesses them (what about short stories, poetry, editorials, blogs, digital stories, feature articles, plays, ten-minute scripts, monologues, etc). Rather than build a whole writer in preparation for college and careers, schools by default spend time creating test takers to meet the ways writing is assessed (this is true for reading and math, as well - what will be assessed will be instructed). 

Economics, too, were tied to the Core and administrators have been expected to showcase improvement on test scores in order to be eligible for continued funding (they are really trapped by the tests and often become the enemy of teachers because they have to police the faculty. In return, teachers must police kids...). The adoption of the Core came rather quickly, with little input from researchers, scholastic leaders, teachers, or parents. The last few years have been a scramble to guess how students will be assessed.  When the assessments came, there was a tremendous amount of frustration. I, personally, have witnessed a lack of teaching as a result of testing - there is so much testing that teachers have limited time to actually teach! At one school, a grant for creating digital stories was sent to the back burners because all the computers were held captive for state testing during the spring semester! That means, the computer lab - the core of research, writing, exploring, and designing - was off limits to students and teachers because they were needed to test kids for the CCSS. Oi Vay!

Connecticut has seen an impressive number of kids opting out of the test. The Opt-Out movement is the only resistance provided to parents and children to make a statement that says, “We’re not loving what you’re doing to students and schools.” In a very short time, the CCSS have had to be reevaluated and, at the high school level, the test will now be the SAT (which opens up another can of worms for what teachers will teach and whether or not schools "effectively prepare" young people for the 21st century.”) (phew, I wrote too much on that question)

2. Do you believe giving everyone the exact same education across the country is a good thing, or is it better for different areas to be diverse in what they teach?
I will be quick with this question by telling a story. My research is with relocated refugee youth who arrived to the United States with only two years of formal education, if that. These kids began in English as a Second Language classrooms for two years, before they went into mainstream classes. With two years of American education and only beginning English, they were placed in a classroom where the teacher offered Shakespeare, William Golding, James Baldwin, and other famous, advanced writers. These are texts that are difficult for American-born youth to understand, but under the framework of CCSS, all students are to be measured the same way. One young man I worked with, Shafec, never attended school in Somalia or Kakuma refugee camp. Instead, his job was to tend goats and to slaughter them to feed his family. He is brilliant at it, but in the United States, he struggled to pass classes. In fact, it took him six years to pass the NYS tests and to get a high school diploma. He did it, and I’m proud of him. I often said, however, that if American-born kids were given a goat to slaughter in order to graduate, only kids like Shafec would pass. When’s the last time you slaughtered a goat to feed your family? Ah, you haven’t because in the United States, literacy is defined by those who read, write, and speak in the traditions of our nation. That’s how you feed your family - you get an education, and that education follows traditions that are not authentic to a vast number of American learners. It becomes a game to learn what "educated" people think you need to know, and if you don't learn that, you don't advance in their society. It's not an easy road.

Rather than seeing the expertise and intelligence of every kid and their individuality with unique experiences and aptitudes, schooling has become a location for defining intelligence in a limited periscope that emphasizes some angles over others. While schools work frantically to meet those minute (yet important to them) objectives, they miss out on the robust knowledge every student body actually has. I believe it’s important to have shared traditions in all schools, but I worry when we try to measure all kids with the same ruler. After all Barry Switzer once said, “Some are born on 3rd base thinking they hit a triple.”

3. Do you foresee the Common Core achieving it's goals, or will it crash and burn? This summer, my teachers and I read Kelly Gallagher’s In The Best Interests of Students: Staying True To What Works in the ELA Classroom. His argument is that standards like CCSS are destined to crash and burn, the assessments will change, and new frustrations will be born. Yet, with decades of classroom teaching experience and even more history of educational research, the best schools know what works and that is (a) listening to students, (b) creating personal relationships, (c) offering choice, (d) differentiating instruction for individual needs, and (e) asking great questions so that every individual has an opportunity to respond in his or her way.

My mentor, Sue McV, always taught me, “There’s no learning without a relationship.” There is so much that can’t be measured by testing organizations: love, passion, creativity, voice, efficacy, aesthetics, and all the other things that make us human beings. This is frustrating to those who love to quantify everything. “Oh, my kid is a XXX type of student.” “This class is a class of XXX types of kids.” That is, though, how the status quo continues as it does. In my classroom in Kentucky, I hung a banner that read, "My students are so much more than a test score." That mantra is what I continue to believe today.

The real world is robust and although there is categorization, labels, and definitions it wants us to believe, there are also multiple roads for reaching a successful life. There is beauty in heterogeneity, yet some love to push everyone into a particular box and to measure that box's homogeneity. It’s a Catch-22, really. We need to know what our students know, but we haven’t found a perfect way to do that just yet, especially in a complicated, diverse, culturally-rich, and ever-changing world. Still, because we're competitive creatures, we try. We want to know where one stands in relation to others.

It's taken me years to undo all my schooling so that I could be able to embrace every learner for who he or she is. I'm fascinated by what I can learn from talking with kids, reading from their writing, and understanding the ways they understand the books, articles, essays, etc. that we read. 

Testing had its birth around the time of eugenics. Although I think we need tests, I'm very skeptical about how and why they're being used.

Does this work? I hope I gave you some opinions to wrestle with. In the end, my opinions don't matter as much as yours. The important thing about learning is that you ask the questions and come to terms with the answers you're ready to provide others.

Thanks for asking. 


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