This morning Rick Hess of AEI featured a guest writer on his EdWeek blog. Kathy Powers is a reading and language arts teacher in Arkansas, where she was teacher of the year in 2011. She offered a defense of CCSS, and there were many things I wanted to say to her. But of course here in Blogsylvania, we like to have these conversations out in public. So here's my reply.
You open by suggesting that some critics of CCSS sound a little overwrought, and I agree with you. There are people out there who feel mighty passionate about this issue, and that passion can lead them to overstate their case sometimes. I think I'm what passes as a moderate these days; let me offer my perspective on your observations.
Celebrating Student Individuality
You say that you are "pleasantly surprised over the high level of sophistication and creativity students have shown
in their writing and logical reasoning under the Common Core standards," and that meeting one of the standards about synthesizing multiple texts and evidence to support a point has empowered your students. Then you give some concrete details about what happened when you "tasked my fifth grade students with answering the question, 'How does imagination lead to discoveries in the real world?'" And you described a project that did, in fact, sound pretty exciting. I'm not going to deduct style points for your use of "task" as a verb, but I am going to ask you one simple question:
What the heck did you do before CCSS?
Are you saying that you previously did not know how to do such a project, or are you suggesting that previously your administration would have forbidden you to do this kind of work? Surely you're not suggesting that you could never even conceive of such a project before CCSS came along.
My students routinely do multiple text writing assignments, and they always have to support their statements with specific text evidence. I've done that for thirty-some years. My honors 11th graders have a research project that requires them to search out primary and previously unused sources to create original writing about local history; I've been doing that for twenty years. (You can buy last year's product on amazon-- custom printing is a new wrinkle). I say that not in the spirit of nanny-nanny-boo-boo, nor to suggest that I'm an awesome educator. I think I'm a pretty average teacher-- and THAT is my point. The work I've been doing is good, solid teaching, but not unusual in the field, and like all the good solid teachers out there, I've been doing it without CCSS. What do I need it for? How will it improve my teaching by giving me "permission" to pursue all the educational goals that I've already been going after?
With all due respect, this paragraph is a non-sequitor. You start by saying it's great that all teachers will have the same standards. Then you talk about Iron Chef and proteins. I am not sure of your point. Because all teachers have the same standards, they will now be better suited for a televised competition based on an entirely inauthentic unrealistic situation? Are you suggesting that all restaurant goers in the nation would benefit if federal regulation required all restaurants to serve dishes based on the same limited set of proteins?
Love Local, Teach Global
You suggest here that education is the great mobilizer, that a good education gives students more options to travel far and wide in search of their dreams. You apply this to college in particular; our students need to be ready to compete for spots.
I keep hearing this argument, but I don't really understand the connection. Do we need standards to predict college success? We already know the best predictor of college success, and it's high schools grades, no matter what high school, no matter what local standards. Even the SAT, king of the standardized tests, doesn't predict as reliably.
Do we have a problem with students getting into college who can't hack it? I can believe this might be true, though I think some of the problems are self-inflicted by the colleges. And what I still need to know is, by what process did somebody establish that the standards included in CCSS are the ones that will insure greater college success? I'm willing to be convinced here, but I have yet to see any evidence.
Standards vs Standardized Tests
I have read too many recent articles touting the problems of Common
Core when the real focus of the author's frustration was not with the
standards themselves, but with the testing process which will be used
next year to measure students' learning of the standards.
I agree (with the understanding that for some folks, "next year" is actually "last year"). People conflate the two frequently. You open by suggesting that some people hate tests because, like bathroom scales, they deliver news that nobody wants to hear. I would agree with that analogy if we assume that the bathroom scale is untested and uncalibrated. We have no reason to believe that the tests rolled out with CCSS measure what they claim to measure. Add the idea of an uncalibrated, untested scale that can get your pay cut or your job terminated, and surely you can see why people get a bit touchy.
You argue for waiting to test and properly implementing the standards, but here's my point-- as long as the tests are high stakes, determining the fates of teachers, administrators, schools and students, the CCSS simply don't matter. At all.
Look, the Core includes standards that we know will never be tested. Collaborative processes. Deep reading of long, complex texts. Things that will never, ever be on a standardized test. When all is said and done, we'll be right where we were under NCLB-- teaching to standardized tests that serve as de facto curriculum, depending on how hard our local administrators want to fight for us.
By Teachers, For Teachers
I agree absolutely that sharing and collaboration among teachers is a great thing. But as with the first point, I don't really see what it has to do with CCSS. Did we need CCSS in order to know how to share? I don't think so.
Kathy, I'm glad that implementation has not been a difficult adventure for you. If I judged strictly by my own experience, I would conclude that CCSS was a pretty harmless piece of bureaucratic ephemera. But I'm reading the stories from around the country. Stories about school systems shuttered and turned over to private charters because test scores are bad. Teachers who are disciplined because they are teaching Tuesday's prescribed lesson on Wednesday. Elementary students becoming discouraged and crushed because they cannot comprehend or meet the demands of their new curriculum. The implementation of that curriculum may be a local failing, or a state-level failing, or actually the fault of CCSS itself, but that doesn't matter to a child who, like any other abused child, assumes that the fault must lie in his own heart or head.
Unlike some of my more strident colleagues, I assume that many supporters of CCSS are pure in heart and intention, sincere in their support. I actually welcome hearing from those folks, because unlike the people who stand to make huge profits from reform, these sincere foot soldiers might be able to show me what there is to love in CCSS simply because I can trust their motives to be pure. But it hasn't happened yet, and it hasn't happened this time. Please understand that I say the following not with bitterness, anger or any metaphorical content. I say it as what I believe is literally true. You do not know what you are talking about.