Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Content-Free Curriculum

Coming back to school (first student day yesterday, thanks) reminds me once again of the huge hole in the heart of current Core curriculum. The lack of content. The sad fact that there is no there there.

Yes, someone is going to pop up to say that the Core (both in its original incarnation and all the old wine in new skins versions that have promulgated throughout states where "OMGZ NOES! We has no Common Core!" versions of the Core still roam free) is NOT a curriculum, which is part of the trick. Because the Core really isn't a curriculum in a classic sense; the ELA standards are a sort of anti-curriculum in which teachers are forbidden to care about the content, and must only worry about teaching students to perform certain actions, certain tricks, on a test.

Content exists, and teachers a free to select what they will. Teach Romeo and Juliet or  Heart of Darkness or Green Eggs and Ham-- we don't care because it doesn't matter because the literature, the content, has no purpose beyond a playing field on which to practice certain plays. I've accused the Core of treating literature like a bucket in which we carry the important part, the "skills" that the Core demands, but it's more accurate to call literature the paper cup-- disposable and replaceable. We just want you to be able to "find support" or "draw conclusions." About what just doesn't matter.

Back in the early days, we had folks arguing that CCSS called for rich content instruction, that it absolutely demanded a classroom filled with the classic canon. At the time I thought those folks were simply hallucinating, since CCSS  makes no content demands at all (the closest it comes is the infamous appendix suggested readings list). But I've come to believe that those folks were reacting to the gap that they saw-- "Without rich content, this set of standards is crap, so apparently, by implication and necessity, this must call for rich content. Because otherwise it's crap."

I think the absence of content is also the origin of the "new kind of non-bubble non-memorizing test" talking point. The old school test their thinking of is the kind that asks you to pick the year the Magna Carta was signed, or identify the main characters of Hamlet. But the Big Standardized Tests cover absolutely no content at all. I could throw out all my literature basal texts and never teach a single item from the canon, a single work of literature all year, and still have my students prepared for the BS Test by studying test-taking techniques while reading an article from the newspaper and answering questions about it every single day.

This is also the secret of Depth of Knowledge instruction. It doesn't matter what you teach, as long as you use it to develop certain mental tricks.

Look at it this way:

A student could graduate from high school with top scores on the BS Test and have read nothing in high school except the daily newspaper. The student's teachers would be rated "proficient," the student's school would be high-achieving, and the student could proudly carry the Common Core BS Test "advanced" seal of approval, without that student ever having read a single classic work of literature or every having learned anything except how to perform certain tricks for answering certain questions when confronted with a text.

This is not a high standard. This is neither college nor career ready. Core supporters are going to say, "Well, the local school is free to-- and should-- fill in the blanks with classic literature and great reading." But the test-and-punish reformster system that we live on does not care a whit for content. If students cannot perform the proper tricks on the BS test, students, teachers and schools will be punished. If students cannot identify Huck Finn, MacBeth, James Baldwin, or Toni Morrison, it won't make a bit of difference to the system.

This tilting of the playing field does not just make the Core content neutral; it makes the Core content hostile. It dismisses the value of literature without so much as a conversation. If you are talking to a Core fan who insists otherwise, ask them this question-- Can I prepare my students to be proficient on the BS Test without reading a single important work of literature? The answer is "yes." If they say otherwise, they are lying.

1 comment:

  1. Cool. I'm not crazy. I said this very thing two years ago. The idea was to shift away from content and toward skills. I teach history and said that kids could leave my class and never know any actual history (well, perhaps they may have unintentionally picked up some items). The main thing I need to teach them is to interpret primary sources. But with closed reading, the background or circumstances of these sources don't matter. Hence, no need for history!

    Just figure out tone, POV and audience and voila! There is a proper balance between knowledge and skills. The pendulum has swung too far toward skills. Or at least a narrow band of skills that testmakers think matters.