Saturday, October 24, 2015

Staying the Common Course

I've asked (and answered) the question before-- is there any conceivable argument that a teacher could muster in favor of the Common Core? I remain certain that the answer is, "No." But I've now read one that makes a lightly better attempt.

A friend sent me a copy of a guest editorial for the Association of Mathematics Teachers of New York State (teachers belong to all the best-sounding organizations) by teacher Michael Siuta, who wants to make a case for staying the course. Siuta is in his 22nd year of teaching, which means he counts four different high school mathematics curricula in his career. And he would like not to change again.

This is the inertia argument that is often made for the Core-- we've already come so far and invested so much. It's a weak argument, like riding in a car, discovering you're on the wrong road, and deciding that you'll just keep driving in the wrong direction because you've already come so far. And Siuta echoes the worst part of that argument:

Change is not always a bad thing; change just for the sake of change, however, is never a good thing and does more harm than good. 

Yeah, I've heard that argument before, somewhere, some-- oh, yeah. From every single person who fought against the implementation of Common Core in the first place. It was supposedly a terrible argument then, but apparently it has improved with age.

But there is a more interesting point hiding inside Siuta's plea.

It is the nature of education; the ever present underlying question being, “How much of this topic do students need to know?” which leads to the next question of, “To what depth do I need to teach it?” These are questions that can never be answered by simply looking at a set of standards on a piece of paper; they can only be answered by teaching the course, seeing the state exam, revising it for the following year, seeing another state exam, revising the course again … and repeating this pattern for another 4-5 school years. While this is not something that NYSED, parents, or administrators want to hear, it is reality. No amount of training or consultant-led workshops will ever take the place of experience, but constant change has prevented us from ever gaining the amount of experience needed to refine our courses into well-oiled machines. Just when we start to get a feel for the best way to teach a course, we begin working on a new course. How many times over the past few years have you or one of your colleagues uttered the phrase, “I feel like a first year teacher.” That, in and of itself, speaks volumes about the state of education in New York.

But there is something that happens as the Common Core and any clump of pedagogy and content and curriculum are passed through the meat grinder of experience-- each teacher edits, rewrites and revises what has been handed them.

This has been my argument for a while now-- the Common Core, as originally conceived and created, simply doesn't exist any more. What we have is a wide range of various educational stuffs, all carrying the Common Core label and all completely different in style, content, focus, and implementation.

One of the goals of Common Core was to get everyone on the same page. It has failed, failed utterly and completely and absolutely, to do that.

A text publisher reads the core and filters it into a textbook, which come packaged with a curriculum guide attached, both representing the writers' interpretation of the Core. These are handed off to the district mucky-mucks who buy them and "implement" them by laying over them the district's own ideas and priorities. Finally these materials arrive in a classroom, where a teacher adds 'experience."

Here's what that process looks like. Open book to lesson. Teach lesson. Collect immediate first-hand data from students, and adjust accordingly. The books explanation of this sucks. These examples are bad. This test is crap. The time set is too short. Teachers rewrite these programs on the ground. Who wants to guess in how many Common Core-infused math classrooms, teachers have added units teaching students how to do certain functions "the old way" so that they can "get it."

"Implementing" Common Core was like dumping a barrel of deep red food coloring into Lake Erie. At first, it creates a shocking new coloration, alarming and disturbing. Then, as time passes, the coloration disperses, and the lake restores its own equilibrium. Now, dump in too much, too often, and the lake gets truly hurt.

But that's the implementation process. Everybody but teachers shows up with a new barrel of baloney. They dump it into the classroom, and teachers slowly but surely get back to What Actually Works. Siuta isn't really arguing in favor of the Core-- he's just pleading not to be hit with one more barrel of food coloring.

While there are topics in the standards that I do not think should be there, and some that I think are inappropriate for a specific course, in the end I don’t believe that really matters. I truly believe that we as educators can handle any curriculum, but without the time and experience needed to adapt to the change in pedagogical approach, we will never improve our system. 

So here's a real argument that UI almost buy for not "getting rid of" the Common Core (not that anybody is really doing it, but that's another essay)-- just let us keep pretending that we're implementing the Core while we figure out how to do what we know works in the classroom in spite of whatever baloney paperwork the state requires.

It's not a great argument, and it doesn't address the deeply wrong practice of districts that require teachers to stay in lockstep with a pacing guide or teaching script, or the many ways that teachers are being kept from doing what works in the name of one version of Common Core or another. Those are ultimately fatal weaknesses in the argument.  But it's the closest thing to a real argument for staying the course (or at least pretending to stay the course) that I've seen.


  1. The Common Core (so we were told) addressed the problem that the individual state standards were a mile wide and an inch deep. The Common Core solution was to write standards that are five miles wide and five miles deep so that it is impossible to teach it all within the two and a half quarters we have before the BS test (no, we teachers are not given a full year) and condemn everyone as a failure for not reaching these standards. It's like giving a high jumper a five-foot pole and asking them to clear a bar two hundred feet in the sky.

  2. Years ago during the tenure of a dictator sup ( still referred to as the Bersin Era) we called that stealth teaching.. and it is making a comeback with experienced teachers.

  3. I can so identify with starting over every 5 years for no one's benefit especially not poor children the ostensible reason for the change. I teach HS computer science and this go round has been accompanied with sooooo much time consuming paperwork and meetings and trainings that it is having a real detrimental effect on my time and energy to actually teach.

  4. "Change is not always a bad thing; change just for the sake of change, however, is never a good thing and does more harm than good."

    This is being used as a fallacy in this letter. It is either a straw man or a false dilemma. Since the critics of Common Core are not proposing replacing Common Core with something else just for the sake of change, it is an obvious straw man.

    It could also be seen as a false dilemma: We can either keep the Common Core, or change it for the sake of change. Those are the only two options.

    Such obvious fallacies leads me to think that this letter is not really sincere.

  5. Hi Peter

    As the author of that article, I am impressed that someone actually read it and had a reaction! Lol...

    All kidding aside, you did get the gist of my article--math is math, no matter what you call it. We have spent too much time changing over the past 20 years, and it is time to stop. We have put all of our time and energy into curriculum and not into best practices, and that is a shame. Do I like the CCSS? Not any more or less than Math A and B, or the 2005 NYS Standards. Every time we change we regress--but every regression comes at the expense of students. No group of educators will ever come to consensus on curriculum...but outstanding teachers will always agree on best practices. We simply need time to be able to share these with our colleagues, and right now we have none.