In Defense of the Common Core Standards for Education

There is a move on the right to hate the upcoming common core standards.  And it’s not without justification.  No Child Left Behind partly due to the additions liberal Ted Kennedy made to the bill, and partly due to ineptitude on implementation by the Bush administration left a foul taste in a lot of people’s mouths over any federal reach into the education field.  Also there is understandable mistrust with the Obama administration trying to take the lead in the common core.  And there is the fact that the standards aren’t high enough.

That being said, the Common Core,  which are being adopted by the majority of the states in the union are a step in the right direction.

Why?

Well let’s deal with them in terms of their more common complaints.

Inaccuracy 1: The first is that this is a move by the federal government.

That is not entirely true.  The Common Core was originally endorsed by the National Governors Association.  It was originally a move by states in coordination with one other, without a great deal of help by the federal government.  The NGA may have announced the implementation of the Common Core in 2009  but most of its development occurred in 2008 before Obama was even elected.

Now the Obama administration has made adoption of the Common Core a requirement for certain grants.  And I’m sure that Obama would love to rewrite them in his own image. But that does not change the fact that these standards were not a move by the federal government, but rather by the states working together (i.e. that federalism we conservatives love so much) and if the states continue to drive this and not let the federal government dictate their wording this federal overreach will be halted.

Inaccuracy 2: That it will cut literature out of the curriculum, changing it all to non- fiction technical documents.

This probably is the most egregious claim.   The claim goes “A new school curriculum which will affect 46 out of 50 states will make it compulsory for at least 70 percent of books studied to be non-fiction, in an effort to ready pupils for the workplace.”

Now very technically this is true.  However what you’re probably thinking it means is that 70% of the things read in an English course are to be non-fiction.  This is not correct.  The Common Core calls for 70% of all of student’s reading in a year to be non-fiction.  Ignoring electives courses, every student should probably be taking an English, a Social Studies, a Math and a Science course in a year.  That means that the English course only takes up 25% of year…so actually the assumption here is that somewhere in the Math, Science, and Social Studies courses is where you would find that extra 5% of literature (probably mostly in Social Studies where literature helps illustrate a time period).  That’s not even mentioning good English courses do include at least some non-fiction reading.

Or in the dense wording on the Common Core Website:

The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.  

Further this claim goes that the Common Core calls for the elimination of classic works of literature.  Again wrong on two points.  The first is that all of the articles I’ve seen include that classic titles like Catcher in the Rye and To Kill A Mockingbird will be eliminated from the curriculumOn page 107 of the suggested literature title list you see, low and behold To Kill A Mockingbird (also keep in mind it says suggested, not required titles, the reading list makes it quite clear it is only a suggested to list to give an idea of where the quality of each year’s reading should be). Also I have issues with calling Catcher, a story of a self important whiny teenager bitching about how terrible life is, a classic.

 common core

Also take a look at some of the information texts suggested by the Common Core.

My god, what a collection of liberal tripe!  Common Sense! The Declaration and the Bill of Rights!  How dare we suggest students should read those!

Go and actually look at the reading list.  There are speeches by Reagan, plays by Shakespeare, novels by Hawthorne and Bronte, poetry by Whitman and Eliot.  It’s183 pages of suggestions!  It’s not exactly a limited list.  And by no means does the Common Core not suggest you should go off list.  Teachers are encouraged to, just so long it is on par or superior to the suggestions.

Keep in mind there are teachers out there who think Lovely Bones and Twilight are acceptable reading for high school courses! They’re not. This at least puts in writing a nation wide bare minimum.

Inaccuracy 3: This will only encourage teaching to the test.

Inaccuracy 4: The standards are not high enough.  

These two are tied together.  There has been for years the idiotic statement that teaching to the test hurts education.  Bullshit.  Good teachers teach.  And if you’re teaching appropriately then high quality education, in any subject area, will teach a student how to pass a test—especially low end tests like the ones that all states give.  If you teach them to read, to think, and to know the subject matter they’ll pass the test.  It’s people who only teach to the test that have their students fail.

“But,” teachers complain, “testing takes up time in class.”  Well, to do your job, and teach you need to test to see if students are learning the material.  You need to test. The complaint is that now you’re taking up time with two tests, the test for the state and the test for your class.  Trust me, there is overlap between those two, a good teacher uses the state testing to see how their students are doing in their own class and not retesting them on the same material.  But you know that would require actually looking at the test, and test results and actually doing your job of taking the time to see how best to teach your students.  And, sadly, so many teachers nowadays aren’t really there for teaching, they’re there for a job that pays them for 12 months but only requires that they work 8 and a half.  A good teacher teaches above the test, and their students pass.  A bad teacher complains about teaching to the test because that’s a bar they usually don’t try to reach, and their students don’t do as well.*

The other complaint is that the standards are not high enough.  This is partly correct.  However it ignores that standards in this sense are supposed to be a bare minimum bar—a point that should be met by even the worst teacher.  States can have standards above the common core, and teachers should go beyond that.  These standards are there to correct for the fact that a high school diploma is only worth what the bare minimum that it takes to get it.  And yes these standards are low.  But guess what a lot of the previous state standards were EVEN LOWER.  I live in Arizona where the previous state standard for High School English is more or less the standards for Middle School English under the Common Core.  There are numerous examples in other places.  This does nothing but raise the low end of the bar.  Good teachers must still go above that bar; anyone who just remains at that bar is a terrible teacher.

Would I like to see the Common Core standards be higher?  Yes.  Would I like to see less federal and more state input?  Yes. Would I like a lot of things that the Common Core doesn’t do?  Of course.  But it raises the minimum bar from where it currently stands and if states hold the line (as many seem to be doing in a lot of other aspects) and don’t allow the federal government to take over then this is a step in the right direction.  It doesn’t solve all the problems we face, but it does solve a couple of them.

What everyone needs to remember is that standards and testing exist in this field because there are bad teachers.  If teachers wanted to mercilessly purge their own ranks of inept teachers, if they wanted to act like professionals and not rely on unions to protect the incompetent, if they wanted to work in such a way as to be worth more than 40K a year, then maybe we wouldn’t need to bicker about standards and testing.  But teachers do not police their own.  They protect and defend the worst. They make the issues about money and benefits rather than address their failings.

*This in no way negates the importance of the student in this.  Responsible students who care about their education will pass even with the worst teachers.  However, strangely most students are children, it’s odd how that works, and it is the requirement of good teachers to drag immature people across the finish line.  That does not negate the responsibility of the students to choose to succeed.  And of course there is parental responsibility in all this as well.

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Filed under Education, Long Term Thinking, politics, Teacher's Union, Teaching

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