Lately there has been quite a bit of discussion surrounding the issue of the Common Core State Standards. Some don’t like the lack of local control, others fear federal mandates, while still others advocate for change, but most just don’t know what they are. When I ask people what they think of the CCSS, many outside of education just give me a blank stare or share some conspiracy theory they have heard. So, as an educator, I think it’s time to educate people.
First, I think we need to come to the discussion with a very real assessment of where Idaho is ranked in comparison to other states. Currently, Idaho is ranked 47th out 50 states, just behind South Dakota, Nevada and Mississippi (the state with the lowest income per capita) (Corr). So what is the problem with Idaho? Well, if you are from another state, or are homeschooled, the answer is obvious. It’s not the teachers, or even the administrators. It is a problem that goes much deeper than many want to acknowledge. It is a system that has been supported by poor state standards, increased emphasis on testing, data driven curriculum designed to teach students to search and find on low level identification computer generated multiple choice tests, and a tradition in Idaho education that goes back for generations. Many of the Idaho parents today were educated in this system and may not know much better because they were educated in this system,but there is a better education provided right here in America and Idahoans should demand it. The question is can we make the change?
I grew up in private schools mostly, so my perspective is quite different. I grew up in the 80’s and we learned how to type and write persuasive essays by the fourth grade, but today many Idaho schools don’t teach keyboarding until middle school or persuasive writing until their Sophomore or Junior year! Why is that? Why have many in this state come to lower their standards and believe that their child cannot stand the pressure of such high expectations? Why is that when states like Iowa, California and Washington are leading the way with higher scores on the SAT and ACT? In Idaho today the average percentage of students that go to college is at 7% with only 3% actually graduating, while the states surrounding us have a 30% graduation rate from top ten universities. Not that 30% is that high compared to other nations, but it is certainly better than Idaho. I believe it is time to take a hard look at what Idaho is doing wrong and be ready to make very real changes or we will continue to allow our children to be left without a competitive advantage in the coming generation. One of these changes is adopting the Common Core.
A few years ago Idaho accepted money from the stimulus package so as to keep the schools running due to a very real and very severe budget crisis. It was a time when many schools lost a third of their staff to funding cuts due to the failing economy. At this time we accepted the “strings” that were attached, and one of them was to develop more comprehensive state standards. We had several options, adopt the ones used by the leading states at the time, or develop our own. To be frank, with Idaho’s track record, and the short window of time of three years, the option of adoption seemed too tempting to pass up. In addition, the limitations were so narrow that to make our own would have been an exercise in futility. Much of these limitations were to steer states like Idaho away from the “search and find” activities that we as a state had become so accustomed to. There is very little actual synthesis and analysis in the current state standards until the Junior or Senior year of high school, and by that time the students are so wrapped up in their work, social lives, or extra curricular activities to earnestly engage in developing a skill that takes years to master. Thus, many of our students are relegated to taking remedial classes to get them up to speed once they enter college, or even the workplace. And if they try to go to school out of state, many must face the brutal reality that their peers are far above them academically. I witnessed this first hand when I came here to go to college and was surprised at the skill level of my peers. I had to tutor many of my peers on how to take notes in class so they could survive class lectures, and that was 18+ years ago! Things have only gotten worse. It is now much more common to place students in remedial English and Math classes just to get students to the appropriate college level in Idaho! And these are the ones fresh out of high school! It is time for teachers, parents, students, and congressmen be brave and demand more from an Idaho education! Do we want leaders in the global community, or mediocre kids with no hope beyond jobs that are more and more shipped overseas?
Granted, national standards do risk the loss of local control, but our students are not progressing locally. There is no effective “local control” beyond the ISAT’s which only prove kids can guess the right answer. One thing that I did as a teacher years ago was give up on the Idaho State Standards. My students were not learning and the “search and find” method of teaching to the test went against everything I believed in as an educator. I decided to teach students to use two or three documents to compare universal ideas to a piece of literature, or I made them do the dreaded “research” paper prior to their Senior year. I instituted Inquiry-Driven research units and later implemented writing research papers starting at the Junior High level. I had to rewrite much of the curriculum to do it, but I was determined to teach the kids to write for college, research for career purposes and to use the technology around them effectively. And when I was done I made the Idaho State Standards fit if I could. I was done with producing “Common Students”. When the Common Core came out a year later, I was delighted to find that the states I had modeled much of my curriculum after were the very states that were in the consortium to develop the Common Core. I was also ecstatic to find that I was now allowed to teach common sense education. The mandatory adherence to a “canon” decided upon by textbook companies 60 years ago was loosened and I as an educator was allowed more freedom to decide which books to choose for my students. I could throw out the ineffective state standards and continue what I was doing because myself, and other rogue teachers, were on the right path, only now we were not considered rebels; instead we were cutting edge educators. But the question still remains “What are the Common Core Standards?” Of course I can really best explain this from an English perspective, thus I will save an explanation of Math for a later post.
What are the Common Core State Standards?
In a nutshell, the CCSS, as they are commonly referred to, are a set of standards that a coalition of professionals from various business and tech industries, as well as educators, administrators and parents, have developed to propel the students into 21st century education. Right now the focus is just on English Language Arts, and Mathematics; however, it will soon come to include Science and Social Studies as well. Thus, the focus of the CCSS are literally on the “core” academic areas of instruction. Other areas, referred to as electives, are not included and are up to the states to develop standards. That definition in itself is not enough for many parents and concerned citizens to feel they have a grasp on the topic. So let me break them down a little for you.
English Language Arts:
This content area is different than Math because many of the standards are cyclical and must be repeated every year to reinforce certain skills particularly as they pertain to grammar, these are referred to as “threads”. Conversely, others must be taught at each grade level and are mandatory for mastery because a new skill is to be taught every year. These mostly include, but are not limited to constructing argument essays, research papers, and various expository texts that you may see more and more of in this informational age. In addition, there is more inclusion of informational type texts that you may see on the internet in lieu of a dominant focus on the “classics”. The areas are broken down into five (5) basic content areas.
1. Reading Literature: This demands a grade level approach, but the actual texts are open to educator choice. This frees us from a “canon” but does not exclude the “canon” either.
2. Reading Informational Texts: This includes developing skills in reading and deciphering graphs, maps, and other historical data that may develop a deeper understanding of a text. It also includes being able to read and write resumes, memos, and other business documents.
3. Writing: This focus is primarily on the four major types of writing with an emphasis in each on research. Those four types are narratives, expository, argumentative, and research papers. While the literary analysis seems to be removed it can fall under the category of argumentative.
4. Speaking and Listening: This includes developing presentation and collaborative skills necessary in group environments. The focus is on the student being able to work in dynamic groups and presenting research using technology in new and diverse ways.
5. Language Skills: This is grammar. Yes, grammar, but grammar that is taught in the context of writing. So “search and find” tests should fall away in lieu of whole writing assessments. How this will be graded with the least amount of subjectivity is an area of concern to many English teachers, but many agree that this is a much better way to assess grammar skills. ( It is always more effective to correct writing than to underline parts of speech.)
Breaking the Myths
1. Throwing out the Classics! : Many have come to believe that the inclusion of one means the exclusion of another text. Some in the media have come to promote the idea that a focus on the “informational texts implies that the classics are to be “thrown out”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. We as educators are now more freed up to use the texts that we find more useful. Gone are the days of excerpts from textbooks supplied by huge textbook companies that have rid the content of anything controversial. Now, I can spend 10 weeks on a “classic” as long as I bring in various informational texts. I don’t have to erase “God” if I as a teacher don’t want to, as long as the other standards are taught within the unit. And trust me, that’s exactly what I did. I recently taught Cry the Beloved which deals with how a Christian African native pastor and a Christian Dutch landowner dealt with apartheid in Africa. Then we looked at what is happening in Africa today. Along the way they had to deal with religion, morals, and consequences to poor choices. It was a tough unit for the kids. They had to think, they had to examine their own beliefs, and they had to examine their world. They cried, they hated me, they wanted me to just tell them the answer, they didn’t want to write about tough issues; but they did write, they did have to think and they did learn, and isn’t that the goal? With CCSS I could take that time and go deeper with one unit because of the other standards that I touched on throughout the unit. In the CCSS there is no “list” or approved “canon,” there is just suggested books. It is now up to the expertise of the teacher to use material that will teach skills. I love it! I don’t want anyone to take that freedom away!
2. Writing Research Papers instead of Literary Analysis! In the past it was the practice of high school English to focus on literary analysis. While this is important, the cross over to other academic areas is weak and vague to say the least. Students need to know how to gather, synthesize and analyze all forms of data across a spectrum of various fields. This standard focuses less on creative “feel good” writing, and more on functional writing for all fields. Some believe it takes the fun out of writing, but I believe it puts the “skill” in writing, and supports other content areas; thus, it is more relevant to every student.
3. No more Grammar! This is a lie. There is now foundational skills at every level starting with kindergarten. In addition, mastery is required at every grade level. Therefore, if a teacher does not teach that skill, then the next teacher will be at a loss. There is more accountability and responsibility at every level.
4. Technical Skills in English Class is Sacrilege! Students will now have to type by the third (3rd) grade! Imagine that! Students will have to use the computer before Junior High! Technical skills should be taught in every classroom, but in English the job of formatting will be an English experience. But isn’t that what we do in English every day? Also, those big textbooks can be replaced with readers, tablets, and laptops. Further, if they have a computer at home, and 95% of the homes today have a computer of some kind, then they can do their reading from home as well. Still, there is that 5% percent, but many school districts such as mine allow laptops to be checked out of the library or keep their computer labs open late. How is that different than when I was in school?
5. Other States Are Opting Out! This is true. Texas is one of the leaders of this movement. At present only five (5) have opted out, but many of these five did not take the stimulus money and do not have the “strings” attached to which the others are held. In addition, some of these states use the very standards that were the basis for many of the Common Core. Their state standards are the template by which the CCSS were developed and their need for them are negligible at best.
It is ultimately the goal of every state to have the highest of state standards, but until our state is not currently one of those states. It makes sense, then, that we should not fear modeling Idaho’s educational system after those states who have succeeded the most. When we have risen our standards, shown true and measurable success and are a leading state in education, then we will be ready to opt out. Finally, if the teachers aren’t afraid of the CCSS, and most of us are not, then why not give it a try. What do we have to lose except our ranking as 47th in the country? It’s a title we have held since I moved here in 1994! I don’t know about you, but I am ready to lose that long held title. I don’t want my kids to be mediocre or common anymore. I don’t want to be frustrated with the fact that I could honestly do better at home, but still pay taxes for a broken system. I want them to have a core of knowledge that is common to all the best states in the union.
I encourage each of you to educate yourselves because obviously there is always more to learn on the topic. Please go to http://www.corestandards.org/ for more details about the common core.