Monday, April 29, 2013

The Common Core: Drawbacks

Yesterday, I posted about the benefits of the Common Core standards, an educational development sometimes (erroneously) labeled the most significant educational change of the last hundred years. I would say universal education, integration, expansion of post-secondary education, etc., were somewhat more significant than new standards. However, they represent a significant shift in school policy and resource allocation. I fear that their primary goal is not the stated goal (of improving student readiness for college and careers) but instead labelling more schools and teachers (and students) as "failing," then closing schools, firing teachers, and blaming students for their poverty as a result.

I have just read Diane Ravitch's discusssion of why she does not support the common core standards, and I agree with most of it (except, as noted yesterday, that I am not bothered by the increased English focus on non-fiction texts). The development of the tests is a very mysterious process, and we will begin testing students on standards that have guided their education for at most two years. Surely, students will fail these exams in record numbers. Some people will, in fact, profit enormously from these new, more expensive tests, and people pushing to close public schools and open for-profit charter schools will also benefit from the huge numbers of schools that will be declared "failing" as a result of the tests. Never mind that the charter schools don't have any better success rates, on average; once the public schools are closed down, it's very hard to get those schools back into the common public trust.

One major reason I suspect the standards have an insidious unstated goal is the lack of resource development to support teachers in this implementation. I just attended a major math teaching convention where everything claimed to support the Common Core standards, but very few of these materials actually conformed to the standards that we have studied or to the sample test questions that have been released. I have seen only one math textbook that even approached what I perceive as the common core, and that is something of a "fringe" book (little promotion by publisher--you can ask for it, but it's not advertised). Writing a question for my students that actually gets at these standards takes me in the realm of six hours; no teacher can actually come up with a dozen questions like this per day, per class. That should be the job of textbook developers; the frightening lack of these resources shifts that burden onto already overworked teachers.

Promoters claim that the standards were developed by teachers, but Ravitch's blog post indicates that very few teachers were involved in actually developing the standards. A teacher that I know was working on the in-progress science standards, and he/she informed me that the teachers actually were only allowed input on how those standards were worded; the standards themselves were handed down from on high, and the teachers' involvement was but a veneer on the product.

There is a sharp divide here between the English and math standards, though. High-stakes standardized testing is nefarious in either case. But at least we know what the English standards ARE. On the other hand, I have started referring to the math standards as "The Canon, " a set of mysterious statements handed down without research-based justification from the unknown testing gods that be. Since the statements are completely indecipherable, we must depend on Talmudic interpretive books released by different publishers who translate what the standards MIGHT mean for actual classroom practice. Of course, this is another money-making opportunity. Then there are the deuterocanonical textbooks, which offer some publishers' impressions of what school districts will interpret as common-core-compliant.

Understanding the math standards as religious rather than scientific texts has increased my patience with them, as they make a great deal more sense in this context. At this point, the seven teachers affiliated with our math department have spent 24 hours each in desperate attempts to decode the standards' meanings. That is 168 hours of teacher time spent squinting at screens in bafflement and despair, NOT ONE SECOND OF WHICH has focused on student learning, or HOW to teach these standards, or how we might coax students into this kind of engagement with math.

Additionally, the standards require most of Algebra I (traditional 9th grade math) to move into 8th grade; most of traditional Algebra II moved to Algebra I; and most of college alegbra moved to Algebra II, which all students are expected to master in this new regime. I understand that the elementary school curriulum accelerates similarily. Simply stating that students will learn material more quickly will not make them learn more quickly. This compounds the problem that not all students have the brain development to succeed in Algebra by 8th or even 9th grade. Standard defenders claim that they invite a deeper engagement with fewer general ideas (more depth, less breadth), but we have found nothing eliminated in breadth. As the standards are stated, we are simply supposed to teach more material in less time with fewer resources and more pressure.

As I mentioned yesterday, these changes might be beneficial for students of average to excellent ability in math. But there are multiple indices of fairness and multiple ways to educate all students with an eye to equity and excellence. Even assuming the best of these standards, they require every student to learn exactly the same thing at high levels. Now, I do believe that nearly all students can learn rigorous math at high levels. But I do not believe that all students can learn the same content in the same amount of time. Material that takes someone with a natural bent towards math one hour a day to master might take a student with less natural bent three or more hours a day to master. Meanwhile, that same student who is wonderful at math might have no gift at all for woodshop. The student who has to work three hours a day to master those math standards might be a cabinet making genius. I have worked with both these students. Under uniform and rigorous standards, the student who excels at math gets the basic content, but the math teachers' time is occupied with helping the struggling students, and there are no advanced or elective math classes offered to help her achieve her full potential in math. The student who struggles with math must devote massive blocks of time to achieving that mastery, at the cost of developing her talents and passions.

Common standards in this instance serve neither very high achievers nor moderately low achievers in the tested areas. This vision for equitable education sees all students mastering exactly the same things, without regard to their interests, abilities, or needs. Another vision for equitable education sees all students encouraged and enabled to learn to the best of their abilities in a wide range of disciplines. Certainly, everyone should have a basic competency in math and English; we would be remiss as adults, educators, and parents if we encouraged illiteracy, numeric or otherwise, in our youth. And if we could help each child achieve a very high proficiency in math and English with no detrimental side effects, of course we should do that.

But that is not the case. School days are limited, and years of free public education are limited; given these constraints, every hour a student spends in a remedial math class is another hour s/he is not in a class s/he enjoys that can help propel him or her to a meaningful career. Students and parents should have some flexibility to weigh the benefits and detriments of every course offering; even as a proponent of math and English education, I believe some students should be able to choose different vocational preparation than adding fractions with trinomials in the denominator. The common core, and more specifically the onerous testing requirements related to it, cut off student choices to the detriment of students with varied talents.

For teachers to be able to teach all this material successfully, we must have more and better resources, and we must consider placing all children in double blocks of math and English. We simply cannot teach a great deal more material in the same length of time to the same students. If we don't want to double all children up on math and English (and I would argue, vehemently, that it's a terrible idea), we probably need to adjust the testing expectations and allow more flexibility. If I could be assured that the math standards would be rewritten for clarity, that the process of developing tests was open to stakeholder input and done by the government instead of a for-profit corporation, that students could choose to follow their non-math and English passions, and that schools would not close and teachers not lose their jobs as a direct result of the increased rigor of the Common Core, I could get behind the standards a lot more enthusiastically. But those are a lot of "ifs." I hope to revisit this topic in three or four years and laugh at my concerns, as I contemplate the wonderful strides our educational system has taken. Alas, that is not my expectation.

1 comment:

  1. I like having some kind of standards as a tool or reference when teaching (I liked using the National Standards for Music Education), but being forced to use certain content or goals that don't fit me or my students is not helpful. I don't care for the WA state standards in the Arts (there isn't even music-specific ones, just one set of standards for "the arts") but I had to use them for some of the courses I took for state certification. It was a pain; I felt like they were written by someone who hadn't taught music or had a different style than I do.

    I'm just going to assume that Common Core is not arts-friendly? I haven't looked into that aspect, but I'm guessing this would be another reason schools would be put in a hard place and feel they have to cut out music, art, recess, etc.?

    Most of what I've heard about common core has been against, mostly from homeschooling friends that are concerned that they too will at some point be required to comply with more government complexities and intrusions.

    State legislators, it seems, aren't necessarily knowledgeable about education and could easily be swayed by lobbyists from the textbook or testing industries into approving Common Core (seems like almost all states already have?). I would rather see local control. Too late I guess, and no one asked me.