How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Common Core

By James Kobialka

In a recent VIVA Teachers blog, Design Lessons for Students, Not Standards, Adam Heenan wrote about his distaste for the Common Core standards. He described a lesson he uses to teach his high school social studies students financial literacy, and said, “No, I don’t want support for Common Core. I simply believe we should not do it, because it does not prioritize the needs of the people in the teaching and learning process: students and educators.  In fact, I believe we should actively resist its implementation, and provide educators with the autonomy, support and time to design engaging lessons in the ways they know best: by prioritizing the people in the room.”

I disagree with Adam’s dismissal of the Common Core – I think it is a valuable tool. My perspective on this has developed very slowly, beginning with a rabid mistrust of the standards and moving to a moderate admiration. I’ll try to break it down my thoughts, but if you desire a concise opinion, this entire post can be summarized thusly: Excellent, student-centered teachers don’t need the Common Core, but everyone else does.

Adam is clearly a wonderful teacher. The lesson he talks about does, in his own words, prioritize “relevant and valuable ideas shared by students in the room.” This is the main purpose of education: to help youth uncover their truths, share their ideas, and build skills relevant to their lives.

Unfortunately, many – especially new teachers with no experience beyond textbooks – do not agree with this. These are the “drill and kill” teachers who place the holy grail of content above all other goals, and who are egged on by administrators who seek high scores instead of competent students.

The Common Core is a set of standards for good teaching. Good, effective, thoughtful teachers already hit dozens of standards in their everyday lessons. They integrate reading, writing, thinking, questioning, and numeracy into their classes, just as the Common Core suggests.

However, many growing teachers do not. For them, the Common Core – combined with reflection and pedagogical evolution – provide a road map to success. Hitting those standards means that they must teach questioning, analyzing, modeling, presenting, evaluating, thinking about perspective, and more skills that an intellectual agent for change would need.

The standards are not the issue here. The implementation is.

Just as many people the world over grab hold of the New Testament’s message of charity and forgiveness, so too can educators grab on to critical thinking and writing to learn. On the other hand, just as many zealots choose to focus on the text’s mentions of death to sinners and perpetuating slavery, so too can administrators, bureaucrats and companies focus on “meeting standards.”

I am reminded of the following exchange from the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch:

Tommy: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?”
Hedwig: “No, but I love his work.”

In this case, the Common Core is Jesus. (How’s that for a soundbite?)

Or, in other words: Adam’s blog post let readers into his classroom, a place where fantastic lessons unfold… lessons designed for youth, not for tests. And, as it happens, it is also a Common Core ready lesson. Based on just a quick skim of the standards, it covers at least the following 14 (and probably more, if you’re inclined to look):

HSN-Q.A.1-3 (Reason quantitatively and use units to solve problems
Standard Set: Modeling (An aggregate standard about creating and using models)
All ES and MS standards dealing with basic functions and data analysis
RI.11-12.7 (Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information)
RI.11-12.4/5/6 (Analyze the intent of authors and determine their validity)
SL 11-12.1/2/3 (Discussion and response, using diverse info, using diverse media)
SL.11-12/4/5/6  (Present information, make use of digital media, adapt speech to tasks)

The phrase I once heard and held onto (at, full disclosure, a Gates Foundation conference last year) was: common is not the same, and standards are not curricula.

The standards are not a checklist, and districts that use them as such are flat-out wrong.

In my mind, adopting the Common Core should mean doing away with standardized tests. Instead of whatever the PARCC is, students should be rated on these standards with a portfolio and performance assessment. Have they written critical papers (W.11-12.112)? Developed ideas influenced by historical thinkers (RH.11-12.6)? Solved real life math problems like Adam’s, or crafted their own scientific investigations? Are they ready to move out of the protective walls of our schools and into the more rigorous halls of academia? Or onto the even harsher world where the only thing between them and homelessness is their wit and ability to survive our biased capitalist economy?

These questions should be thriving under the new standards, caring administrators, and talented teachers. They should not be displaced by some sort of artificial checklist tied to our professional lives as educators.

These standards are no panacea. We have known what will “fix” education for years – more support for students, more community involvement, more funding, professional communities and benefits for teachers, a robust public education system instead of corporate charters – and this is not that. But in a political climate where real reform is an uphill struggle at best, these standards are a step in the right direction.

Using the Common Core as direction, combined with the right sorts of development, induction and training for teachers, has the potential to change classrooms from drill and kill hellholes into oases of discovery. Inspired teachers – like Adam, our colleagues, and that one high school teacher who really got you all those years ago – can create transformative spaces under this model. We can still help our students become agents of change, fires burning for the fuel of knowledge.

Teachers, students, bureaucrats, and community members need to cooperate to let education flourish; I think the Common Core has the potential, more than any other standards, to let that happen.

I do worry that the Common Core will be used to enforce narrow-minded agendas instead of fighting them. This is true of almost anything: the best intentions, when systemized and standardized, suddenly become the worst ideas. Those who support testing and hierarchical education could use these standards to remove ingenuity and agency from the classroom. I am already hearing stories of that happening – I only hope that these stories are flukes, not dominant narratives.

The Common Core should provide direction, not punishment, to those who use it.

So, to Adam and all of my colleagues who might read this – take these standards in the spirit meant by the teachers who sat on the advisory panels, not the profit-hungry test-makers.

We will dismantle this testing culture. Piece by piece, student by student, day by day, with or without the Common Core. A good teacher – reflective, positive, endlessly dedicated, masterful – is a good teacher. You do the same thing regardless of the bureaucracy: take what you want, sneak in the rest, stay subversive, stay strong, and always stay true to yourself and your youth.

Not that you needed reminding.

jkobialka2013James Kobialka teaches science and English in Worcester, Mass. He was a member of the VIVA MTA Writing Collaborative.

 

Comments

  1. ryan merten says:

    well said. If anything CC can highlight what was being missed by the current curriculum and most reasonable constructed lessons can fill out hosts of them.

    My context comes from working with an alternative campus program as there math/science advisor. There graduation req was expressly to meet all common core points. I found it hard to miss many of the cores in constructing even easy problems. The most valuable insight was in finding the blind spots in the elements not being completed and they generally were valuable concepts. The only exception I found was that the physics CC was particularly arduous but as a study that requires a fair amount of math to even get started it was only reasonable.

  2. You said, “I do worry that the Common Core will be used to enforce narrow-minded agendas instead of fighting them. This is true of almost anything: the best intentions, when systemized and standardized, suddenly become the worst ideas. Those who support testing and hierarchical education could use these standards to remove ingenuity and agency from the classroom. I am already hearing stories of that happening – I only hope that these stories are flukes, not dominant narratives.”

    Those can do more damage to students than a beginning teacher finding his or her way in the classroom. Those stories are not flukes in our big cities where the students need dynamic teachers like Adam more than they need the test and punish culture that is prevailing. I hope you will see that the love of common core, like the love of money, is the root of all that is evil in education reform today.
    PS. I am in a school that is allowing the teachers to create units that are developmentally appropriate and engaging to young students.

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