(Marc Korashan is a Special Education teacher, an adjunct college professor and a teacher union representative.)
In his February 25 essay, The Common Core versus Parents, Teachers, Principals and School Boards (https://mets2006.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/the-common-core-versus-parents-teachers-principals-and-school-boards-all-politics-is-local/ ), Ed makes some important points about where the Common Core is going off track. It is fast becoming another good idea sabotaged by the notion that teaching is an activity that can be governed from the top down and measured and controlled using corporate economics. Neither of those premises is true and if we want a Common Core of Standards for students across the country, then we, as teachers, need to start pushing back with the facts of what teaching is like.
When I started teaching, long before anyone talked about standards or tried to measure my effectiveness with a single snapshot test, my biggest concern was what I should be teaching. I had seriously emotionally disturbed and learning disabled students, far behind their grade peers in many basic academic skills, but on par with them intellectually. What is the course of study for their grade? How can I adapt and modify the materials so that these students will get the content they should know while working on a parallel track to build the skills they need?
Along with colleagues I worked to solve these problems and was generally successful. What we didn’t have was a one-size fits all test for the end of the year to prove to our students that they were still failing. What we didn’t have were pacing calendars that said we needed to be on page 45 by October 12 and finished with the curriculum by the time the test arrived (April 16 this year). What we needed and had in our self-contained class in a self-contained special education school (D75) was the luxury of time.
We taught to the students’ interests, using their certainty about the existence of UFOs to teach the Scientific Method. We differentiated for the non-readers by reading to them, but led a class on the nature of Science Fiction and the kind of questions these genre writers explore. This led us back into real science, into psychology, and into a rich discussion of politics based on the stories we read (e.g. Asimov’s Nightfall).
The Common Core is an answer to only one question, what should the students be able to do at the end of the course. While this question is central to teaching, it is not the only question that needs to be answered. Teachers, not psychometricians from Pearson or other testing companies, need to be able to think about how to measure the outcomes of instruction, especially the along-the-way or formative outcomes that will inform how the teacher modifies instruction for the students who are struggling and for the ones who are racing ahead.
The problem with the Common Core is not the standards it sets; they are not radically different from previous attempts to set standards. The problem is that it is being created in a top down manner that ignores the realities of teachers and students working in classrooms. The notion that we can get around to the assessments and the curriculum after you adopt the Core is inherently disrespectful of the complexity of teaching. The attitude that we’ve created something wonderful and you’ll get it when you stop resisting is patronizing.
The authors of the Common Core are not sitting in classrooms with real live students trying to make it work against the pressure of test based performance reviews for teachers and administrators. They are not trying to solve the day-to-day problem of how to motivate students to get involved in the material, or the more important problems of how to make sure that everyone can participate meaningfully regardless of their basic academic skills. In all this talk about the Common Core where is the discussion of the parallel track for the students still building skills, like the English language Learners, Learning Disabled and Emotionally Disturbed students that are now regularly included in the mainstream? Will the assessments be differentiated to indicate which students got the “Essential Understandings” (to borrow a term from Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design) and which learned both those Essentials and the other stuff, the detailed knowledge specific to each content area?
How many instructional days will be lost to these tests; some to taking the test and many others to prepping for them to try to inflate student scores. Will any of those scores tell us if our students actually go home and read on their own? When the standard for reading was twenty-five book or book-equivalents a year, we were asking students to become readers. In this new regime we are asking them to become test takers, there is a big difference.
If we want to have a common set of standards (and we should), then we need to let teachers work with this draft and develop it in real life with real students to see what works and what needs tweaking. Teachers need to take ownership of the profession, by pushing back against the rush to the Common Core and the assessment regime that goes with it.