Reading and Writing and Dancing as Long as the Music Plays

A View of Common Core from the Ivory Tower

Back in the 1960s when I was in college planning to be a teacher, I took the required teacher education courses. For personal reasons, I ended up not finishing the program, graduating with a degree in history instead with the intention to return in a couple of years to earn my teaching credentials. I will have to tell you that although I had taken over half of the required courses for the teaching program, I was very underwhelmed by them. I thought at the time that I was not receiving anything in these courses that would really be helpful to me in a classroom. I honestly thought I could do just as well on my own without them, because, after all, I was a natural-born teacher. I actually did land a teaching job in a tiny rural school in Colorado, which is where I learned that my desire to teach wasn’t quite the same as knowing how.

In 1995, I finally was able to return to my first intention. I enrolled in a post-bacc teacher preparation program at a local college—and boy, had things changed! The courses I took in 1995 and 1996 were chockfull of wonderful strategies, terrific hands-on materials, guidance in conducting actual assessments, and formats for designing engaging lessons, appropriate assessments, and interactive bulletin boards. I learned about stages of development that govern when a child is ready for certain concepts. I was taught how to accommodate and modify for special students (who weren’t even in public schools back in the 60s) and how to challenge gifted students. I was required to do projects with real students. At the end of my program, I felt very well prepared for my first classroom.

What I had learned was that in the intervening years between the 60s and the 90s, there had literally been an explosion of research done by education experts, mostly in universities, that documented how students learn, at what ages/stages they should be ready for certain kinds of learning, and how teachers can assess their students to determine what particular strategies will be most effective in supporting their learning. A few years later when I returned to pursue a master’s in reading and still later a doctorate, my own learning about teaching, learning, teachers, and students only deepened.

Now it seems, there is a movement to throw all this rich research and learning out the window. There is a movement that returns us to my original mistaken assumption that all it takes to be able to teach is the desire.

If the Common Core Initiative is allowed to play out as its promoters hope, teachers will no longer be using the professional expertise they learn in their college classrooms. The reason for that is that Common Core, although it purports to be only a set of standards, will become every school’s curriculum. This will happen because of the tests that are required to assess it. If as is planned, all students across the nation all take the same test, then what we have are not standards but standardization—all students learning exactly the same thing at the same time, ready or not. The tests assume that all students can be proficient at grade level in lock step. Teachers will no longer need to be concerned about whether their students have reached an appropriate stage of development for a certain concept. The Standards say this is when we will teach it and this is what they will be tested on, so we must teach it whether or not research tells us it is appropriate.

(As an aside, I must mention that the Common Core State Standards were not in any way based upon research about developmentally appropriate content or skills at any given grade level. In fact, the creators of the Standards have not yet revealed any substantive contribution that was solicited in their formation from education researchers, teachers, teacher educators, or parents. Nor have they been or are there any plans to field test the Standards. Nor is there any research that documents that standards alone are effective in making students successful in learning that content, as the proponents of them claim. There is research that standards combined with effective professional teaching can actually raise the level of student success, though not to the point that every child is proficient—a completely impossible and unrealistic goal.)

And even if teachers would like to use their expertise to adapt the Standards curriculum to something that is more appropriate for their students, they will be afraid to, because administrators and Reach coaches and the State Department of Education will remind them that students’ scores will be factored into their evaluations, so they have to teach what’s in the Standards, whether the students are “getting it” or not. If the students haven’t mastered a concept, we move on anyway, because it’s Tuesday and this the day we teach long division. The Test is coming! The Test is coming!

This leaves teachers in a no-win situation; they know all their students can’t be proficient at the same level at the same time. They know if they “stick to the script,” some will be “left behind” and their students’ scores may not be as high as the administrators would like. On the other hand, if they take the risk to slow down to a more appropriate and individualized pace, the students may make real progress, but it may not be progress that will show up positively on The Test. Testing sets real teachers up to lose.

But the corollary of this is even more disturbing. If all teachers are expected to do is to march students relentlessly through the steps of Common Core, why do they need teaching degrees anyway? We just need people who can follow the script. We don’t have to have such highly educated individuals who demand exorbitant salaries. We can get folks alternatively certified pretty quickly, and if they don’t stick around very long (as is the track record, for example, for Teach for America), no problem, because experience in teaching doesn’t really count for much, anyway. And we really don’t need Teacher Education institutions, do we? I think this is where I came in.

What a waste of the last forty years of rich educational research!

Many readers may be aware that the Gates Foundations have financed a large portion of the Common Core Initiative. In a recent interview at Harvard University, a school he dropped out of, Bill Gates said, “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.” He repeated his contention that “we don’t know if it will work” a few days later in a Clinton Global Initiative panel. So in essence, virtually every student and every educator in America has become a guinea pig in Bill Gates’ Grand Experiment. That’s not the kind of “research” I want to be part of or to send my newly minted teachers into. Let’s stop the madness!

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