For this week's Cross Swords column by Terry Donnelly and Mike Young, we asked this question: What’s up with the educational Common Core curriculum?
Take a moment to participate in this week's poll in the left column that asks you to weigh in on this topic.
Terry Donnelly’s Sword
The idea behind a core, or universal, curriculum is to standardize what and how teachers teach and students learn. Any discussion needs to separate the “how” from the “what”.
One good argument in support for core curriculum is that addition facts are the same in Florida as they are in Oregon. That is true for “what” students learn.
However, the “how” students learn is not easily codified. The psychology of how humans (kids included) gain knowledge shows that it is indeed different strokes for different folks. A class will contain a variety of students; some who learn best by visual clues, some auditorially, and some by kinesthetic manipulation.
How students learn needs to be taught in teacher training institutes so that preservice teachers can learn modes of learning, how to access those modalities with teaching strategies, and then take them to the classroom for prescription purposes.
Teachers analyze student learning patterns and make decisions about each child based on the learning styles exhibited by students in his/her class. Groups are formed and activities planned that provide instruction and practice that gives each student the best opportunity to learn the material presented.
There is no core curriculum that can predict how many or exactly who those learners will be in any given class in any given year. That challenge is left to the pedagogy of teaching. Teachers come equipped with knowledge about learning styles, assess student needs, and finally apply their art.
Core curriculum needs to stay away from connecting teaching methods with curricula or codifying how students learn.
What students learn is another matter. There are hierarchies and processes that can be determined to be age appropriate, sequences that range from easy to hard, and hierarchical skills that must be learned before attempting the next skill on the ladder.
For example, when teaching the water cycle, it is important that students understand evaporation and condensation before trying to understand clouds and rain. This is an example of curriculum that is true in rainy Seattle as well as arid Mesquite. The student population in each area will likely require a different teacher approach to the lesson.
If those skills are researched and laid out in curriculum, teachers can make use of those data, match the learning with determined student needs, and then teach.
Another reason it is important to standardize content curriculum is to assist textbook publishers. As it stands now the state of Texas has a huge say in how textbooks read. Texas mandates that all public schools use the same text adoption. That is a huge sale for a publisher.
So, when adoption time comes around, the companies listen to what Texas wants in their schoolbooks. If a publisher’s books match what is being taught in Texas, they have a better chance of a Texas adoption and consequently, a huge sale. It is too expensive to publish 50 different sets of text to match individual state curricula. So, the rest of the country is stuck buying books that cater to Texas standards.
If scholars came together and determined set curricula for math, science, literacy, and social studies, textbook publishers would be glad to partner and print what is needed for nationwide instruction.
That does not mean every third grader in America will be studying evaporation each year on Thursday, February 13th. It does mean that teachers will have a guide to follow, clear expectations of what their class needs to know at the end of the term, and materials that will assist them in getting their objectives into the skulls behind the smiling faces in front of them.
Lastly, with core curriculum, what is taught will correctly determine what is assessed instead of the nonsensical No Child Left Behind model of assessments driving teaching.
Core curriculum for content standards? Yes. For pedagogy? No.
Mike Young’s Sword
I didn’t completely understand all of what Common Core Standards were about or supposed to do. Friends told me that many right and left wing groups were against them so I began to look into it and I found that the standards were proposed because American kids were falling behind in math.
Additionally, each of our states taught different things in their schools so in response to that the National Governors Association along with the Council of Chief State School Officers joined together in an effort to align their states’ standards and assessments.
The Common Core math and reading standards adopted by 45 states came under a firestorm of criticism from both the far right and left. I really couldn’t understand this because the standards were designed to describe what children should know at each grade level and describe the skills that they must acquire to stay on course toward college or a career in the real world.
That didn’t seem like a bad thing or anything nefarious. The standards didn’t set any curriculum; it was still up to school districts to choose curricula that allow students to reach the results set in the standards. This still allows local flexibly.
“One of the main criticism with the Common Core initiative is they were not rigidly evaluated,” Glyn Wright, executive director of The Eagle Forum, a watchdog organization, said. “The standards were created by private organizations in Washington, D.C., without input from teachers or parents and absent of any kind of study or pilot test to prove their effectiveness.”
What happened to rigid academic objectivity? The standards lack any evidence that they are the right standards and will work at improving our schools. They were not field-tested anywhere. When standards are tested and evaluated adjustments can be made.
Some teachers say the national standards, increase pressure to "teach to the test." Too long we have had no way of evaluating teachers, well here is the chance. Students coming out of each grade should be able to do certain things and we can test to make sure of their achievement level.
It is the teachers’ job to teach certain basic skills and we need to insure that is done. But beside these basics, the teacher should have room to provide for creativity and motivation. Plus, there should be some room for those who may be going in different directions and need different skills.
There is also the worry that Washington D.C. people are the top-down type and want to be in total control of whatever they put in place. A set of standards imposed upon school systems across the nation by those who seldom touch the daily life of real people much less the school classroom, smells of central planning and control from Washington. That is not acceptable.
We need to stop the fantasy that all students can make it through college or even need that level of education. Instead of enrolling everyone in highly complex math or English literature classes, let many focus on business and consumer classes. The "one size fits all" mentality shoves the future engineer, song writer and hair dresser into the same math class when their needs are very different.
The idea of common standards has some merit, but let’s gets it right. Start slow and low, provide flexibility for several life directions. Build a solid foundation and realize they are just the foundation, not the finished building.