Saturday, September 28, 2013

Common Core

Some years back I was hired to teach 7th grade science at a school frustrated by its low test scores in the arena. Despite it perfect-community-school demographic, the school was scoring dead-last city- wide in its end-of-level science scores. I was hired for a number of reasons, but I think two really stand out. I'd been accustomed to teaching science on a full-year schedule; the school was on a semester rotation with all the kids filtering through one teacher in large classes. They needed somebody with the background to expand their program out curriculum-wise. The second reason for their decision to hire me, I think, was that I was coming from Texas. I knew a LOT about standardized testing.

Within one year, our school went from last to first in the rankings.

It wasn't just me, of course. The school made many good choices that year. They offered more sections of science, making the classes smaller. The expanded year teaching ensured that each child had science education up until the time of the test. Science became less about study guides and more about hands-on experiences and labs as we expanded our curriculum. So yes, smaller classes and more seat time, what the teachers always tout as the magic elixirs of education absolutely worked. However, I would also submit that my colleague and I became committed to teaching the standards to which the kids would be tested. We pored over them exhaustively and adapted our curriculum accordingly, hitting each vocabulary word and concept with renewed vigor. Our renewed commitment to the best pedagogical practices we knew, in the end, were largely driven by a need for improved test scores.

If this sounds like I'm of two minds for testing then you are reading this correctly. The parents are right, more local control is needed--in that classroom teachers need more autonomy, not that school boards should guide classroom content. The teachers are right. We need classrooms of no larger than 24 students and the resources necessary to make student learning up-to-date, relevant and dynamic. The politicians are right. All of this money spent should MEAN something measurable.

I do think that when a child graduates from high school, the diploma should mean something. An "A" should not be handed out because a student did enough extra credit by taking stats for the track team when the coach/teacher was in a bind. Teachers have traditionally allowed for a lot of crazy stuff totally unrelated to an understanding of the subject to count for "points." In the end, you have an arbitrary bundle of meaningless grades, kids teacher-shopping for the most grade-friendly instructors, and diplomas that aren't worth the paper on which they are printed.

Standards keep teachers focused. Good assessments keep them honest. And by honest, I don't necessarily mean truthful. I mean honest with how their class time (read: taxpayer dollars) is spent. There must be a system of accountability in place for both teachers and students.

Having said that, however (you all know me well enough by now to know there is nearly always a however coming), the idea that education can pour in children as culturally, mentally, ethnically, and economically diverse as any you will find in the world into a machine and churn out the an ideal learner with the same set of skills is not only unreasonable, but it might not even be desirable.

When we insist that each child be tested to an identical set of standards with no wiggle room then we are stifling creativity, individuality, joy, curiosity. Many of our important innovators, thinkers, writers and artists have had very unconventional paths to greatness. To attempt to put every child on some kind of standardized or "normal" path is to shoot ourselves in the proverbial foot as far as the future is concerned. And to quote Princess Leia (or paraphrase), the tighter we grip, the more students will slip through our fingers.

As for Common Core.

Each state has developed curriculum standards for all levels of education. In some states these are very good. In some states these are just terrible. A curriculum standard is harder than you think to write--it must be sufficiently vague that you aren't just giving lists of facts and vocabulary for students to memorize and regurgitate, but also sufficiently specific that it can be measured. The Common Core grew out of an effort to try and align the states in some kind of cohesive standard. This part of it is not so bad.

For example, it is ludicrous that a group of highly conservative people in one part of a state can mandate through lobbying money or floor votes that certain scientific concepts (thinking most immediately of global warming and evolution) not be taught. Or that history be taught properly--from the viewpoint of the vanquished as well as the conquerors with a critical and thoughtful eye to our own not-always-gloried past. Common Core is, in part, an attempt to stop local school boards from willfully keeping children ignorant of the larger world and the facts that help organize and define it.

This is one reason why conservatives are becoming increasingly vocal about Common Core. They fear that the standards (actually fairly vague; everyone should read these before freaking out) are an attempt to brainwash their children into skepticism and liberal thinking. In truth, Common Core standards are an effort to help children learn to think. Period. If their faith traditions cannot stand up to all this "thinking" and "choice" then what possible good are those traditions, anyway? The more adversarial conservatives make school (vs. religion too often) the more children will be lost either to critical thinking or to religion. This false dichotomy, I am convinced, is a trick of Satan. The idea that deep intelligence and faith are mutually exclusive denies the very nature of God.

Ahem. Back on track.

So while I think Common Core standards that states adopt or at least align their own standards to is a good thing; I have a much harder time with Common Core assessments. Two examples to help explain this.

At my current school we are supposed to be aligning our assessments with one another. There are five of us teaching the class I'm teaching, three of us with fairly strong opinions. While we have all agreed on the standards, each of us are teaching them in slightly different ways based on our own personalities, interests and gifts. As a result, we feel to emphasize different things in our testing, as well as the nature of our tests. One of the teachers has a standard that I would say is much higher, but he gets frustrated when the kids don't already come to his class with a skill set he thinks they should have. However, my teaching philosophy is much more geared to meeting the kids where they are at and then scaffolding them to greater learning, understanding, interest. Is my class a little easier? At least initially, probably yes. But in the end, I think my students may stand a better chance of actually meeting the burden of proof regarding our standards. I don't know; I can't say at this point.

In other words, five teachers cannot even agree entirely on a common assessment to give our kids; Common Core assessments work from the idea that thousands of teachers will get on board with what is being taught and tested.

Second anecdote--back to the same school I began this piece with. My colleague and I prepared our kids very carefully according to curriculum standards with particular attention to vocabulary so that the students would know how to "speak" the language on the test. The curriculum standard regarding heredity was quite thorough, but also left off the term "DNA" in regards to heritability. You can actually teach a lot about genetics without ever talking about the specific biochemistry of your cells. And for 7th graders, this is quite appropriate. You can save the technical stuff for high school biology. We carefully avoided any mention of DNA so as to not confuse the kids and to save a week's worth of time when we could be focused on the core.

Test time rolled around. Sure enough, one of the heritability questions used the terminology "DNA" in one of the questions. I was deeply frustrated. The question, if reworded to reflect what was actually in the standard, could have been answered by nearly every one of my students and still shown a very thorough grasp of heritability. As it is, I bet many of my kids saw that unfamiliar acronym and just guessed on the question.

In other words, the danger of common assessment is that it will still be a small group of people writing the assessment. There is no way for me to teach to a test (not a horrible thing by the way--I'll end on that note in a moment), that I have never seen before and which may or may not align to the curriculum standards the way I'm reading them. In addition, to assume that this test written by somebody else is the BEST possible measurement of the learning taking place in my classroom is to discount my own learning and expertise.

When I structure a class from the ground up, I look at objectives provided by the state (Common Core based in Oregon) and then I "unpack" them--extrapolating my own course objectives (in student friendly language) based on these standards with a vocabulary list for each standard. Then I write a test. What do I want the kids to know? do? understand? explain? analyze? calculate? etc. etc. Then I build my content around helping them meet these goals. Parents and too many teachers are becoming increasingly critical of "teaching to the test" but I prefer to look at it like teaching to the objectives . . . students should look at it like learning to meet their goals.

Teachers should be allowed the autonomy in their classrooms, if not to design their own learning targets (there should be some consistency across schools, after all), then at the very least to build their own assessments (at least in part) and certainly design their own assignments. If there is only one right way to teach, assess and learn, then we should just plug them all into headphones and show them videos of master teachers all day with tests afterward.

In short, I think that states should align their standards with some kind of common core, but I am very much against nationalized, standardized testing for individual courses or subjects. I think that the Department of Education should function like the National Science Foundations--as a granting agency that provides money for schools and districts (not even states) that show innovative ways to teach; the efficacy of which are yes, measurable by some local or even state standard. Each state has their own way of training and retaining teachers, as well as conferences and standards for teaching. The structures already in place allow for better dovetailing of standards and assessment. Schools were given to the states; they should be allowed to stay there. 

Now I've covered everything. Almost quite literally. See what you get after a long silence? I'll stick to pictures for the next few months. Then we'll talk about how much good could be done for education in my state if the army chose to build ONE less plan next year to the tune of 500 million dollars. What if it built fifty fewer planes? How much good might we do in a single generation if we truly started funding schools in a way that matches our rhetoric for how important education is?

1 comment:

Genjunky said...

Well said! I like the idea of my kids moving from state to state and not being ahead or behind or totally out of sync. And the individuality in the classroom and in the testing and the .... I could go on and on.