Common Core and Issues Surrounding it

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term standard means, “something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model or example” (Merriam-Webster). Recently, 45 states have chosen to adopt standards known as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) which are, according to the Common Core website, meant to “establish what students need to learn, but they do not dictate how teachers should teach” (Common Core). The website continues by stating that educators “will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms” and that “no state in the country was asked to lower their standards for their students in adopting the Common Core” (Common Core).

Sounds good, right? The idea of having students in our nation’s schools be able to move from state to state both while in school and after graduation and having learned basically the same content at relatively the same pace as one another would level the playing field a great deal. After all, having taught in Florida, I recall having honors students who moved to states such as Wisconsin communicate with me that they were 2-3 years behind their classmates after they moved. A set of national standards might have leveled that playing field and eased the transition.The implementation of a national set of standards is a noble idea. However, like anything else politicians and corporations get their hands on; it has surfaced as something far more sinister and damaging to our nation’s students.

Corporations bent on making more money have taken the standards and turned them into a profit machine as they churn out textbooks they feel are aligned with the standards as well as scripted lessons that many teachers are now being forced to use rather than being able to “continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms” (Common Core). These same companies have also received contracts to produce the tests for these standards. They have taken a great idea and are making millions off it at the cost of the education of our children. The standards were not created to be moneymakers, but education changers.

Politicians, especially those bent on cutting money from education and who stand to profit from donations they receive from the corporations as well as charter schools run by corporations, have also jumped onto the bastardization of the Common Core State Standards by making certain they are tied to high stakes testing which, in turn, is tied to both education funding and teacher salaries and even their jobs. Many states are creating legislation that penalizes a teacher if his or her students do not pass these tests, some even to the point of the teacher being rated ineffective and losing his or her job. These politicians are advocating more charter schools, which are businesses in school’s clothing, that are either not subject to the same standards or testing as the public schools are as well as being free to choose which students attend them and which do not. Many of these charter schools are staffed by people who have had only 5 days training prior to their entering a classroom and being granted the title of teacher. Many do not even teach a subject where they have any prior knowledge of it.

Is this what we want for our children? Is this actually going to help our children to learn and retain knowledge that will train them for productive lives after high school? It is going to help us close the perceived education gap between the United States and the world? Sadly, it is not. By tying the standards to high stakes tests that penalize teachers and demoralize students, it is more of the same for our education system. We are training test takers rather than thinkers. We are mapping curriculum so that what our students are supposed to be learning is covered rather than learned. Teaching is an art form. Teaching is a vocation. People who become teachers are not the same as those who choose to become business people because teaching is not a business and should not be treated as such.

An additional problem with the Common Core State Standards is that they were implemented too early and without enough input from teachers from all grade levels. Yes, there were select groups of teachers and administrators who had input on the standards. Unfortunately, many of those teachers were the same ones who implemented the individual state tests that have beleaguered students in the past. There are standards that are inadequate as well as some that are simply too high for students at the grade level to reach from a developmental standpoint. They need fixed, but can only be fixed appropriately with teacher input from a wide range of teachers.

Another issue with the implementation of the CCSS is that, rather than being used as models or examples of what is expected, they are being seen as hard and fast rules for educating our students. In doing so, this leaves our nation’s special education and English learner student populations at a great disadvantage. It also works on a principle that is inhumane as it assumes that every student learns at the same pace and in the same way. Students are human as we all are. Even more, they are developmentally at different stages even if they share the same chronological age as their peers. To have the standards enforced with such rigidity is completely against education. It is unfair to students and to teachers. It cannot be expected that a student who is able to read at the sixth grade level as a tenth grader can be able to suddenly read at the tenth grade level just because the standards say he or she should be at the tenth grade level.

Is there a solution? Yes. The CCSS need to be rethought and reworked by teachers at every level and from schools that model the true economic disparity of our country. Once they are re-worked, they need to be brought out as guidelines rather than hard and fast rules. They should never be tied to high stakes standardized testing. There is a good chance if that were to happen, then they would be more beneficial to our children.
If there are any real crises in education, they stem from larger societal problems that no amount of education reform or standards can repair. What needs repaired are the widespread issues with poverty, drugs, lack of affordable housing, parental involvement, and lack of good jobs. If those were fixed, then there is a good chance that what is a perceived crisis in education would also become outdated.

Attention Teachers! It is Time to Take Our Schools Back!

It is almost time for another school year to begin around the United States; in fact, some school districts have already started classes and it is only the end of July. Yet, there is an evil that grows ever more severe as it grows like a shadow over our public education system. Teachers, up to this point, have cowered at the onslaught of this shadow that seeks to place our educational system into eternal darkness. It is time for the cowering to end and for teachers to take a stand for their jobs, but most of all, for the education of the future of our nation. The shadow of darkness comes in the form of the privatization of our schools disguised as education reform legislation and wealthy corporate donors who buy this legislation through our elected politicians. The so-called reform comes from places such as Teach for America, the Gates Foundation, and the Walton Family (Walmart). These entities cite studies that agree with their ideals or even some that they paid for which advocate the corporatization of our educational system through more charter schools and replacing experienced teachers with people indoctrinated into their mindset. These entities and their political cronies advocate high stakes testing rather than the basics our students need to be competitive in the global marketplace. These entities use the media to portray teacher unions as evil organizations bent on keeping inept teachers in their positions. It is time for teachers, and their unions, to stand up and voice their opinions and professionalism to the public. No longer can teachers and teachers unions cower and kowtow to the latest fad to come through the educational pipeline. Teachers must stand up and be heard. Teachers must be advocates for the public educational system that seeks to educate all students who come through the doors of the thousands of schools in our country. Teachers must be advocates for their students as well as themselves.

Teach for America (TFA), the Gates Foundation, and the Walton Family, among others, are pushing an agenda that replaces education with testing and a one-size-fits-all educational approach that they say will help our students to succeed in the global marketplace. The catalysts for their approaches stems from the problems that face our educational system: high dropout rates/low graduation rates, students who graduate yet cannot perform the basic skills needed to be successful, and students with low motivation to succeed. Rather than address underlying reasons for these, which I will discuss further, they take the easy route and blame teachers, teachers unions, and the educational system for these social ills. These three items are not necessarily the fault of our schools, but of our society as a whole. What they are calling education reform does not address these problems; it just blames the teachers for them. It is like blaming the fire department for there being fires. After all, if there were no fire departments, then there would not be any fires, right?

The problem of high dropout rates/low graduation rates is not the fault of the educational system as a whole, but the fault of our society as it does not value education as highly as other countries in the world. The media constantly bombards us with news of how US students are behind students in Japan, China, Russia, or Finland. What they do not show is the culture of those countries values education as a highly important part of a civilized society. In China and Japan, for example, parents pressure children to do well in school and it is shameful if students slack off when it comes to schoolwork. The homework assigned is much more than in the US, but it is meaningful, it counts, and it comes with the expectation that it will be done on time and correctly. Students are expected to ask for assistance if they need it. As a teacher, I faced numerous times when students would not do their homework or ask for extensions. When I attempted to enforce a no late work policy, they complained to their parents who many times went to administration who then forced me (and other teachers) to give in and allow the student to turn their work in late. When I attended school in the ‘70s and ‘80s, this did not happen unless there were extreme circumstances. Furthermore, students who committed discipline violations that caused them the consequence of an out of school suspension were allowed to make up their work. Also, a rare allowance for my generation.

Another cause for the high dropout rates/low graduation rates is that educational programs, especially at the middle and high school levels, only address the academic areas of success. By this, I mean that many do not offer vocational programs for students who are not academically inclined. Instead, students are told that they all have to go to college in order to succeed. While that is a noble idea, the facts are that some students simply do not want to go to college, but would rather enter a trade. If there are no vocational courses, these students fall through the cracks and many become disruptions in the classroom. They see no need to study the academic areas in depth if they plan to become an auto mechanic or a cosmetologist. Yet, where is the funding cut many times, vocational programs and the arts. The arts are another area that usually faces cuts in funding, as they are not seen as necessary. Many students, including myself when I was in public schools, needed the arts to give me a reason to go to school. The arts connect with every academic area and many students who are gifted with a talent, when allowed to learn and use that talent, will also succeed academically. If you do not believe these to be true, listen the next time when a school board threatens to cut funding. The public remains relatively silent when vocational or arts programs are threatened with cuts, but when cuts to athletics are mentioned, the outrage is tremendous.
The next area consists of those students who manage to graduate without mastering the basic skills needed to succeed in the workforce. Again, those in power want to blame the educational system for this. However, take a closer look at why they are not mastering the basics and you will find another story. Part of it ties in to what I already mentioned prior to this, but another part points to the darling of the so-called reformers—high stakes, standardized testing. Students are taught the test in some places from kindergarten through the 12th grade. Yes, the mantra is that teachers teach to the standards not to the test. Bullshit. When a teacher’s career and salary are tied to how their students do on the tests, then the teacher teaches to the test. That is the reality of it. In addition, the tests themselves, which are products of big businesses such as Pearson, do nothing to measure usable skills. They measure how well students take tests. Most of them are multiple-choice where the student must simply figure out which answer the test makers want them to bubble in. They do not allow for a student to choose an answer and defend why they chose it. That would be placing learning above test taking skills as it calls for critical thinking and reasoning skills rather than bubble completion. Would those tests take longer to grade? Yes. Would they measure student knowledge better? You bet they would. The global workplace demands the ability to think critically and reason, not to fill in a bubble. I taught a great number of students who could bubble in tests with great success, but if assigned an essay where they needed to think critically, they faltered and many failed. The love affair with standardized testing has to end. Good teachers know this. Good teachers know that students must grapple with problems that cause them to think, to research, to reason, and to defend why they come up with the answers they do. That is what made America great over the years. Standardized testing only serves to enable students to work at places like Walmart or fast food because they do not really have to think, but just do what others expect them to do.

The American public laments as to why “Johnny cannot read”, but they also fail to see how Johnny’s parents do not read to him or make him read. Past generations had a parent or someone who read to and with their children. A major form of entertainment for students was to read. It increased vocabulary, enabled the ability to imagine and think about the story lines and the various plots, and it caused the child to have to picture the action in their head. Today, many students are babysat by the television or the video game system. They can text, be entertained, and not have to think because the media barrage of images does it all for them including when to tell them to laugh even if the jokes are not funny. Reading is a skill and needs to be cultivated. Math is another area where we are falling behind. How often do the children of our nation practice it? Obviously, not often enough. It is also a skill that needs nurturing and practice. Science is an area where we are getting our rears kicked. One reason for this is practice, or the lack thereof, but also it goes back to a skill gained though reading—imagination. Think of some of the great scientific discoveries from America’s past and they have their genesis in imagination. Imagine if man could travel to the moon. People did and made it happen. Students do not have to imagine anything if the media just gives it to them. That is a travesty in our society, not in our schools. If more parents would just stop and read to their children, or find ways to incorporate math or science into their child’s life, then the educational gaps would start to disappear. Any good teacher could tell you that, if people would listen to them instead of the corporate donors and their puppet politicians.
Finally, the lack of motivation in our students is lamentable as compared with the rest of the world. Yes, they are motivated by not passing a class—sometimes, if their parents get on their cases. One cause for motivation stems from the lack of support educators and education in general receive from the public, including parents. If students do not see education as valued, then they are not motivated to do the work. Lack of motivation also stems from students not being able to see why all of what they are learning is relevant to them and their goals. I can attest to this as an English teacher. It is hard to convince a student that Shakespeare matters. Yet it does as his plays teach us human nature and psychology. It is up to the teacher to show it. Good teachers find the hooks needed to reel in the student. Do they succeed with every student and every time? No. However, teachers try repeatedly until something clicks. The vast majority of teachers never give up on their students even if the students give up on them. It emotionally hurts teachers when students fail. Teachers take it personally when their students do not grasp a concept when they have tried everything they could to help them to do so.

What the so-called reformers are calling educational reform is the application of business principles to education. This results in a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Many of the ‘reforms’ they call for have teachers reading scripted lessons to students some of which even have maps that prompt them to say certain things as responses to student questions. It is like having a robot teaching classes. Good teachers know that all students are different and they learn in different ways. This is why the vast majority of teachers practice differentiated learning with their students. One form of this is through the use of multiple intelligence theories with students. Multiple intelligence theory basically states there are different ways students learn and if the teacher locates the areas where a student is strongest and gears learning toward using those areas, then the student will learn better. For example, one assignment I would give my students was to read a novel each month. They were then to present the novel to the class in whatever form best suited their abilities. This resulted in the traditional book reports from some; however, it also resulted in student created comic books, artistic works, musical compositions, plays adapted from the novels, videos, collages, and a number of other projects that proved to me that the student read and understood the text. The point is that the student read the novel, but presented their understanding of the concepts, themes, and overall idea the author had in mind through a manner best suited to their way of learning. It took me a longer time to grade them, but the students accomplished my goal, which was to learn. Any parent who has more than one child can tell you their children are different and do things differently, even the same task. The problem is that these so-called reformers do not see this and would rather throw a test where students bubble in an answer as being the solution to the problem.

I do wish to address one thing that always seems to be touted by these so-called reformers before I end this piece. That is the myth that teacher unions protect those in education who cannot teach. While this happens, it is usually not the fault of the union, but the school administration. School administrators are human. Many times, they are become friends with teachers or the teachers do not rock the boat for them, and yet the teachers cannot teach. The administrators protect these teachers to keep things easy for them and reward them with high ratings. I knew Social Studies teachers who relied on showing videos the entire year rather than teach their subject area. These teachers kept getting good ratings regardless of the evaluation system being used. The teachers who took a risk did not always fare very well, especially under evaluation systems that looked for a standard set of skills rather than if the students actually learned anything. I had this happen to me as I presented a lesson where the students were engaged and learned for a formal evaluation one time. I received a low to middle rating in part because the lesson carried over to the next day when the evaluation would not be held. However, a few months later, when the students were taking their final exam, I was again evaluated and received a high rating because the students were demonstrating their skills because they were being tested on a paper test. The first one was active engagement, but it did not fit into the specified period allowed by the evaluation instrument. The second was just students sitting there taking a test. Not something one could really call active engagement with material.

Teachers unions do not want teachers who cannot teach. It is that simple. Many teaching contracts are written with plans in place for teachers who are not performing well to be placed on developmental plans to improve their teaching skills. However, it is up to the administrators to place the teachers on them. If a teacher is placed on an improvement plan, they are expected to improve whatever skills they are lacking within a set amount of time or face further disciplinary measures including being reassigned to an area where they could meet with more success and learn the skills they lack or termination. No professional organization wants people who are not professionals within it as that only make the organization look bad. Unfortunately, the unions do not do a good job of bringing this to light in the media.

A new school year is quickly approaching. Rather than cower in the shadows, teachers need to stand up and speak up for public education. Teachers need to unite and be vocal when politicians and special interests groups try to lament the problems with public education, especially when those problems are societal rather than within the educational system. The problems within the educational system are societal more than with teachers or teacher unions. Are teachers getting more vocal? Yes. There are organizations beyond the unions, such as Badass Teachers Association, who are fighting back with words and protests to those who wish to change the system who have never really been in the system to begin with. Teachers are professionals, let them lead the reforms needed and have the support from the public and politicians and they will reform our educational system and save the future of our country.

Standardized testing is NOT the answer

I have been thinking a great deal about education in our country lately. Much of this comes from my own experience teaching at both the middle school and high school levels, although even my experience teaching at the community college level lends itself to some of this as it is there that the results of the K-12 education comes to light. Simply put, high-stakes, standardized testing is not the answer to the problems facing education. I am not saying that standardized testing is not a valuable tool, just that it is being used in the inappropriate manner. It was never meant to be used to prevent students from graduating, nor was it meant to be used to evaluate the ability of the teacher to do their job. It was meant to be used with student grades from their classes to help teachers plan and meet the academic needs of their students for the coming year. For example, a second grade student would take a standardized test in the Spring of their second grade year. When the results arrived, their current teacher would evaluate it in conjunction with the grades the student was earning in the class to determine if the student was on track with the curriculum. That information would then be sent to the teacher the student would have for their third grade year for their use in planning the curriculum for the following year.

All of this sounds pretty logical, right?

However, certain groups started thinking that standardized tests measured the overall student achievement aside from grades. Those groups then convinced politicians that standardized tests could be used instead of teacher assessments and observations to determine if students were learning. This somehow snowballed into believing that all students could learn at the same level if certain pedagogical methods were used. What this fails to take into account is that students are not the same, that is to say that they are not clones of the ideal student. Like every other human being, our students are individuals and their differences in genetics, socioeconomic backgrounds, nutrition, and meeting of other basic needs will affect their ability and motivation to learn. While the threat of being retained in a grade if they fail to pass a standardized test may work to motivate some students to learn, it will not work for all students. Based on my observations in the classroom, many students who have failed a number of times on standardized tests simply give up trying to pass them at all. When faced with the threat of not graduating, they simply stop caring and are either aged out of the educational system or quit on their own. This is a travesty in our educational system. No student is incapable of learning. They just need the right approach to learning in order to learn.

The right approach to learning is complicated to explain. In essence, it is that each student needs to be taught in a way that fits their way of learning the material. In addition to this, students need to be challenged in their learning without being intimidated by what they are learning. An example of this comes from my own experience in the classroom. I want to preface this with the caveat that it is not intended to work in every classroom because every class, even of matched ability students, does not function the same. I even needed to change the approach of what was taught to fit the needs of the class as a whole as well as each student as an individual.

I taught Advanced Placement (AP) English Language and Composition as well as an Exceptional Student Education (ESE) English III class. What I did, though, was teach the same material to both classes. I can hear the gasps from the pedagogical gurus already. How dare I take college-level work and try to teach it to “special education” students? I counter with how dare I not challenge all of my students?!? What I did was present the material to the ESE class in such a way that never told them they were learning at the college-level. More simply put, I did not tell them they were working on material that was meant for those students who were supposedly smarter than they were. I also gave them the safety net of more time to grasp the material and spent more time, in some cases, explaining the material to them more than I did with the students in the AP class. A funny thing happened, the ESE students mastered the material faster than the AP students. In some cases, the ESE students exceeded the AP students in effort and mastery of the material. It was only at the end of the year that I told the ESE students that they learned the same thing that was taught in the AP class. The look of pride on their faces, some of whom had not been proud of what they accomplished in school for years, was priceless. For many of these students, it served as their motivation to work through their senior year and graduate. Many of them also went off to college after graduation, a feat that they never thought was possible when they started their junior year with me.

Now, I will admit there was another component that these students and I had that some teachers either refuse to do or do not have the ability to master. We had a rapport with one another. I set certain ground rules with them when the year started and they followed them. I shared my thoughts and feelings with them and they with me. If a student was having a bad day, they agreed to talk about it rather than act out in my class. If they acted out, we talked about it after class. I did not, or at least tried not, to take on the role of dictator in the classroom, but rather a mentor and teacher for my students. Did I connect with all of them? No. There will always be personality conflicts between people and there were just some students who did not care or wanted to do what they thought was cool rather than learn. They were not ready to learn for a myriad of reasons and were unwilling to confront those reasons in order to prepare themselves for learning.

This leads to a related key in the education of our students, especially at the middle and high school levels. They need to learn not just the material, but about who they are in this world. Students at these levels are trying to find out who they are outside of being their parent’s child. Teachers need to help them with that as well as teach them the subject material. If you can connect the two, then so much the better. Many of our students have parents who either over-direct their lives, try to be their child’s best friend, or are absent from their lives. As teachers, we have the ability to be the authority figure they need, but also the mentor they need to navigate life. It is an awesome responsibility for teachers and some just cannot meet it.

I am not saying we need to be parents to our students, but mentors. There is a difference. We cannot push our personal, moral, or political agendas on them. What we can do is give them the freedom to express their opinions in a safe environment and help them think through why they have those opinions while exposing them to opinions opposite theirs and helping them to understand and respect why others believe differently than they.

But more about that later, I have written enough for today. Peace to all.