Is Common Core Cutting-Edge Education or Just Use of a Dull Blade?
Ohanian Comment: Hoorah! And I was shouting this even before I saw I'm quoted. I say Hoorah! for a community college instructor who, recognizing "the problem," isn't calling for more 'reading skills' in high school. I taught community college briefly--with students for whom 'intellectual pursuit' was not a primary focus; in short, they were anxious to avoid the Vietnam War draft. I also taught freshman rhetoric in a technological university with 'rigorous' entry requirements. When I asked the fledgling engineers to write a couple of paragraphs about their favorite book, most could not think beyond Dr. Seuss. They'd been successful students in their elementary and high school careers but those years had not embedded the love of a single book. I regarded this as a tragedy. Now, the Common Core is guaranteed to make this situation worse.
I repeat: Hoorah! for John Young.
By John Young
Talk to Melissa Colsman and you know she's a teacher, even before she tells you she once taught math. The executive director of the Colorado Department of Education's Teaching and Learning Unit makes a compelling case for what public schools need.
But discourse is one thing. Execution is another — execution, as in blindfolds and firing squads, nooses and scaffolds. That's where "school accountability" invariably leads despite the loftiest of sentiments.
In physics we have action, reaction. In school reform we have action, overreaction.
Hearing Colsman explain what's next for Colorado schools would have just about anyone at the buffet line saying, "I'll have that." So, too, with the entreaties of players like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Governors Association, developers and promoters of the new standards the state is implementing.
Colsman says what's afoot is about "big ideas" rather than the repetitious, test-driven core concerns which too often have bled schooling of its vitality under "accountability." It sounds noble. Sounds inviting. But again, it's all in the execution — which history shows can involve guillotines.
Colorado is embarking on something new in education. Those in the trenches will say that's nothing new, as "new" is always where education is heading, even if in circles.
Actually, in this case it's two new things: (1) implementation of the Common Core, standards for language arts and math promoted by the U.S. Department of Education in its Race to the Top initiative; (2) a new assessment system under the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).
As with the Common Core, the new assessments are promoted as gauging higher-order thinking skills. They are computer-based, meaning no more bubbling in of answers on sheets and sheets of paper.
Sounds good on paper. Back to that execution, however.
Since the state's new system of teacher evaluation considers student achievement based on state testing in those evaluations, alignment with the new standards is crucial. Then again, almost all such systems have caused teachers, under pressure from administrators and policymakers, to overadjust, to narrow the curriculum, and to "teach to the test."
Back to the Common Core and its objectives, said to be reflected in the new assessments:
"Getting state standards right at each grade level is really important," said Colsman, "because we want to make sure that all kids have choices when they leave high school regarding post-secondary and workforce readiness."
The quest for said readiness is driven by the fact that where I teach, Front Range Community College, 33 percent of incoming students in 2011 needed to pass a developmental (remedial) writing class to take transferrable-credit English composition. Forty-eight percent needed developmental math, and 22 percent needed developmental reading.
When fully implemented, say state officials, the PARCC system can better identify deficits in these core areas before students arrive on college campuses. By meeting a set threshold at the high school level, they can receive the "college-ready" stamp, and won't have to take the Acuplacer exams by which incoming collegians sometimes end up in developmental classes.
That would be a most important development. But what about those students not college-bound? Colsman said employers point to the need for a threshold of core basic skills. And so the emphases and assessments built around the Common Core, she said, will be useful gauges either of readiness for college or the modern workforce.
This discussion reflects a key point of contention about the Common Core. Education isn't just about plugging individuals into the workforce. It's about exciting them about the possibilities of the mind. Literature, fine arts and any number of scholastic pursuits don't factor into most people's career choices. They are vital nonetheless.
Susan Ohanian, educator, author and vehement Common Core critic, asserts that the standards are far too focused on arbitrarily defined utilitarian interests. "Instead of fostering education for the individual need and the common good," she writes, the Common Core "puts children on a treadmill to becoming scared, obedient workers for the global economy."
The Common Core approach to literacy, particularly in high school and middle school, gives increased emphasis to nonfiction reading as it applies to workforce or day-to-day needs. Colsman says nothing is being taken away from other literary pursuits in Colorado's initiative: "It's actually adding to our expectations of our secondary students."
More reading? As with "more algebra" under state standards: to what end? These are the most important questions to ask.
Americans' experience with school reform shows that whatever the state emphasizes can and will result in two things: (1) it will crowd out other interests; (2) it will make some students sick to death of it.
As pertains to reading, one may assume that "more" can only be a good thing. As a college English instructor, I can attest: It's not necessarily so. And a move toward task-based, utilitarian reading that crowds out literature, biography and young fiction is the worst thing Colorado could bequeath to generations to come.
In 1978, Larry Mikulecky of the University of Indiana-Bloomington introduced the term "aliteracy" to describe the condition of being able to read but not wanting to. For any number of reasons, studies show that it describes about half of Americans. Mikulecky warned even then that so-called back-to-basics movements that hammered on reading as a utilitarian skill — rather than one that would inspire and elevate — would result in many people who thought of reading as a chore, and who avoided it out of high school.
That's exactly what I see too often in my own classroom -- the high school graduate so hammered by "school accountability" and state-imposed "emphasis" on reading that instead of curling up with a good book after graduation, he or she will run from it.
Do Colorado schools have room for both utilitarian reading and the kind that thrills and enriches? It's all in the execution. Cautions Colsman: "This is not, 'Let's add more reading.' Let's add the skills that help students do the reading that they need to be successful.'"
Common Core critics recoil at the notion of approaching reading as a skill -- ie., as a job requirement. They insist that reading be seen as fundamentally creative pursuit that makes the mind take off in pursuit of knowledge and stimulation. They are right.
One of the pathologies of "school reform" is the quest to treat education as training, the fashioning of square pegs for the square holes of set out by industry. No question, careers and tangible rewards should always be in the picture. Ultimately, however, true education is a pursuit whose ultimate rewards are intangible and intrinsic, and as far from "testable" as is a smile.
Colorado can promote both kinds of results — utilitarian and intrinsic. However, the track record of school reform, with its reactions and overreactions, shows that too often the latter of these results — the smile — has to give. When that happens, a generation loses.
Longtime newspaperman John Young (email@example.com) teaches at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins.
— John Young
April 21, 2013
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