A few years ago, my wife and I walked into a kindergarten classroom where the teacher and a Japanese mother were teaching the kids to fold origami birds. We were impressed to see the children learning about another culture, concentrating for a sustained period of time, developing fine motor skills, and smiling. We bought a house in that school district. My son started kindergarten and, by a marvelous coincidence, was assigned to that teacher. We were delighted as our son planted acorns and watched them grow, studied and replicated the paintings of famous artists, and wrote and drew in journals.
In the middle of the school year, my son’s class was selected to pilot a reading program designed to satisfy the Common Core criteria. The teacher started dedicating two hours a day to packaged lesson plans. Rather than giving the students free work choice, in which they build with blocks or paint, the students must sit on the floor while the teacher lectures at them. Rather than tailoring the curriculum to each child, she handed students books from a narrow, predetermined list. Parent volunteers were less welcome in the classroom, and the school district cut funding for kindergarten aides.
The class, in short, shifted from one where teachers, aides, parents, and students worked hard to create a rewarding educational experience to one where the teachers and students used materials designed by a major publishing house.
Many of the aims of the Common Core are admirable. A functioning democracy needs literate citizens. Every young person in our country should be able to read a newspaper, use a computer, do basic math, and so forth. We should be able to evaluate teachers and reward the good ones. The Bush administration (No Child Left Behind) and Obama administration (Race to the Top) have employed language that seems hard to resist.
But we should challenge the drive to uniformity expressed by such programs.
First, we ought to appreciate the reasoning behind America’s historical commitment to local control over school districts. America’s founders were nervous about the dangers inherent to a strong national government. James Madison, in Federalist 10, provided a brilliant argument for why power ought to be divided between branches and layers of government. Sometimes there may be enlightened statesmen or policy makers at the helm. In many cases, however, politicians and bureaucrats will be motivated by self- and group interest. Thus the Constitution ensures that no group can easily assemble great power and, at the same time, that virtually all groups will be able to exercise some power. Public policy will result from endless compromises and negotiations. This framework frustrates efforts to get things done quickly, but it also thwarts efforts by the majority in one policy arena to oppress the minority.
With regard to education, a strong federal policy can help in some instances. But a powerful faction committed to the Common Core can also do mischief. A theme in the Common Core literature is a commitment to the “same goals for all students.” Is this a worthy objective? All democratic citizens should have certain minimal skills. But the Common Core runs from kindergarten to twelfth grade, thus teaching more than simple reading or math. Who decides what those same goals should be? Academics from the East Coast? Educators from the Midwest or South? Businessmen or women with no experience teaching? Liberals? Conservatives? Virtually every constituency will be objectionable to someone else in America.
Reasonable people disagree on the goals of education. Rather than try to enforce one pedagogical orthodoxy, we ought to appreciate Madison’s insight that America is big enough for many types of social experiment.
A second reason to oppose the Common Core is more practical. According to a website extolling the initiative, “consistent standards will provide appropriate benchmarks for all students, regardless of where they live.” The Common Core claims to provide appropriate benchmarks to all students everywhere. Is this in fact the case?
Not for many parents in our school district who are angry that an inspired kindergarten curriculum has been replaced with a banal one.
Our son started kindergarten loving to read and talking with the teacher. He grew to dread the hours he spends listening to prepackaged materials and taking standardized tests. Many of the parents at our elementary school worry that a working system has been broken. Surely there is a way to help underperforming schools raise their standards without us lowering ours.
Is our school an exception? I don’t think so. One reason is provided by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. According to Tocqueville, America’s political culture thrives when people participate on every level of government and society. By doing things for ourselves—such as teachers organizing the curriculum or parents assisting with lesson plans—we become invested and feel satisfaction in the educational and political process. The Common Core makes it easier for schools to use scripted curricula, thereby draining initiative out of the classroom.
Our son used to skip on his way up the entrance to school. This habit stopped shortly after he started the program designed to satisfy the Common Core criteria. We, like many parents around the country, have begun to realize that the rhetoric of the Common Core does not match our children’s experience of it—and cannot.
The Common Core Curriculum and Scripted Lesson Plans
My wife and I attended a coffee klatch to discuss the Common Core with our state senator. A teacher stood up and said, with a tremble in her voice and a tear in her eye,
If parents knew what the Common Core is doing to the classroom, there would be a revolt.
What is happening to the classroom as a result of the Common Core? If you would like an answer to this question, spend some time with the ELA materials on the New York State Education Department (NYSED) website.
On the EngageNY homepage, click on the words “Common Core Curriculum & Assessments.” Follow the links until you get to Grade 5 ELA Module 1. Download the 589-page document.
The module is on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This is a fine topic to discuss in school, though the module does confirm worries that the Common Core could be used to promote a political ideology. My critique here is that this module—despite a disclaimer on the website—is a script, and scripts suck the oxygen out of a classroom.
- Minutes 0–10: The teacher reads the first learning target aloud: “I can follow our class norms when I participate in a conversation.” Then, the teacher asks students to provide synonyms of the words follow and participate. Next, the teacher tells a student to read the learning target: “I can define human rights.” For the remainder of the time, students discuss the meaning of the words human and rights in small groups.
- Minutes 11–15: The teacher checks in with students using the Fist to Five protocol. The teacher is told, “Ask students to indicate with their fist if they did not attend to the class norms at all, or five fingers if they attended to all class norms consistently. They can choose to show one to four fingers to indicate that their attention to norms was somewhere in between.”
- Minutes 16–20: The teacher distributes copies of the UDHR to each student and says, “This is a really cool primary source called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, sometimes called the UDHR. We will learn more about this document in the next few days. Look it over. What do you notice about the way this document is structured or laid out on this page?” Furthermore, the teacher is instructed, “Do NOT explain the content of the text; simply give students a moment to get oriented and notice how the document is structured.”
The script continues with this kind of detail for the rest of the year in a sequence of lessons, units, modules, and assessments. Teachers are not allowed to use their own methods to introduce the material, manage the classroom, or share their own wisdom. Students are not encouraged to connect the material to their own lives, events in the world, or things that may interest them. The script tell the teachers and students, at all times, what to say and do.
The Common Core ELA curriculum does not treat teachers or students with dignity.
Lest you think that teachers can afford to ignore the modules, consider this fact. The Race to the Top program requires states to use value-added modeling in teacher evaluations. In other words, states rank teachers and school districts on how students do on the Common Core tests (the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers [PARCC] and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium [SBAC]). That is why many school districts in New York make teachers use these modules designed to prepare students for these tests. It is also why school districts around the country—including in Connecticut, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Arizona—are using these modules.
The Common Core is creating a national ELA curriculum, one that dedicates more time to subjects like learning targets and the Fist to Five protocol than to classical literature or creative writing. The teacher at the coffee klatch was right. People are revolting against the Common Core as they learn what it does to the classroom.