Post 16: The Core Curriculum

Wednesday, March, 13, 13 § 4 Comments

A couple of weeks ago, Santa Fe education guru (and my colleague at the Academy for the Love of Learning), Patty Lee shared this surprising blog post from Diane Ravitch.

Ravitch, in case you don’t know, is a high-profile education historian, one of those national policy figures to whom the New York Times and CNN turn when they want an opinion. When she was Assistant Secretary in the US Department of Education in the 1980’s, she advocated heavily for a standardized national curriculum.

But in this blog post, she shoots the idea down.

She writes passionately against the adoption of the national “Common Core Curriculum,” a list of the skills and facts, in reading and math, that US kids should master during each grade, from Kindergarten to 12th. So we know what we’re talking about, here’s a few of the items from this list, pertinent to the 10th grade English classes I used to teach. As you read, I encourage you to “delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in the text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; and recognize when irrelevant evidence is introduced.” (According the Core Curriculum, you’ve known how to do that since 8th grade):

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7 Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g., Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus).
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.9 Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).

They’re not that bad, actually, if you can make it through the jargon. I can even see how I’d teach translate these two standards into classroom action: one day I’d show Picasso’s Guernica and a Rodin sculpture, and lead a lively class discussion on what’s there and what’s missing. Then we could read The Sound and the Fury, and I’d show them the line from MacBeth that gave Faulkner his title. Have the kids write a little essay showing what they learned and ELA 9-10.7 and ELA 9-10.9 are done. So what’s the problem?

According to Ravitch, the problem is that the standards are untested, were not developed by teachers (but by “experts” funded by corporations), have been unfairly foisted on states, and expect such a sudden leap in what kids do and know, they’ll generate unfairly high rates of failure. Her arguments are consistent with those of her 2012 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, in which she blasts what she calls the “corporate reform agenda,” and its heavy focus on test results to assess how well kids learn and how well teachers teach. (See my review, on our Literature and Film page of this blog.)

Though Ravitch’s arguments are sound, and I believe true, she stops short of pointing out the real problem with this type of standardized curriculum. No, it’s not that the experts are fascist adults, deciding what kids should learn. Contrary to what they think over at the “do-what-you-like” Sudbury school in Massachusetts, I believe adults have an obligation to give children guidance, to expose them to skills and knowledge and perspectives that will let them discover their talents and participate in a larger culture. The problem with the national curriculum is that it’s completely absurd.

To think that every child in the US will learn the same things at the same age is a fantasy, a theory that could only be hatched by people who’ve no experience with real teaching, no idea how complex and unpredictable and wonderful a process learning really can be.

Here’s what it’ll look like, when I deliver my Core Curriculum class: I come in with my lesson plans, my Guernica Powerpoint and my interactive group-based activity, my brilliant ten minute lecture. The kids come in with their curiosity, their hunger (for learning and for food), their family problems, their beliefs about Picasso, their beliefs about war and horses and Spain, their hatred or love or disinterest toward school, toward me, toward the desk in which they must sit. The bell rings. I begin teaching. Maybe 80% of them listen, on a good day. And of that 80%, maybe I happen to explain the idea and structure the activity in a way that appropriately challenges all those currently held beliefs–on a good day, again, maybe I hit 80% of them. Under the best of conditions, then, I’ve got 60% of them learning ELA 9-10.7–the same percent, by the way, that graduates from high school in Santa Fe.

Proponents of the Common Core will say that’s an instructional problem, not a content problem. Which is how you end up with districts adopting scripted curricula–actual words and sentences–that teachers must deliver to their students, to ensure that the standards are being taught. Another terrible idea: if 80% of my students pay attention to a brilliant lecture on Guernica, I’ll be lucky to get 20% to listen to a scripted speech from some textbook. I doubt I’d be able to pay much attention myself. (See here for one Washington DC teacher’s critique of the way the Core Curriculum would have him teach the Gettysburg address.)

The bottom line is the Core Curriculum is a bad idea because it’s a pipe dream. You can’t standardize what kids learn and what teachers teach because real teaching and learning–the stuff that happens in real classrooms, with real people, is by its nature unpredictable. It takes both teacher and learner in directions they did not foresee when the learning began. It begins with the teacher’s individual passion and experience and knowledge, and then sparks something different in each student. Real teaching and learning is a hodge-podge endeavor, more like a summer swimming pool than an assembly line. Often the most teachable moments happen sheerly by luck, and often the students don’t realize what they’ve learned until long after the tests have been taken, the last bells rung.

This isn’t to say parents and policymakers shouldn’t have any say what gets taught. But at the end of the day, it’s the teachers who decide what gets taught, and it’s the students who decide what gets learned, and often, both happen on a subconscious level. Yes, teachers should have curricula for their classes, schools and districts should invite public opinion on what is taught, should bring teachers together so they know what’s going on in the classrooms around them. They can even talk about the Core Curriculum, as a guide.

But the federal government, and the state governments who are chasing its grant money, are going to be disappointed–again–by the results of the Core Curriculum because it fails to recognize–again–that the only path to more effective schools lies through the teachers. If you want good, dynamic classrooms where kids will be turned on as learners and develop a set of ethics towards others and the world (the only core curriculum we really need, in the end), you’ve got to foster good, dynamic teachers with a set of ethics toward others and the world. Which is not that complicated, really. Slow, yes. Costly, maybe. But Finland pulled it off, and great schools in the US are pulling it off. They’re empowering and supporting their teachers, giving them time to meet and plan and reflect. They’re not giving them lists and scripts.

Those government experts can still help out. We need people to take notes when our teachers meet, present them research on child development and brain science, help mark papers, maybe sub now and then, so teachers can observe each other’s classes. The government experts can be trained to help ensure that our children and teachers are being treated with respect, that our schools are free of racism, sexism, homophobia and other expressions of violence that make learning impossible and life miserable for young citizens.

But we don’t need experts writing up dream lists of what kids should learn, when. Maybe in a few generations, when our schools are a bit more on track, when students and teachers aren’t dropping out by the minute, we can start thinking about comparing what they’re teaching over in Vermont to what we’re teaching in New Mexico. For now, let’s stay focused on something we might be able to achieve: inspiring and supporting real teaching and learning in our schools.

-Seth Biderman | March 13, 2013

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§ 4 Responses to Post 16: The Core Curriculum

  • Ellen Biderman says:

    Seth,
    I believe that education is a collaborative process between the teacher, student and family. I think we agree on that. However, I do see some merit in all students knowing a block of knowledge that defines our culture (and others). This allows for common understandings and allows for the beginning of new discussions and ideas. Exposing children to the great works of art and literature can only be positive; it is how it is done that can be problematic. The challenge as I see it is that teachers are not being allowed to be collaborators in the learning process not only with students but also with the politicians that are determining curriculum. In addition schools of education are also not collaborating with teachers on “best practices.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Mom. Your point about leaving teachers out of the process of developing the standards is well-taken, but I’d counter that if they were to get too involved in the process, many teachers would recognize the futility of grade-level standards, and if truly empowered, would end up pushing for the development of school-based curricula that worked best for each particular group of staff and students. (This is what has happened in Finland, where teachers develop their own curricula and assessment).

      The issue here, and the reason I believe the Core Curriculum will not work, is that at heart, we, as a nation, do not trust our teachers.

      We do not believe that, left to their own resources, our teachers will expose kids in an effective way to those great works of art and literature, those basic math skills.

      The nation has reason not to trust teachers–since the 1983 Nation at Risk report, and maybe before, we’ve been fed nothing but bad news about our schools, and for the last ten years the “spin” has been all about how our teachers are not doing their jobs. Is this true? Is bad teaching really the reason why our schools are failing?

      I don’t think so. I think there is plenty of bad teaching going on in this country–I lived it as a student, and I certainly delivered my share of it as a teacher–but I would venture that in the great majority of cases, the poor quality of the instruction is completely avoidable, and given different conditions–including more autonomy, but also smaller classes, longer blocks, less students–bad teaching could be transformed into good.

      What’s not going to help is giving teacher longer lists of what they must do, and not changing any of the structures that are hindering the way they teach. You can give a teacher the best lesson in the world, but if you also give her 120 kids a day, and constant ringing bells, and a fragmented daily schedule that does not connect with the way people learn, you’re not going to see much of a change.

      To be clear, since you’re my mother, but also since you’re a world class educator: I don’t mean to imply that you personally don’t trust teachers. I know you do. I also know you long deeply for a school system that is just, that offers equal opportunities to all students, and takes us close to the dreams your generation dared to dream. But I don’t see how a core curriculum brings us closer to that dream. At best, it will be a distraction–at worst, a step back.

      LIke you, I don’t want to give up on the idea that every child will at least have some understanding of the Bill of Rights, or a smattering of geometry. But we must keep in mind that there is a dedicated group of citizens in this country who have chosen to devote their professional lives to the education of our children. We don’t need to tell them what to do. We have to support them so that they have the conditions and the education to know what to do themselves.

  • Dipti says:

    Such a helpful article to understand the practical subtleties that only a teacher who loves learning would understand!

    What is the update on the CC policy? Is it already passed? For how long? Has the changes to have teachers memorize lines already happened? (I could do a quick google search too, but I’d learn more you.) Thanks.

    • Hi Dipti,

      The Core Curriculum is actually voluntary–states can decide whether they want to use it or not. If a state decides not to use it, it is no longer eligible to receive any of the federal funding from Obama’s education reform plan, which is called–tellingly–“Race to the Top,” and is worth about 4 billion dollars. I’m going to look to see which are the two or three states that have not opted in, and try to find out why.

      In the case of New Mexico, we have opted in. Like most states, we already had a list of standards teachers were supposed to cover in each subject by each year. Ten years ago, I would develop the curriculum for my 10th grade class based on what I wanted to teach them, what my personal passions were and also what I believed, from my teacher training and conversations with teachers and kids themselves, kids at that age should know. I’d also obviously work with the other teachers in the English department, to get a sense of what each group of kids had covered the year before.

      About five or six years ago, my school switched to a standards-based grading system, and you could no longer give a student an A on a paper or project, but you had to assess his or skill in a certain area, like “uses punctuation,” or “identifies themes in fiction.” This change influenced my teaching quite a bit, as I had to be clear about what sort of skill development I was looking for in each graded assignment. I think this was a good switch, if you’re going to grade kids with numbers and letters (a questionable thing to do to a child, but a reality). In writing, particularly,a kid who wrote a moving essay from the heart could score high on “develops ideas” and “writes with unique voice” and be encouraged and recognized as a learner and human being, even if I had to mark him lower on standards dealing with grammar and word choice.

      This type of standards-based grading and testing is now the norm in schools everywhere, so I imagine what is happening in New Mexico, for example, where the Core Curriculum has started being phased in, and will replace the current NM standards by 2015, is that teachers will discover different standards they have to hit in their electronic gradebooks, and the standardized tests that are given each year will reflect these new standards as well. The major difference will be that test score junkies, which most politicians and media outlets are, will soon be releasing definitive lists showing that New Mexico’s kids are the among the dumbest in the nation, since they were supposedly learning and testing on the exact same material as Massachusetts kids. The question then, will be, why? And what should be done to fix this gap?

      One “fix” is the scripted curriculum approach, which I do not believe is being used in New Mexico, at least not yet. I’m not sure. I do believe that it might be a district by district decision whether to require scripted curricula. In Santa Fe, for example, the Superintendent has classified each school (based on its test scores) into one of three types, using words that are euphemisms for bad, fair and good. After a few years of core curriculum failure in a “bad” school, he could decide to move in with a scripted curricula for those schools. I’m not sure what’s happening in other states.

      A side note: A few teachers in New Mexico with whom I’ve spoken don’t particularly mind the new standards. Some like them, say they’re better than the old state standards. My bias, as I explain in my comment above, is towards promoting teaching that is not standardized, teaching that is ecclectic, artistic, and dependent on the personality and passions of each teacher in each school. This requires a deep faith in the people who are our teachers, but also a new way of structuring schools, so that teachers may flourish as learners, and share that flourishing with their students.

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