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

Post 11: The Third Way

Thursday, November, 22, 12 § 2 Comments

Educational historian Diane Ravitch has described how the history of public school reform in the US can be divided into two basic approaches: the accountability approach, and the professionalism approach.

The accountability approach is all about outputs. Results. It’s hot right now, and has been for some time, among policy-makers like Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and philanthropic leaders from the corporate world, like Eli Broad and Bill Gates. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that the best way to improve schools is by setting clear and measurable expectations for student performance, testing whether or not those expectations have been met, and then rewarding, re-training or sacking the adults who are responsible for the successes or failures. « Read the rest of this entry »

Post 8: The Non-Debate: Obama and Romney on Schools

Thursday, October, 4, 12 § 1 Comment

Unclear who won last night’s presidential debate–Romney seemed better on style and presence, Obama on content–but it’s clear who lost: public education.

Yes, it’s good that public education at least made it on stage, which often it does not. But there was little for the candidates to argue over because they seem to have the same philosophical platform when it comes to schools, which we could reduce to three major points: « Read the rest of this entry »

Midweek Post from Chicago: A Striking Teacher’s Perspective

Monday, September, 17, 12 § Leave a comment

Apologies for breaking my own promise to only post once a week. But I imagine some of you have been following the Chicago teacher’s strike, and I think this letter from a teacher, on education historian Diane Ravitch’s website, offers an important perspective.

Click to read A Chicago Teacher: Why I Am Striking.

The teacher’s words make more resonant Ellen Biderman’s comment on our second post, in which she reminded us that change must come slowly. Whatever new forms we envision for our schools, they must be developed with the energy and collboration of teachers. (SB)

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