Common Core, Common Failure?

I recently attended a community meeting intended to inform folks about the “Common Core State Standards” that are driving public education today. I was an audience member, not a presenter. I went in order to learn what folks are saying and how they are organizing in opposition to the “Common Core.” As an audience member, I made a couple of comments about how the Common Core is harmful. Afterwards, a local school superintendent asked me why it is that Common Core curriculum modules (lessons) are different from any published textbook that contains lessons for teachers to use.

Lets use cooking as an analogy. If your mom had a favorite apple pie recipe, and you wanted to learn to bake an apple pie, chances are, you would ask your mom to teach you the family pie recipe. Then, whenever you wanted to bake an apple pie, you’d make that recipe. That would be great, if you were not going to be a chef.

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But suppose you wanted to be a chef. You would go to culinary school and learn about apple-pie-making. You would learn what the various possible ingredients do to the flavor of apple pies. You would sample many great apple pie recipes that varied in terms of how those basic ingredients were used in differing proportions. You would expect that your instructor had had experience, including successes and failures, in his own efforts to make a great apple pie recipe. You would expect that you would learn from your instructor’s experiences, and you would learn to avoid the mistakes he had made along the way. You would probably be expected to create your own apple pie recipe in order to show that you had learned the basics of apple-pie-making.

As you entered into your career as a chef, you would probably hope for a position that gave you the opportunity to continue to develop your craft. You would experiment with improving your apple pies, and you would observe your restaurant patrons’ reactions to your attempts. Building on your instructors’ experience, you would enter upon a lifetime of creativity and the satisfaction of giving your customers your best.

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Compare that to what would happen if there were one and only one apple pie recipe that was approved for use in every restaurant throughout the land. Your experience in culinary school would be much more brief, shallow, and simple. You would learn to make that one approved recipe. When you applied for a job as a chef, you would bake that one recipe. Your performance in your career would be evaluated by your ability to produce that one recipe. Your customers, your boss, and you would learn to distinguish subtle variations in quality in the pies produced by that one recipe, and your annual evaluations would reflect your ability to produce those subtle variations in quality. The people who didn’t really care for that apple pie recipe would either learn to like it, or they would stop ordering apple pie.

Of course, the apple pie is just an example. The same would be true of every dish you learned to prepare.

This is, in fact, what is happening to education in New York. At this point the New York State Education Department is not actually requiring schools to use the modules (lessons) that they have put on the state website for the Common Core. But they have created a system whereby every New York State teacher is formally evaluated every year by a formula that must include student test scores. The tests are “aligned” with those lessons. Teachers in some large school districts are essentially required, by their school district, to use those pre-approved lessons. Teachers in other districts are told that they are not required to use them, but there is a strong suggestion that it would be wise for them to do so. Other districts have produced their own versions of the approved lessons, and teachers are using those. I know of no cases where schools are encouraging their own teachers to find the best way to teach the Common Core. I know of no teachers who are brave enough to try.

Other states that have adopted the Common Core are taking a somewhat less intrusive approach to their implementation, but it is a matter of degree. The idea behind Common Core is to standardize education throughout the country. There are strong financial incentives from the federal government for states to go along with this.

In answer to that school superintendent’s question, this is the difference between the modules produced to support Common Core and the use of published textbooks to teach a curriculum. When there is one recommended lesson, and every teacher’s evaluation is based on how successful their students are on answering questions derived from that lesson, there is no opportunity for teachers to try to improve upon that one lesson. There is only motivation to try to teach that approved lesson better. I think this is a dangerous and destructive direction for public education.

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