Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Common Core and the Teacher

Jenifer Fox, author of the book Your Child's Strengths, talks about the benefits of asking a child questions about who they are and what they love by digging more deeply with each question. To narrow in on the answer, an adult will ask "Why?" several times in a row, perhaps in different ways, prompting the child to think more deeply with each repetition. Fox is good at it; she gave many examples of conversations she has had, and how it enabled a child to figure stuff out that maybe he/she had not known before. I tried it with my daughter with no success at all; there is a skill to be learned, there.

I was on the receiving end of this kind of questioning recently, on Facebook. In a conversation about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I was asked four or five times, why my vision of education cannot happen under the Common Core. Each time I was asked, I dug a little deeper. As a result, a fact about the modern education reform movement became clearer in my head. I'd call it an epiphany, except that it was something I'd known all along. I just understood the impact more clearly; the evolution of an idea that has taken hold of the body politic:

The problems of public education lie in the teachers.

No, of course I don't believe that; but I do believe more than ever that the discrediting of public education has begun with the discrediting of teachers, and its success rests on this strategy.

Let's take on the role of conspiracy-theorist for a minute. Let's say that George W. Bush pushed through NCLB with the nefarious intent of producing evidence that the public school system is failing. He may not have had that exact intent; but the idea that testing and the subsequent punishment for not producing the right data was going to improve teaching and learning is so wrongheaded that you have to figure he didn't go too far out of his way to consult people who knew what would happen. Stating that his interests was that of of making all schools of equal quality, NCLB was made law.

Well, anyone could have predicted what happened, and many did. Public education took a dive. Narrowing the curriculum down to only that which is measurable on tests, children were left behind in droves. People demanded to know why, and the answer came: teachers.

Bad teachers. Lazy teachers. Teachers who were mailing it in. Teachers who were mean and uncaring. Teachers who were in it for the vacations and the retirement. Teachers who refused to change their dinosaur ways.

Unions. Unions that made teachers powerful, unions who were self-interested and self-perpetuating.

The only way forward was to institute a better system of standards that dictated what teachers did, and how,  when, and why. We needed to make public education teacher-proof. And new tests would catch teachers who weren't doing it right. State laws, plus Race to the Top requirements, would take those scores and put them where they would do the most good: in teachers' evaluations.

In the course of the conversation, I started thinking about how I learned grammar. My English teacher knew what to teach and how to teach it. How did she know? Because she was a professional; she studied this stuff! She did it, year after year, learning from her experiences, thinking, processing, talking to other teachers.  There is also the collective knowledge of all the teachers who may have spent their lives in the classroom.There is nothing in the Common Core that good teachers don't already know from their own education and experience; and there is a negative impact felt when you dictate what a teacher does. Teachers see student faces; the Common Core does not.

To quote myself from the original conversation: "Kids can learn nouns while working through their own projects and work. You maintain that this can happen with the Common Core and you are probably right; but who needs the Common Core to tell us how to write with correct English?  The important thing is for kids to work on stuff they find meaningful; and that the importance of the work to the kids is what dictates progress, content -- and quality. Reliance on an outside measure isn't what is making that process happen. It's the relationship between teacher and student; the level of enthusiasm from the student for what he/she is doing, and the dedication of the teacher to helping the student fulfill a vision, that is the important part."

What I learned by digging deeply into my beliefs about the Common Core is that those standards are, in effect, replacing a critical human element of the education process.

To use a somewhat indelicate analogy...when I was in labor the first time, I had a terrible labor nurse who was watching the contraction monitor instead of me, and when a contraction would come, I would be bearing down and my husband helping and after a minute she would say, "Ready set go push!" Her face was in the machine instead of on me, so her information was late and unhelpful.

If you have a Common Core as a guide, that means you're looking at that instead of the child. And I think that makes a big difference. For public schools to do their best to prepare students for the 21st century, they have to do better than deliver standards. Free teachers to turn away from the machinery of imposed standards; ask them to help students find their interests, goals and passions, and arrange their education around the most meaningful learning possible; meaningful, that is, to students.

So why was it so important to to set these events in motion? The discrediting of the teacher has played a very big role in the advancing the corporate takeover of education. So many opportunities open up!  When you have standards, you can have standards-aligned curriculum! Curriculum guides! CCSS-aligned textbooks! CCSS consultants!

Testing! New tests, new technology needed for tests! Data management systems! Data analysis consulting firms!

And all of the above is charged to the public dollar.

There you have it. Game, set, match. Teachers lose. And when teachers lose, children lose.

Let’s bring the power of the relationship back to education; bring it back and make it better than ever. Use all the means in our power to connect students to their world by the promotion of teaching. It can be a wholly new profession; it may be very different from what we have experienced in the past. Teachers may take on new roles: mentor, guide, consultant, advisor, connector, in addition to plain old explainer. They may even learn Jenifer Fox’s skill of focused questioning in helping kids figure themselves out.

But it is, has been, and will continue to be, a most honorable profession.

That is, if we all take our eyes off the monitor and turn it back to children.


  1. This is dead on. I haven't been a teacher for years. That was taken from me when they put me in a box and only wanted be to teach a test. Every year I see the quality of my high school students going down the tube. Yes they can take an test and bubble in the correct answer (sometimes) but they can't write or read cursive writing, They do not take any pride in the work they just want to get something down on paper and move on. There are very few opportunities for teachers to implement those fun lessons that sometimes taught not only concepts but the students learned about themselves and their friends. We weighted down wit paper work so we have less time to get to know our students and their needs. Before long they will be able to program devices that can replace teachers and it will be better than ever because they can't think. They will teach the test showing no emotions or care for the students but an amazing understanding of a test.

  2. Thanks for your comment! It means a lot to me when a teacher confirms my analysis.

  3. We've spent a lot of time convincing society that teachers are lazy, selfish individuals who are only in it for summer vacation. The truth is the majority of our teachers care deeply for children, and put their heart and soul into a job that does respect them as professionals. We care for your children regardless, because we cannot do anything less.

    If you want to change your local schools (which is really the only place that real change happens) support your local teachers. Appreciate what they do during their paid-- and non-paid-- hours. Thank them for caring for your children. Support them when they need it. Most importantly, let them feel that the work they do is important to your community; when that happens, magic will follow. Trust me.

  4. Rachel, I believe the above needs to be done...but we also need to roll back those requirements that are preventing teachers from teaching -- like the CCSS and high-stakes testing.