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Commentary: Common Coredom

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: One goal for all is not likely to be an equitable system. We should push back against the Common Core imposition with teacher professional development, socio-culturally responsive curricula, and project-, performance-, and portfolio-based assessments work at the most local level.

Like many teachers right now, I have a Common Core app on my iPad. Reading through the newly refined learning standards for K-12 students, I am concerned about my IEPs, especially the ELLs who are perhaps also ADD and receive pull-out services, or others whose paras might not be familiar with strand 1.RFS.4, which says that a first grader needs to be able to “read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension” and are only worrying about keeping him from bouncing off the wall when I’m trying to DRA half the class and Tungsten the rest and all the other kids are perfectly silent doing their SSR. I am not at all concerned about my Proficients -- nobody is -- but come next May when MAP rolls around, how will I ever get my Basics and Below Basics where they’ll need to be if I want to avoid getting pic’d? I had a walk-through last week and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t doing any DOK.

Actually, I’m just pretending that’s me so you can hear how it sounds when teachers talk in these DDTs (Data Driven Times). Teachers will laugh or cry. The rest of you will have no clue, but oh well. Pop into your neighborhood public school for a cheat sheet.

The truth is, I do keep the Common Core on my iPad, because one of the many things I do in schools is try to develop the professional aptitude of teachers and teachers need to deal with Common Core. I read last week that many of my fellow Show-Me’s, citizens and state representatives alike, are all riled up about the Standards, which are rolling out next year across the country. They feel our state education officials have not been transparent. They sense that the standards (kind of like background checks for gun-buyers and sort of like universal access to health care) indicate a frightening penetration into the heartland of a creeping Stalinist federal government.

On the other side are the educators worried about Common Core for altogether different reasons. Having an idea of where you’re trying to “get kids” may be fine, these people say, but since all learning emerges out of a highly individual and dynamic interaction between a specific person and her teachers, peers and cultural and social setting, one-goal-for-all may not be an-equitable-system-for-all.

Look at K.RL.2, for example, a Reading Literature standard for Kindergarteners: “With prompting and support, retell familiar stories, including key details.” If you’re a mainstream middle-class kid and your teacher once was too, hey, no problem. You will probably be fine. But empirical research and education theory for the past 30 years have been telling us that the stories people come to know and the ways they re-tell them are culturally shaped.

In a diverse classroom, Maria’s “key detail” is probably not going to be the same as D’Andray’s. What seems like a logical narrative sequence to James may seem boring and rigid to Jade, whose storytelling is more associative, and draws seemingly marginal characters and incidental events into the plot.

Every human being raised among other human beings will be able, at some point, to tell stories. And they do -- in fabulous, crazy, entertaining, interesting ways. Unless they go to school, where the shaping of experience into coherent narrative is often restricted to “from beginning to end, with some details.” Standardizing the qualities of storytelling when a person is 5 years old is what happens when a teacher is told to provide “prompting and support.”

The teacher’s own assumptions, what she “knows” about telling stories, will shape how she prompts and supports, and consequently, how the student comes to feel about her own developing powers and aptitude as a language arts student. The result is a graying and homogenizing of narrative possibility. Many students just clam up.

And let’s not obscure the reality of who’s conforming to whose standards (who’s prompting and supporting whom): Most public school teachers are white and middle class, and most public school students are not.

In creating these standards, the authors of the Common Core write that they are defining the literacy expectations “that must be met for students to be prepared to enter college and workforce training programs ready to succeed.” Period. They decidedly do not say how to achieve these goals and emphasize the freedom that teachers, curriculum developers and states have (by design) to figure all that stuff out on their own at the local level.

Two problems. First, a friend who speaks a non-standard form of English recently retired from her job (at which she was successful) as a school bus driver. Another good friend working successfully in the tech sector speaks a variety of English that is grammatically standard and phonetically non-standard. It is wrong to chain the idea of employment “success” to mastery of standard English.

Would anyone have said that Archie Bunker, holder of “a good solid well-paying manufacturing job,” spoke standard English? All in the Family routinely illuminated the contrast between gainfully employed Archie’s non-standard dialect (played for laughs) and the highly schooled standard language spoken by his unemployed, eye-ball-rolling son-in-law Michael, whom Archie called Meathead.

Second problem: Who’s going to teach educators to hear the mother tongue of all students without bias, since this is what has to happen for children to really “adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating a command of formal English when indicated or appropriate” as the Common Core requires (12.SL.6)? Who’s going to explain to the well-meaning teachers in Carthage, Mo., where Latinos constitute more than a quarter of the population, that it is both immoral and conceptually erroneous to say that someone is speaking “broken English.” Human language is the opposite of fragile. It don’t break, it bends.

New knowledge is constructed out of prior knowledge. The effort to standardize language beginning in Kindergarten is less (not more) likely to lead to an expanded linguistic repertoire down the line.

One hopeful way forward would be to take the Common Core imposition at face value and get into a curricular conversation with it, push back against it with teacher professional development, socio-culturally responsive curricula, and project-, performance-, and portfolio-based assessments that take all of this complex stuff into account at the most local level. Then we’d end up with some pretty smart Missouri kids more likely to find their own way to future work. We’d also have much happier, more professional teachers.

If we do not take this route, I fear that the transnational packagers and venders will swoop in and sell us what amounts to educational snake oil: all the mass-produced how-to’s, scripts, quizzes, systems, charts, and posters that purport to get these standards met quickly and efficiently no matter who or where you are.

So here we are: the Show-Me states’ rights folks and the Show-Me human rights folks are actually sorta bedfellows when it comes to local control of schooling. Instead of ragging on Common Core right now, we should be working together to push out of Missouri the carpetbagging Big Businesses squeezing our state’s hard-earned tax dollars out of schools: Out with the people who have brought us to this jargon-larded education dystopia. Down with Big Curriculum, Big Testing and Big Data.