Thinking about Common Core

This week Governor Corbett  said he wanted to create a committee to look at what Common Core is doing when it comes to PA students education.

I’d applaud that decision if he hadn’t been behind it in the past.

The question that gets me is what are educators trying to do with this stuff called Common Core?

While I won’t pretend I’m an expert, I’ll try to share some of the things I’ve found after looking a little more deeply into it.

We have to begin with why we educate citizens anyhow.  We want to create a populace that is well-trained and intelligent enough to make decisions that ensure a secure future.  The problem is we don’t exactly know how to do that.  The second problem is that there is a fine line between educating and indoctrinating people.

When the government is in charge of education some people naturally worry.  When George Bush implemented ” No Child Left Behind” a lot  of very good people were 100% behind him.  But that program began people worrying about something called ” teaching to the test”.  We started worrying about education being ” dumbed down”.  Now don’t get me wrong, when I say we started worrying, I don’t mean that educators and sociologists hadn’t been having these discussions amongst themselves before, I just mean it began to be part of the talk in the commmons.  Average people started wondering what we were doing reforming education?  Were we gettiing what we wanted out of schools?  Were children coming out highly educated?

It’s probably true that more children were getting better educations than anytime in our past, it’s just that there were some serious problems that were becoming more and more obvious.

Fast forward to President Obama.  He offered to make ” No Child Left Behind” a thing of the past, but don’t think there wasn’t  a new goal for education reform!  Obama challenged schools to “Race to the Top”.  That sounded good, but it included some things that teachers and their unions weren’t so happy with.  The Obama administration wanted more outcomes based measures.  They wanted teachers measured by their students success.  Teachers balked at being judged on how their kids peformed for several reasons.  Like how would you like to get judged based on a group of people that are transients.  In communities where there was a lot of  insecurity in housing, all of that movement would  make it impossible for a teacher to pull the group together in a short time so that he  or she could show their own skills as educators. Also, in schools where the funding wasn’t sufficient, teachers  felt hamstrung.  But if their grades didn’t show improvement year after year then they were liable to lose their jobs.

The folks with the new reforms said that they weren’t really changing anything.  They were just making education equal across the nation.  The idea of “common core” subjects like math and reading  should help American students.  Large corporations donated  money to help create the  new methodology.  Schools across the nation could teach whatever they wanted to teach their kids, teachers could teach whatever they felt their children needed to know…they just might want to look  into using these common core lessons so that they could see how they were doing in comparison to other schools throughout the nation.

But the problem is when the government invests in planning education it has a tendency to want to show itself how it’s doing.  That means it needs to test the students.  It also means it needs to maintain databases on the students.  Another problem is in the old days when local communities were responsible for their own schools they could hire and fire their school administrators and teachers based on their views about what education could consist of.  Their views were at least somewhat tied to what their constituents views were, or the people who lived in the communities.  But if a national board is in charge of what students are learning across the nation–where are the checks and balances in local communities?   Aren’t teachers still teaching to the tests?  And now isn’t the Federal government MORE involved in something that was at least at one time a states’ right?

We are getting to the problem. Or problems!

Okay, so let’s pretend this is a perfect system and everyone is really interested in helping American children succeed.

How???  And what kind  of success is it that we can expect them to have?

Well, originally we taught expecting very strict outcomes.  Students were either right, or wrong.  It was as simple as black and white.  Then we started seeing that some children did very well, and a lot of children were falling through the cracks.  When people looked at the  children and asked why this was happening, they saw that the results weren’t true across the board.  Naturally folks began to wonder why some children did well and others failed.  Teachers were taught to use  “best practices” and still some children were failing.

Maybe the educational model was at fault!  Maybe children weren’t learning anything when they were simply regurgitating facts.  Maybe some of them would learn something to pass a test, but they weren’t incorporating that new learning into their lives.  Maybe that is a problem!

The new common core material isn’t necessarily going to pop out students ready for college and university.  What it is intended to do is to create students that can think about their answers.

It isn’t enough to know how to solve a problem…we all know calculators can do that. What educators are beginning to see  is that what students need is a thirst for answers.  They need to wonder why do things work the way they do?  What makes facts align? What will change a models outcome?  These are questions students weren’t taught to wrangle with in the past. They were simply taught how to arrive at the answers.

Secondly, students weren’t taught to work in groups. They were taught that some of them would do well and the rest would struggle.  That was how it always was.  But that model isn’t sustainable in a diverse global future.  We need to understand one another and know how to work together. Therefore schools are being tasked to have children work together on their own to find answers.  It isn’t as important that they get the exact answer in a timed fashion.  It is now seen as necessary that they can listen to their  peers and teach one another.

In the old days in  English it was  patently obvious that students needed to read “the classics”.  These days people are beginning to wonder if those classics inculcated certain beliefs in students.  Did they teach a Western culture without  acknowledging the importance of other cultures in the world?  Did students learn to be participants in common culture through their reading?  Or were they simply learning how things used to be without having a deeper appreciation of how and why some books inspired so many readers.

The thinking has begun to change.  Maybe students need to learn how to be savvy readers.  Maybe they need to see what  arguments look like instead of trying to figure out how to understand Olde English. Maybe they need to be able to read a wide assortment of material and not be restrained to reading “literature”.

If you can see that this might cause strife in creating all these minor changes at the same time, well, then you can understand how to some folks all these little changes are qualitatively equal to making one big change.  Then if you see that then you can appreciate why there is such a fuss with this “Common Core” business.

To be really simplistic the questions are:

What are the changes going to be?

Who has the right to change what schools teach students?

Who will have access to students information?

Who has a right to adapt standards in the future as the need arises?

Will our students be prepared for 21st century careers?

Are they being trained to be workers?

Are they getting the best their teachers can give them?

How can parents help?

Can we be sure our students will succeed if parents can’t help?

Who will provide the educational learning materials?

Are the new materials age appropriate? Are they culturally appropriate?  Are there any substitutions that work as well.

Are students of differing abilities offered the same education?

What is education in the 21st Century?  Is it one teacher to 15 students?  Or is it one computer program to an entire district or even nation?

There is an awful lot to think about, and the truth is most of us don’t have the time to look into education.  We have to trust our teachers, and school administrators and the government.

Some children are still going to fall through the cracks…this may not be the best plan for the future.  The new math and reading programs might not meet every child’s needs.

The tough news is that there is only one way to find out.

So, whatever Corbett’s group decides the facts remain that education for the future will change.  Our children will need to compete with children across the nation and across the world for the jobs in the future. Whether we allow an Obama care like plan for education to change the system, or we have another politician’s name on the new educational plan– things will change.

My suggestion for my readers is be prepared!




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