I recently watched “Somewhere In America,” the beautiful slam poem delivered by three young women, making incredibly powerful statements about the implicit lessons we teach our children every day.
“Here in America, in every single state, they have a set of standards for every subject: a collection of lessons that the teacher is required to teach by the end of the term. But the greatest lessons you will ever teach us will not come from your syllabus; the greatest lessons you will ever teach us you will not remember.”
A thoughtful provocation, no doubt–one that I connected to deeply as a gay teacher. I’ve often felt plagued by the things I’ve felt I could not say, especially when I was working as a public school teacher, oftentimes boxed in by the mainstream’s interpretation of what it meant to be politically correct, which is more often than not, repressive, silencing, and inhospitable, and which the three young women do an excellent job of representing.
For some reason, though, what’s struck me more, and which I seem to have hung on the hooks of my mind, is the way in which they’ve introduced the topic–this incredibly powerful and important idea of silencing independent thinking, of the implications of the things we don’t say–with the idea of a standard.
Ne’er mind that they’ve misdefined the term standard as a lesson, but moreover, I think this beautiful and poignant slam poem unearths the increasingly mainstream, populist view of the Common Core State Standards–or of just standards, in general. I find this term–standard–is frequently misrepresented and misdefined, and it’s apparent in the viral videos going around the Internet: of angry, uninformed mothers convinced their children are set up for failure, of disgruntled students speaking to their school boards ever-so eloquently, of impassioned educators speaking out against the pressures of standardized assessments that have, in fact, changed the landscape of learning in modern America, of the conservative politicians that advocate against Common Core as a means to control education on a national level.
What’s more, states and school districts are beginning to opt out of the Common Core at an even more controversially rapid pace than when the standards initially came onto the education scene just a handful of years ago. But what all of these interest groups have in common is a misunderstanding of what a standard actually is, along with the true reasons why the Common Core State Standards have failed to give us the desired results we were promised. As a result, this misunderstanding has led to conflict, conflict to fear, and fear to rash, uninformed decisions that will most certainly not move our education system forward.
Not sure what I’m talking about? Here are a few quick lessons on what standards actually are, and how the Common Core just may be a path to achieving what we initially set out to do.
A standard is not a lesson; it is a sentence describing goals or objectives for lessons.
Many people think that standardizing objectives and goals is detrimental to student success and a love of learning, but quite the contrary is true. Standards simply give us a common language on which to curate lessons and rich student experiences. With this common language, educators can be sure they’re doing their due diligence when it comes to integrating student interests and/or high-interest material with core skills like writing a paragraph or calculating sums to the thousands, all of which are important skills to be a knowledgeable citizen and successful adult.
Without this common language, our education system, already riddled with disarrayed complexity, will become even more chaotic and difficult to understand. Common Core, albeit imperfect, does just that: it provides a set of succinct and sequential goals that students should know and be able to do by the time they reach high school. It does not provide “a collection of lessons that the teacher is required to teach by the end of the term.” The bureaucratic institutions that have misinterpreted the standards do that, which leads me to my next point.
Standards aren’t the problem; it is the bureaucratic misinterpretation of standards that is the problem.
About 30 years ago now, the Reagan Administration published “A Nation At Risk,” an incendiary document that incited fear amongst American citizens and politicians. As a result of this fear, years of quantitative standardized assessment began, launching us into an interpretive dance of policies, initiatives, and otherwise self-indulgent agendas intended to control each and every variable in the classroom. This is, quite cyclically, what is happening with Common Core, as well. Politicians and administrators, many of whom have spent very little time actually educating children in a classroom, want to be sure that their scores look good, that property values stay high, and that their jobs are safe, even if it means the quality of education isn’t that high.
As a result, along with standardizing goals and objectives for post-secondary-education-readiness, these same politicians want to standardize assessment practices and instructional techniques, in an effort to ascertain valid and reliable test results, further perpetuating the archaic industrial model of education that still holds us captive. It is this bureaucratic misinterpretation of the standards that has parents up-in-arms about odd test questions and perplexing homework assignments, not the standards themselves, and questioning whether or not the Common Core is providing a rich and creative educational experience to their children, one that allows educators to see every child as an individual and no child as identical to the next, leading me to my final point.
Standards, if used correctly, can be a conduit to emergent curriculum.
For those of you who do not know this term, emergent curriculum refers to curriculum that comes as a result of child interests and inquiries, something that, at first glance, seems like it would directly oppose the concept of a standard. Parents are now concerned about standardizing a curriculum, about holding all of their children to the same accountability levels, and about killing creativity. And these feelings are warranted, as a school system that is entirely standardized does not allow for personalization, child-centered learning, or a humanist approach to working with young people. However, what I’ve learned through working in a school that values emergent curriculum is that, even if we are able to do exciting projects that truly emerge from the interests of the kids, parents still want to know what their children are learning and how they are doing in comparison to their respective chronological ages and grade-level expectations.
And this is where the Common Core Standards–the common language through which I am able to communicate these core skills–comes in. I am able to tell parents, specifically, in relation to grade-level outcomes, how their children’s various projects are coming along, whether it’s an stop-motion movie (RL.3.5), a QR code (1.NBT.C.4, among others), or a class-wide storybook project for a non-profit preschool across town (W.1.3). It is in this capacity, specifically, where common language provides an anchor and flexible frame for the experience, building structure that is supportive but not confining, that provides just enough constraint to help creativity flourish and just enough foundation to provide direct and specific feedback.
Alas, the Common Core State Standards have become the scapegoat for all of education’s problems, and unrightfully so. These problems extend much further and more deeply than the imperfections that exist within the Common Core. Teacher preparation programs, a fundamental misunderstanding of pedagogy rooted in bureaucracy, and institutionalized discrimination are just a few of the problems I think we should be tackling, prior to attacking a set of documents intended only to give us a “common” language on which to support our students, for the former are the roots of a cultural misinterpretation of what we should truly be teaching our children in schools, and these are the roots of the implicit lessons–of what we do and don’t say.
I say we start by fixing these, and then I think we’ll find that the Common Core State Standards weren’t so bad after all.