Throwing Away What Students Need Most

Many years ago when I was six weeks into my first year as a teacher, I went to my department head with an idea. I had become aware that the 8th grade social studies classes were studying the Holocaust and thought that we 8th grade English teachers could parallel that with a study of semantics. My department head encouraged me to research my idea. So I read S.I. Hayakawa for the first time and fell in love with the power of his thinking. I became excited about the possibilities for having students explore the relationship between language and thought in their English classes and see the connections they could make to their study of the Holocaust in their social studies classes. What resulted was a shared collaboration between the two departments that enriched the education of 8th graders.

Years later in another district when I was the  English curriculum leader, a teacher came to me with the unconventional idea to have the first book in a sophomore honors level American literature class be the most difficult book in the entire course instead of beginning the course, as was the usual practice, with short stories, poems, or simpler novels. She had the idea that, by introducing students to that most challenging text, it would invite them into deep philosophical thinking and introduce them to many of the seminal ideas in the American experience in the first weeks of the course. She thought it would raise the bar for the students and enrich all of their subsequent reading experiences. I encouraged her to try it. What resulted is a curriculum that has, over the years, transformed thousands of adolescents into brand new intellectual thinkers and awakened them as deeply engaged scholars.

At another time when I was a curriculum leader, a teacher of AP Literature and Composition said she would like to try a different way of grading in order to challenge her students to grow as much possible. She said that, instead of averaging a student’s grades from the quarter, each student’s  final grade would be what that student had become by the end of the quarter. So a student with grades on her writing assignments of D, D+,C+, C-, C+, B-, C, B+, A-, A- would not receive a final quarter grade of the average of those grades but would receive a writing grade of an A- because the student had become an A- writer. What resulted was a teacher setting very high standards for achievement and giving students opportunities to reach those standards without penalizing them for their early shortcomings.

And at yet another time, a teacher came to me and wanted to teach an alternate book to one that was in the curriculum. He wanted to replace The Scarlet Letter with The Grapes of Wrath. I asked him to explain to me: 1) how the students could be challenged to develop the same skills as questioners, collaborators, responders to literature, and writers as they did with the book already in the curriculum, and 2) how students would explore the same seminal ideas about the American experience with his suggested book as they did with the one already chosen for the curriculum. He reported back in detail how he would do both. What resulted was a new book for teachers to choose for their classes and an alternate reading experience for students.

Each of these stories is about a teacher with a passion for teaching and with the opportunity to use his or her mind to bring that passion into the classroom. The days of those opportunities are over in most public schools.

Peter Greene points out  why this has happened. He says it’s due to the Common Core. He explains that, although the Common Core failed to accomplish its goal of a uniform education across the nation because “the Core was revealed as both political kryptonite and amateur-hour educational junk”, the Core has won one victory. The Common Core has “swept away the notion that actual teachers and administrators are experts in education. Instead, the standards-based school district now assumes that nobody in the school system actually knows what should be taught, and that the most they can be trusted with is to “unpack” the standards and create a checklist-certified list of education activities that will meet the standards’ demands”.  He also writes that many university schools of education are preparing prospective teachers for that same kind of diminished role.

Peter Greene laments that the one victory that Common Core can claim is the “defeat of professional educators, the clampdown on teacher autonomy”.

Intelligent and motivated public school teachers will not last in the teaching profession if they are not encouraged to use their minds but rather are charged to simply implement the content of the Common Core, a content which serves only the makers of multiple choice tests, and to practice the totally outmoded and unsuccessful pedagogy prescribed by the non-educators who wrote the Common Core.

Who then wins if those with the best minds and the deepest passion for teaching leave the profession or are not even motivated to enter it?

No one.

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