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?
As we are thinking up our New Year’s resolutions, how about justice for our kids?
National standards do not make for justice. Multiple choice testing does not make for justice. Ignoring the effects of race and poverty on children’s ability to learn does not make for justice.
Kids’ backgrounds are not equal. Their test scores will never be equal. But their education can be equitable if we help all students to grow from where the are and to develop fully as engaged learners and strong thinkers .
Intentions matter. Let’s resolve in 2018 to educate all kids, not just test them.
Please watch this two minute video:
We are hearing the same thing from so many people in the know. Tom Friedman, who writes in Thank You For Being Late about how work will change in the future due to advanced technology and increased use of artificial intelligence, says it. Tony Wagner, Harvard professor and author of The Global Achievement Gap in which he identifies the skills students need to survive in that future world of work, says it. The September 27, 2017 issue of Ed Week, which talks about how K-12 education needs to change, says it. They all loudly and clearly proclaim the same thing: The education we now provide will not serve our students in the future because the needs of the future are not the needs of the past, and schools are currently meeting the demands of the past.
So what is a teacher to do? What is a school district to do? What are parents to do?
It would be great for us as a society to engage in a deep conversation about the nature of learning and how to assess that learning. I am ready for that conversation and know other educators who also long for it. In the meantime, here are three practical suggestions that teachers and school districts can implement immediately:
- Teach students to question.
- Teach students to write essays that explore questions of importance to them.
- Teach students to write essays about how their thinking evolved and changed.
These suggestions make real the Tony Wagner Seven Survival Skills for the future: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, agility and adaptability, initiative, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, and, most of all, curiosity and imagination. The also help students to succeed in the rapidly changing world Friedman describes. Most of all, students do what Ed Week points out is necessary for their future – develop as learners and thinkers.
Teaching Students to Question
To prepare young people for their future, learning can no longer be about a teacher talking and students listening, not about one person giving information and the other person receiving it. We have computers for that.
I remember taking my three-year old grandson to a space museum and realizing that he didn’t know the word astronaut. When we went home, I wanted to show him what an astronaut is by showing him a video of astronauts returning from a space flight. So I searched for a video on my laptop. I couldn’t immediately find what I wanted so I was frustrated. My little grandson said, “You have to be patient, Grandma. It will come.” At three, he knew that information is available with a click.
In my first years as a teacher, I had file folders full of information about the differing ways the character of Hamlet had been interpreted over the ages, the symbolism in The Scarlet Letter, biographical information about Arthur Miller, and so much more. I told my students to prepare for their final exams by reviewing the notes I had given them because my notes contained what was important for them to remember. All the essays I assigned asked the students to prove something they already knew. Never again.
I learned that telling students what to think and teaching only one kind of writing had to change if I were to develop students who who can think critically and creatively.
Preparing students for the future, I have found, begins with students asking questions to which they don’t have answers but would like to have those answers. Teachers and students then collaborate with one another as they discuss their questions. The questions differ. Some of the students have questions about facts, about what happened in the story. Some have questions about interpreting characters or events. Some have questions about ideas that the story brings up about love, social justice, or the relationship between an individual and society – life’s big questions. All questions are welcome. The teacher helps students to ask increasingly complex questions that are multi-layered and lead to even more questions. Discussing the questions offers more ideas than any student could ever have on his or own and broadens and deepens each student’s individual thinking.
Asking good questions about the facts or data about what happened, questions about interpreting what happened, and philosophical questions that come to mind because of what happened is not only for English classes. Asking questions is at the heart of learning science, math, history, art, and technology. Questions are intrinsic to all academic disciplines and apply to all kinds of work. Tony Wagner wrote that, instead of having the right answers, “the most important skill in the New World of work, learning, and citizenship – the rigor that matters most – is the ability to ask the right questions.”
Learning to question doesn’t just happen. Due to years in school, their years as being answerers, students need to be untaught to be answerers and taught to be questioners.
Students also need to be untaught that there is one kind of thinking and one kind of essay writing. No doubt about it: It’s important to be able to write an essay that supports a thesis and presents a coherent argument. Deductive, logical thinking is a valued kind of thinking, and the proving of a position is a valued kind of writing. But deductive reasoning is a kind of thinking, not the only way to think, and thesis-based essays are a kind of essay, but not the essay itself. The world of the future demands other kinds of thinking and other kinds of essays.
Teaching Students To Explore Questions Of Importance To Them
One of those other kinds of essays is an essay in which students explore a question rather than prove a point or make an argument. The writer engages in open-ended and speculative thinking and explores a question from several perspectives, considering various possibilities and using pertinent evidence. The writer doesn’t try to convince the readers of anything but rather shares her thinking about her question with them. The writer might determine an answer to her question by the end of essay or might not. She may, instead, pose deeper and more penetrating questions at the end of the essay. For sure, though, the writer lets the readers know where the inquiry has taken her. These essays provide seeds of creativity and are incubators of innovation. The writers are thinking of what could be rather than defending what is.
Teaching Students To Write About How They Came To Know What They Know
Another kind of essay is one in which the writer tells the story of the development of his thinking about a concept or idea. It gives the chronology of the writer’s thinking – where his thinking began, what he read and learned in class discussions, and how his thinking evolved. At the end of this essay, the readers know where the writer is in his thinking and how the writer got there. It is story about how the writer came to know what he knows. Friedman, Wagner, and Ed Week all say that learning to learn is essential for the workplace of the future. Writing about the development of their own thinking makes it likely that students will leave school knowing that they do know how to learn, do know how to develop their thinking, and can do it again….and again….and again.
Toolkits For All
All of this may seem way beyond many students. But it’s not. I have worked in schools that are called high performing and in ones that are termed “failing” and have seen the students in both thrive when asked to question and to think and write in these ways. The students are ready. The future can’t be pushed back. The time to teach students to question, to think creatively and innovatively, and to see themselves as learners is now.
The Common Core State Standards do not ask students to think in these ways; those standards do not give students the learning and thinking skills needed for the future. Also, no standardized test in our country assesses questioning, collaborating, creative thinking, or learning-to-learn skills. Every minute of class time given to preparing students for those tests takes students away from what they really need to learn.
The future is just about here. It’s time to give students what they need. Invite them to question, to explore possibilities, to imagine solutions, to grow and change as thinkers, and to fall in love with learning. Then sit back and watch where they take us.
The result of the 2016 Presidential election silenced me. Listening to Meryl Streep’s speech when she accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes Award gave me back my voice.
Since November 9, 2016, I have questioned the point of writing about public education anymore. Why should I continue to criticize the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts when what I find harmful in them for students is now being normalized by the President-elect? How could I continue to criticize standards that limit the amount of literature students read when we have a President-elect who boasts of the fact that he doesn’t read? How could I criticize standards that recognize only predetermined right answers instead of critical or creative thinking when we have a President-elect who says he has all the answers and doesn’t need dialogue with others to explore possibilities or revise his thinking? How could I continue to advocate for excellent public schools for all children as the bedrock of a democracy when that President-elect nominates for U.S. Secretary of Education someone who wants to destroy public education? It all seemed futile.
Then I heard what Meryl Streep said about artists and journalists and knew that it applied to educators as well. You can listen to her speech here: https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=tightropetb&p=video+of+meryl+streep+speech+at+golden+globes+on+january+9%2C+2016#id=59&vid=c81a5c9dd5861ac45c2c81b50d1964b9&. Or you can read it below.
I love you all, but you’ll have to forgive me. I’ve lost my voice in screaming and lamentation this weekend, and I have lost my mind sometime earlier this year. So I have to read. Thank you, Hollywood Foreign Press, just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said. You and all of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners and the press.
But who are we? And what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places. I was born and raised and educated in the public schools of New Jersey. Viola was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina, came up in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Sarah Paulson was born in Florida, raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids from Ohio. Amy Adams was born in Vicenza, Veneto, Italy. And Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates? And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, raised in — no — in Ireland, I do believe, and she’s here nominated for playing a small-town girl from Virginia. Ryan Gosling, like all the nicest people, is Canadian. And Dev Patel was born in Kenya, raised in London, is here for playing an Indian raised in Tasmania. So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if we kick them all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.
They gave me three seconds to say this. So an actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like, and there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that, breathtaking, compassionate work. But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hook in my heart not because it was good. It was — there was nothing good about it, but it was effective, and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart, and I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing.
Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence insights violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.
This brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account – to call them on the carpet for every outrage.
That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedom in our Constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists because we are going to need them going forward and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.
One more thing. Once when I was standing around on the set one day, whining about something, you know, we were going to work through supper or the long hours or whatever, Tommy Lee Jones said to me, “Isn’t it such a privilege, Meryl, just to be an actor?” Yeah, it is, and we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy. We should all be very proud of the work Hollywood honors here tonight. As my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia said to me once, “Take your broken heart. Make it into art.”
And that is what I will do. I will stop being defeated. I will end my two-month silence. I will let my broken heart energize my art as a teacher and as a teacher of teachers.
I will go back to speaking my truth. I know what good education is and will advocate for it. I know what the art of teaching entails. I am passionate about children having the best possible education because I know first-hand how education that privileges diversity, independent thinking, and social responsibility can transform lives. I will not stop because of the disrespect, violence, and bullying that now surround us. I will not stop empathizing with the children in this country who so need us educators – especially now.
I will ask of myself what Meryl Streep asked of journalists: How can I hold power accountable and safeguard the truth. The truth I want to safeguard is that the purpose of public education is to build the minds and hearts of all students by developing their potential as engaged learners and increasingly independent thinkers in every way imaginable. To do that, I must go back to opposing the Common Core Standards, designed by entrepreneurs and testing company personnel instead of educators. I must also go back to opposing the evaluation of students by standardized tests because that kind of assessment reduces learning for all students, especially those who need engagement and stimulation the most. I must go back to opposing charter schools because they take money away from the vast majority of children without notable results, and they encourage segregation. As Meryl Streep urged journalists, I must hold precious my responsibility to play a part in taking this democracy to its highest ground.
Meryl Streep is right. The oligarch-in-chief and the oligarchs with whom he has surrounded himself have incredible power and have the privilege of wealth. But we educators, like the actors and journalists, have our art. We can teach. We can speak the truth about kids, about learning, about diversity, about excellence. With that art and with one another we can fight back.
Let’s get busy.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s and the Common Core’s kind of class could not be more different. Which class do you think best helps kids to excel as learners and thinkers?
Choice One: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Just two days before his final performance in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a former high school teacher, spoke to 200 high school teachers and described what he thought learning should look like.
He used his experience in the theater to talk about the classroom. He advocated that teachers engage students in questioning and connecting with what they are studying. He explained how students become stronger thinkers by listening to the ideas and questions of their classmates. In Miranda’s kind of classroom, the teacher does not give students the one right answer but rather expects them to have their own individual, well-referenced interpretations and their own evaluations of ideas. The teacher creates a classroom community in which diversity of thought is valued and in which the students explore ideas by engaging in intellectual endeavors together. The teacher knows that students benefit from being aware of their own learning and thinking processes so engages them in considering how they go about learning something and how their minds work. The teacher brings his or her own joy and purpose to the classroom and delights in the students finding joy and purpose of their own as they read, write, and think together through the school year.
Read Miranda’s own words here:
Choice Two: Common Core
The accompanying 15-minute video shows you what a Common Core English class is like. David Coleman, the chief author of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts, is the speaker. The lesson is for a 7th grade class ; the topic is Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. View here. In this lesson, the teacher has all the answers. The meaning of King’s letter is, as the Common Core insists, found “within the four corners of the page” and must be dug out. The students are not allowed to personally connect with the letter, ask their own questions, choose a line of significance to them, or explore the historical background of what King wrote. They do not analyze how the actions of society in King’s time or theirs connects to King’s advocacy for justice. Students, instead, are asked to figure out King’s intent in writing the letter by analyzing the word choice and rhetorical structure he uses.
In the beginning of the lesson, David Coleman says that his lesson will debunk the three “popular” ways of teaching literature, but, little does he know, those ways are not popular at all. He wrongly says those three “popular” ways are: the teacher summarizing for students what they are going to read before they read it, the teacher asking students to predict what will happen before they read it, and the teacher using what they read to teach a concept like main idea or cause and effect. He doesn’t mention at all what is really the reason we teach literature: to engage students with provocative ideas and provide them with opportunities to construct their own meaning about those ideas.
Decision Time: Pick One of the Above
It is one or the other. Lin-Manuel Miranda or Common Core . You can’t have both because the two approaches are philosophically and pedagogically opposed to each other. Both require close reading. Both require students to use text evidence. The difference is in whether you see education as pouring information into the empty heads of passive students or see education as inspiring students to be all they can be.
Big News! It was on the front page of the The Hartford Courant, reported on in all the other state newspapers, and featured on the Connecticut State Department of Education website:
Nearly 66% of 11th graders met the state standards for English and 40% met the state standards for math on the 2016 SAT.
And what does that tell us about what Connecticut has gained from fully funding the SAT for all high school juniors?
It was a waste of taxpayer money.
First of all, it doesn’t tell us anything about who is ready for college. The SAT is based on the Common Core Standards, which Connecticut has taken as its own. The Common Core Standards lack validity and reliability. Common Core Standards were written, without input from educators at the K-12 or college level, by employees of testing companies and companies that analyze standardized test data. They were never field-tested to see if being successful with those standards makes for achievement in college. So we don’t know if we should be happy if students score well because it could be that they succeeded at something that is innocuous at best and inferior education at worst.
We do know that getting a high score on the SAT gives us no information about the students’ ability to ask their own questions, make their own connections, and construct their own meaning as they read, or express their own ideas as they write in a personal voice because the Common Core rejects those skills. And we do know that those are skills needed for college. Therefore, SAT scores don’t tell us if students will be successful in college.
Secondly, this SAT does not allow for comparisons because it is a new test. Scores cannot be compared to the SAT of past years. It has different content and a different way of being scored than past tests. Also, the student population taking the SAT has changed. Previously, 82% of high school juniors took the SAT; in 2016, with the new requirement, 94 % took the test. So with different content, scoring, and test-taking populations, no conclusions about student improvement or decline can be made.
Thirdly, some may say we need the SAT to ascertain how Connecticut is doing as compared to other states, but we have the National Assessment of Educational Progress, considered the Nation’s Report Card, that gives state-by-state reports. NAEP tests students in reading and math and scores them, based on college readiness. There is no charge to the state or local districts. Individual scores are not reported so there is no punishments for students. Best of all, there is no class time sacrificed to prepare for the tests because, during the school year, districts do not know if they are to be tested that year.
Fourthly, the SAT is not the necessity it once was. Increasingly, high school students do not need SAT scores for their college applications. Colleges and universities are realizing the limits of standardized tests as indicators of a prospective student’s academic promise and intellectual strength. Currently, 850 colleges and universities, including 210 in the “top tier”, do not require SAT or ACT scores for admission to bachelor degree programs. The research is clear, and colleges and universities are responding to it: High school grade point average is the predictor of success in college, not standardized tests.
So why does the State of Connecticut mandate that all high school juniors take the SAT?
The only reason left is the one politicians love to herald: To close the achievement gap.
Only those who have never taught students could give that answer. Educators know that there is no way that any set of standards or any standardized test has ever or will ever overcome the damage of poverty and racism. In fact, mandating standardized tests reinforces that damage and tells many impoverished students and students of color that they do not belong in the mainstream. Standardized test scores, including the SAT, are always correlated with the income of students’ parents. With the current 2016 SAT, school districts with higher scores include the affluent towns of Darien, Simsbury, Westport, and Wilton; school districts with lower scores include the cities of Hartford, Waterbury, and Bridgeport with their high rates of poverty. And so it has ever been.
Students with parents who have the time, the energy, the money, and the benefits from their own higher education to enrich the lives of their children and support them in school will always score higher than most students whose parents do not have those advantages. How could it be otherwise?
So mandating the SAT is not even a neutral event; mandating the SAT for all high school juniors is not just a nothing. It actually does harm. It limits the curriculum for all students, affluent and poor, and turns the curriculum into test prep. It does added harm to those students most in need because the cost of the tests, test prep materials, and the technology to administer the tests takes financial resources away from addressing their needs propelled by poverty and racism.
There is a path forward. Connecticut must:
- End the Common Core test-and-punish approach. We must recognize that we are foolishly spending millions of dollars on SBAC and the SAT, and it gains nothing for us as a state. The tests reinforce Connecticut’s shame: unconscionable income inequality.
- End the Common Core test-and-punish approach because it denies our children a real education as learners and thinkers that they deserve.
- Use the money now spent on testing to invest in what has been proven to improve student achievement. It is what every teacher knows works: positive relationships with adults in schools. Educators know that having those positive relationships with adults engages students in school, inspires them to want to learn, and gives them the skills to succeed and live productive lives. According to Wendy Lecker, senior attorney at the Education Law Center in Newark, NJ, researchers have identified three ways to foster those adult/student relationships:
- Provide developmentally appropriate preschool in which the emphasis is on play.
- Mandate small class size in grades K-12.
- Reduce the student caseload of guidance counselors.
Let’s put our money where we are sure we can make a difference. It’s time to stop spending money and getting nothing for it. And, worse yet, spending money and getting less than nothing by hurting our most precious resource as a state: our children.
The New York Times, whose writers have seemed to lack knowledge about the Common Core, has been a PR firm for those misbegotten and ill-conceived educational standards. But finally on Sunday, July 24th, the newspaper published ” The Common Core Costs Billions and Hurts Students” by Diane Ravitch that is critical of the Common Core.
Diane Ravitch, Assistant Secretary of Education under George H. W. Bush and the author of The Life and Death of the Great American School System and Reign of Error, pointed out that the Common Core has accomplished nothing that it promised and does not meet the educational needs of children. Ravitch explained that, as a country, we have spent billions to implement the Common Core, to prepare students to take the Common Core aligned tests, and to buy the technology to administer those tests online. The results are that math scores on National Assessment of Educational Progress declined for the first time since 1990 and reading scores are flat or decreased, the achievement gaps based on race and income persist, teachers are demoralized, causing teacher shortages, and, most tragically of all, children are receiving an education which harms them.
I would like to add a P.S.
Diane Ravitch writes about the damage that the Common Core does to children with disabilities, English language learners, and children in the early grades. I know that to be true. My Post Script focuses on the damage that Common Core is doing to all students because, with Common Core, they are not taught to be thoughtful readers and effective writers and to develop as creative and critical thinkers and increasingly independent learners.
There has been false advertising about the Common Core, calling those standards “rigorous”. They are not at all rigorous. If they were, the National Council of Teachers of English would have endorsed them. After careful review, NCTE did not endorse the Common Core due to the content of the standards and the way they require reading and writing to be taught. It is preposterous to think that English language arts standards have been mandated for all k-12 students without the endorsement of the professional organization representing all elementary, middle, high school, and college teachers of reading and writing in the country.
And what is the objectionable Common Core content?
First of all, the amount of literature is restricted. We are the only country on the planet that specifies limits on reading literature. That means we not only limit the range of ideas with which students become familiar but we also reduce their opportunities to think divergently and create individual meaning in ways that only reading literature provides. Secondly, the kind of writing taught with Common Core severely limits the thinking students do because Common Core prescribes formulaic, impersonal writing. All Common Core writing assignments, according to David Coleman, the chief writer of the Common Core English Language Arts Standards, must let students know that ” no one gives a **** what they think and feel”. And thirdly, the volume of the grammar to be taught at each grade level requires that grammar be taught separately, not as part of the writing process, even though all research for the past 30 years says that is a waste of time. Worst of all, none of the standards are about teaching students to be engaged, active, thoughtful readers or effective writers for a wide range of purposes and audiences.
And how must teachers teach the Common Core?
Common Core teachers are purveyors of information. They teach as if the meaning of any piece of literature is “within the four corners of the page”. That outdated and discredited approach to teaching literature is called New Criticism- but “new” was the 1930’s. With it, Common Core teachers do not teach students to make personal connections, create their own interpretations, evaluate the ideas, or consider the cultural assumptions in what they are reading. The Common Core teacher requires students to dig out the one meaning from what they are reading, a meaning the teacher already knows. Since there is only one answer, there is no point in teaching students how to discuss their initial thinking with others, question the perspectives of others, and reconsider their original thinking, maybe even changing their minds because of questions or ideas offered by their classmates.
Also, writing is not used as part of the learning process to foster individual thinking because that thinking is not sought. And revision is, as the standards state, only “as needed”, not as a mandatory part of the writing process although revision always strengthens a writer’s thinking and makes the writer more effective.
And why is all this so bad?
Well, first of all, kids are not receiving an education that sparks their minds and touches their souls. Secondly, students are not learning the skills they need for their future. Tony Wagner, lead scholar at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, has written two books (The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators), which discuss the skills students will need in the workplace. Wagner says that our future as a nation depends on our capacity to teach students to have the curiosity and imagination to be innovators. He says the competencies that students must learn in school are:
- To approach problems as learners as opposed to knowers
- To ask provocative questions
- To engage in dialogue which explores questions with diverse people
- To deal with ambiguity instead of right answers
- To trust oneself to be creative and take initiative
- To communicate orally and in writing by expressing ideas with clarity and personal passion
- To analyze information and identify a path forward
- To be curious, to be engaged with and interested in the world
You can’t get there from here when “here” is the Common Core.
Diane Ravitch is right. We must stop hurting students. The Common Core must go.
The Common Core State Standards were marketed as serving to “close the achievement gap”. That did not happen.
The designers and promoters of the Common Core determined that standardized test scores would be the measure of achievement. By that limited measure of achievement, the achievement gap increased. As Results Are in: Common Core Fails Tests and Kids shows, NAEP scores of students whose education was focused exclusively on the Common Core curriculum decreased while NAEP scores for students in affluent suburbs whose education is not limited to test prep for standardized tests increased.
Fairfield University Professor and Network for Public Education Board member Yohuru Williams argues these tests, which are manifestly unfair to the neediest children, feed into racial determinism in American society while closing doors of opportunity for Black and Latino children.
More important than standardized test scores, the quality of the education that students who are educated with a Common Core curriculum have is vastly inferior to the education that other students in affluent suburbs and independent, private schools have. The Common Core curriculum does harm to children in their early years in school because it limits their development as thinkers and learners. Similarly, The English Common Core inhibits thoughtful reading, effective writing, and critical thinking.
The true achievement gap of being productive, analytical, competent citizens and workers is increasing. That is the injustice. That is the real harm that the Common Core curriculum is doing to children of color and children of poverty. Shame on us.
There has been no substantive conversation about K-12 education in the Republican debates, town hall meetings, or candidate rallies. Attention has been on other issues, but education is crucial both for the individual future of each of our children and for the future of our nation. We voters deserve to know what the candidates will do as President about K-12 education. What follows are key topics about K-12 education and what the candidates have said about them so far.
NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND
No Child Left Behind was federal legislation that controlled K-12 education in the United States from 2001 to its replacement by the Every Child Succeeds Act in December 2015. With it, students’ scores on standardized tests were the only means of measuring student achievement and the worth of a school. It punished schools, based on test scores. All schools in the United States were required to reach 100% proficiency by 2014 or receive sanctions from the federal government, which meant the withholding of federal funds. Given the wide range of student abilities, including students with special education needs and students whose primary language is not English, 100% proficiency was out of range for almost all schools.
None of the Republican candidates were in Congress when the Congress passed NCLB in 2001. All three Republican candidates oppose federal government mandates about education and favor local control. They have reservations about the replacement for NCLB, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was signed into law in December 2015.
Ted Cruz voted against the initial draft of ESSA in July. He was not present for the final vote but opposed a cloture motion to advance the bill on the day before the vote. In a press conference, Ted Cruz commented, “The ESSA, unfortunately, continues to propagate the large and ever-growing role of the federal government in our education system.” Ted Cruz also said, “If I’m elected president, I will direct the U.S. Department of Education — which should be abolished — I will direct the Department of Education that Common Core ends today. Instead, I will restore power back to the states and to the local governments and ultimately back to the parents — those closest to our kids who have direct responsibility for raising our children, each and every one of us moms and dads.”
Donald Trump has said, “I’m a tremendous believer in education, but education has to be at a local level. We cannot have the bureaucrats in Washington telling you how to manage your child’s education.” At another point, Donald Trump said, “I may cut the Department of Education.”
John Kasich is criticized by other Republicans because he does not reject the federally supported Common Core, which is integral to the federal program Race to the Top. He does not reject the role of the federal government in education as much as Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz do. As a member of Congress, he sponsored a bill to reinstate prayer in public schools and voted YES to giving federal aid only to schools which allowed voluntary prayer.
Questions to ask the candidates are:
- Do you think that states or local should create their own standards, as ESSA permits, rather than use the Common Core Standards which are recommended by the federal government?
- What are the immediate changes you will make to the U.S. Department of Education?
PUBLICLY FUNDED AND PRIVATELY MANAGED CHARTER SCHOOLS
Publicly funded and privately managed charter schools are funded with taxpayer money but are privately managed without transparency or accountability for how the tax dollars are spent and without the same oversight as traditional public schools. All three of the Republican candidates are avid advocates of publicly funded and privately managed charter schools.
Donald Trump claims that K-12 education would benefit from competition and enthusiastically embraces the competition with public schools that he thinks charter schools offer. Ted Cruz said at a CNN-hosted debate at the University of Miami, “The most important reform we can do in education, after getting the federal government out of it, is to expand school choice.” He called for the expansion of charter schools, and home schooling. He often says school choice is the “civil rights issue of the 21st century”.
John Kasich seems to have a mess on his hands with scandal- ridden charter schools in Ohio and is now trying to strengthen oversight of charter schools in the state. According to The Washington Post, Ohio state auditors discovered that, since 2001, $27.3 million has been improperly spent by charter schools. Also in February 2016, it was discovered that charter schools had falsified their records regarding student achievement. Ten times more Ohio charter schools are failing than had been previously reported. In addition to those scandals, John Kasich made budget cuts in traditional public schools while at the same time increasing taxpayer funding of charter schools and vouchers. Since John Kasich took office in 2011, traditional public schools, which educate 90% of Ohio’s kids, are receiving $515 million less in state funding while charter schools have an increase of 27% in taxpayer funding. Charters also receive more state money per pupil than traditional public schools.
Questions to ask the candidates:
- With shrinking state and local budgets, do you favor taking taxpayer money from the traditional public schools, which educate most of the students, in order to support charter schools, which educate a select population?
- What regulations would you put in place for charter schools in order to enforce transparency in terms of the use of taxpayer money and to insure the delivery of student services, such as special education?
COMMON CORE STATE STANDARDS
The Common Core State Standards were written in secret by employees of testing companies, not by educators. They are not research-based, not internationally benchmarked, and not outcome-validated. States were coerced into adopting them in exchange for being released from sanctions imposed on them for not meeting the NCLB mandate of 100% proficiency. The National Governors Association approved the standards, before they had even been written, in order to not lose federal money. Educators criticize the content and pedagogy. Five hundred prominent early childhood professionals, psychologists, and researchers issued a public statement that the Common Core Standards are harmful to young children, and the National Council of Teachers of English did not endorse them. The more teachers work with the Common Core Standards, the more they oppose them.
John Kasich doesn’t seem to understand that the Common Core Standards claim to be a product of the states but really are not. On Fox News, he said, “The Common Core was written by state education superintendents and local principals.” In reality, Bill Gates, a private citizen, funded the writing of the Common Core Standards and then the federal government appropriated them as part of the conditions given to the states to avoid reduction in state aid from the federal government. Bill Gates’s money allowed the federal government to skirt the law which prohibits the federal government from funding and establishing a national curriculum or national standards but, at the same time, use those standards to give or withhold federal money from the states.
Ted Cruz has said that on his first day in office, he will “repeal every single word of the Common Core in order to get the federal government out of the business of dictating educational standards”. At the Heritage Foundation Conservative Policy Summit in January 2015, he said that education is too important to be governed by unelected bureaucrats in Washington.
Donald Trump repeatedly calls The Common Core a “disaster” but has not explained specifically how the content and the accompanying pedagogy of the Common Core are a disaster. He also has said that education should be “local and locally managed”.
The Republican candidates have not addressed in any way why the standards that they oppose (Ted Cruz and Donald Trump) or support (John Kasich) are bad or good education. They have not discussed if the learning students receive with those standards is meritorious and developmentally appropriate or if it is not.
Some questions to ask the candidates are:
- Do you think it is developmentally appropriate for kindergarten to be “the new first grade” in order for children to meet Common Core Standards?
- Do you think it is good that we are the only nation that limits the amount of literature read and asks students to read excerpts of great literature instead of whole books?
- Do you think it is good for students to read without connecting the ideas they are reading to their own life experiences or to the historical and cultural background of the text?
HIGH STAKES STANDARDIZED TESTS
Paul Thomas, a professor of education at Furman University recently wrote: “In addressing education issues candidates are likely to remain trapped inside the failed accountability mindset for reforming schools — one that privileges ‘standards’ and ‘tests’ as the central means of closing the infamous achievement gap. But there are better ways to approach what plagues us. Instead of focusing merely on ‘accountability’, presidential candidates should be challenged first to confront and then address the tremendous social and educational inequities that plague our public schools.”
Ted Cruz voted in favor of a Senate bill (S.AMDT 2162), which addressed the right of parents to opt their children out of standardized tests. Although John Kasich has been a strong supporter of Common Core, he withdrew Ohio from PARCC, the Common Core-aligned testing consortium, due to pressure from teachers and administrators who complained that the tests took up to much class time and the online exams had too many computer glitches. The state, instead, awarded the contract to the American Institutes of Research, which currently administers Ohio’s social studies and science exams.
Neither Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, nor John Kasich addresses the question of whether standardized tests assess skills that students need for their future or whether the tests should be used to make judgments about students, teachers, and schools or whether standardized tests are helpful in closing the achievement gap.
Questions to ask the candidates:
- Scores on all standardized tests correlate with family income so how will standardized tests help students in impoverished areas?
- Do you feel that there are problems with teaching to the standardized test?
- How will standardized tests assess the skills needed in the 21st century, such as asking probing questions, collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, and effective written and oral communication?
The Civil Rights Project reported in 2010: “While segregation for blacks among all public schools has been increasing for nearly two decades, black students in charter schools are far more likely than their traditional public school counterparts to be educated in intensely segregated settings. At the national level, seventy percent of black charter school students attend intensely segregated minority charter schools or twice as many as the share of intensely segregated back students in traditional public schools. Some charter schools enrolled populations where 99% of the students were from under-represented minority backgrounds.”
With the increase in charter schools since 2010, the percentage of students in segregated schools also increased.
There is a large body of relevant research showing that charter schools, on average, don’t have an academic advantage over traditional public schools, but they do have a significant risk of leading to increased segregation. Sixty-two years after Brown vs. the Board of Education, here we are in 2016 with segregated schools in our large cities.
The Republican candidates for President, all of whom are strong advocates for charter schools, have not publicly addressed the racial and economic segregation of charter schools.
Questions to ask the candidates:
- What steps would you take to increase diversity in public schools?
- How will you address the pervasive racial and economic segregation in charter schools?
PRIVATE MONEY IN PUBLIC EDUCATION
Private money is currently affecting public education in three ways. 1) Private citizens are funding policy and practice for all U.S. schools. Bill and Melinda Gates paid hundreds of millions of dollars for the Common Core Standards, including money to the media to promote the standards as “rigorous” and “cutting edge and money to professional organizations to implement the standards. 2) Rupert Murdoch has pointed out: “Public education is a $500 billion dollar sector” so there are countless efforts to privatize public education in order to make financial profit for venture capitalists and marketers. 3) Wealthy philanthropists, such as the Walton family (Walmart) and Eli Broad, are using their money to establish charter schools that drain money from traditional public schools.
Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Donald Trump all favor the privatization of pubic education. They regard competition as healthy and public education as wasteful and inadequate.
In his book, The America We Deserve, Donald Trump advocated for school choice, charter schools, and vouchers. He argues that together they create a competitive system that improves education and offers an alternative to a public education model which “would set off every antitrust alarm bell at the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission if it were a traditional business”.
John Kasich has greatly expanded Ohio’s investment in privately run education, despite existing problems with it. On August 8, 2015, Innovation Ohio, an Ohio think tank, reported that “Ohio’s charter sector is a national joke, while spending on school vouchers has more than doubled. The ‘Youngstown Takeover’ is Kasich’s latest effort to “reform” an urban school district, which typically means more school privatization.”
The future of education as either a public institution established for the common good or a private enterprise established with competition and profit at its roots is the underlying question to all of the current educational issues.
Questions to ask the candidates:
- What steps will you take to further privatize public education?
- What steps will you take to strengthen traditional public schools?
K-12 education is too important for silence on the campaign trail. Candidates must address K-12 education in the public forum and answer pivotal questions. Voters are asking. And the children are waiting.