The Common Core and you…

John Kendall, Understanding Common Core State Standards. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2011.

Kendall, a former Latin instructor who has worked as a long time researcher for Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel), has written this slim pamphlet describing the history, purpose, and possible critiques of the common core state standards movement in United States Education.  Kendall’s employer, founded in 1966, describes their purpose as research and technical assistance for schools, districts, and state departments of education.  Kendall and other staffers are supposed to provide consulting work on a variety of matters, but chiefly on issues that impact student learning and assessment of student learning.

Over the past two semesters, I have been integrating discussion of the common core state standards into my “History Teacher” and “Methods of Teaching History” courses.  These classes are both required of all history education majors at my college, Westfield State University.  The purpose of the classes is slightly different – the former is a one credit seminar intended to introduce history majors to standards of teaching history and social science material, as well as dive into general study of history as a subject, and presentation style in teaching.  The latter is the last course many majors take prior to student teaching and as such is important for practicing the implementation of the standards in lesson planning and in learning how to critically assess fellow teachers.  The common core state standards will be fully adopted in most Massachusetts schools by academic year 2014-2015, so I knew I needed to increase my students’ exposure to the material.

Kendall’s book, assigned to all students across these two courses for now (but eventually only to be in place in “History Teacher”), serves as a clear introduction to the common core in context.  Kendall clearly and concisely explains what the standards will look like, concerns about their implementation, and advice on how to prepare for the transition.  While some of his arguments read a bit like a “pep squad leader,” Kendall generally offers measured commentary on why the common core could benefit students and communities alike, along with a suggested general improvement in education throughout the United States.  I am not completely convinced that the common core is either necessary or an absolute positive, but I believe assigning the text to my students was the right move, and this week’s conversation about the reading seemed to prove me correct on that front.

In Methods, we began the class with an overview of our plan for the day and then watched a short, upbeat video clip explaining why the common core is necessary.  I had used this clip in “The History Teacher” last term, as well as in a roundtable discussion about standards and their impact on secondary social studies held last spring at the New England Historical Association meeting.  The video, (and others like it), present arguments about why the common core standards have value in improving education on a national level.  To my eyes, the clips do not make the common core as appealing as John Kendall does in his text.  Instead, the videos present the sort of unfounded conclusions one might expect when trying to explain something as complicated as unifying 50 states in the teaching of literacy and mathematics.  Somewhat empty platitudes about students in St. Louis not being as prepared for the “real world” as those in Singapore abound.  Students in the Methods course agreed with my interpretation, wondering why such a simplistic presentation would be deemed worthy.

For his part, Kendall is more effective than the films, though, as I noted above, I’m still not fully convinced. Claims of “too many standards from each discipline” (6) were not as fully proven out by the conclusion of the book as one might have liked.  The idea that because American children tend to move at about a rate of 30% over a 2-3 year period, therefore we need to make it easier for kids by having commonality state to state, is a somewhat hollow argument in my opinion.  Further, there is the typical discussion of small mobility – the kid who comes up the hall from one class to another or moves from one school within a community to another – what if they are no getting the same educational opportunities?  While this is a reasonable question, Kendall’s suggestion that the common core would help the situation because teachers across a district would all teach the same thing strikes me as a bit naive.  Teachers are not going to become instantly better because the common core exists – is it really so terrible that a teacher might have to come up with their own idea on how to best teach irregular verbs?  Should they be dependent on a network of common core lessons? (8)

Kendall’s benefits and concerns section (chapter 3) discusses how common core standards will make it easier to share lesson ideas across the nation, increasing collegiality, and ultimately leading to a better sense of professionalism.  Again, I’m not fully convinced that teachers cannot currently achieve these types of goals, particularly in history/social studies.  Another benefit, according to Kendall, is that students will not be put in the position of learning the same information repetitively or that common core makes it easier to “create efficient personalized learning environments by expanding the number of students who would share in and benefit from their development” (33).  I am not a fan of economies of scale when it comes to education – it is not impossible to create personalized learning environments in a single classroom for example, and any  teacher who takes their profession seriously should see the value of such an approach.

A point I supported that Kendall raises about the common core concept is that with such a system it could become easier to redesign schooling around the concepts and standards rather than focusing on hours in a seat or maintaining a particular grade level.  Kendall cites an example from Colorado in which the the students are grouped by competency rather than age or grade level.  Learning, in other words, becomes more important AND students who might learn one subject at one level but another at a lower or higher level, can be more easily accommodated in a system where standards play the guiding role (33-36).

Another complaint I have about Kendall’s approach is the “straw men” that are set up and knocked down in the last section of chapter 3 – Kendall offers a “concern about the common core” and just as swiftly dismisses the critique, ultimately concluding that “the Common Core offers more opportunity for improvement than the system we have now, and we appear to be determined to get it as right as we can this time” (40).  In this argument, apparently the system we have now is not that great (see chart from chapter 1 discussing this idea by clicking here and scrolling down a bit), so we might as well go with this particular change.  Americans have been reforming public education for over two centuries now and I am certain that other reformers (Horace Mann, Bronson Alcott, John Dewey, E. D. Hirsch, etc) all believed that we were seeking to “get it right.”

Finally as districts prepare for the common core in states where it will be adopted, a few additional questions.  Adopting these standards cannot take place in a vacuum so schools need access to training and time to make links across what Kendall calls “crosswalks” between the literacy standards and content areas.  This could be particularly challenging in history/social studies as it is a discipline without a detailed common core approach.  The general ideas are there, but it is obvious that science and history/social studies are not the priorities of this reform.  Students in Methods will grapple with this point in more detail as they begin to design lessons that incorporate these standards – what resources will be expended teaching the current crop of teachers to do the same?  Also, Kendall points out several times that the common core standards will make it easier for districts across a wide swathe of public school districts to institute change, regardless of budgetary issues or per pupil expenditure records.  Standards, argues Kendall and others, will help ease the learning gaps between wealthy school districts and impoverished ones.  How?  I am unclear, but this question along with who stands to benefit from these adoptions (companies producing training on how to make the transition?) and why these standards are supported by many governors across the nation who never attended public school, remain unanswered.  We’ll see what my students have to say on this matter in both classes as they grapple with the common core.


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Filed under Teaching, Teaching and Learning History

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