Guest blogger Katharine Beals, PhD is the author of “Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School.” She teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and at the Drexel University School of Education, specializing in the education of children on the autistic spectrum. She blogs about education at Kitchen Table Math and on her own blog, Out in Left Field.
When the New York Times presents case studies in education reform, one can often spot between the enthusiastic lines at least a few reasons for skepticism. The latest front-page education article, a piece on the new Common Core standards, is no exception:
“The new standards give specific goals that, by the end of the 12th grade, should prepare students for college work. Book reports will ask students to analyze, not summarize. Presentations will be graded partly on how persuasively students express their ideas. History papers will require reading from multiple sources; the goal is to get students to see how beliefs and biases can influence the way different people describe the same events.”
At first glance this sounds pretty good–although it’s disturbing that it’s necessary to spell out that book reports should include analysis and that history papers should sometimes require multiple sources.
On second thought, however, one might worry about how teachers and their advisors will interpret “persuasively”: does it pertain to an argument’s rhetorical content, or is it a matter of charisma, body language and showy prompts? One might worry, as well, about the implication that history is only about “higher level” thinking skills like sorting out biases and multiple perspectives rather than about learning a fact-rich core of basic, historical knowledge. In other words, how much will the Common Core standards play out like a caricature of the New Math of the 1960′s, a.k.a. Some Math, Some Garbage?
Here, accordingly to the article, is what’s happening in Hillcrest, one of 100 New York City schools that are piloting the new standards:
“Until this year, Ena Baxter, an English teacher at Hillcrest High School in Queens, would often have her 10th graders compose papers by summarizing a single piece of reading material.
“Last month, for a paper on the influence of media on teenagers, she had them read a survey on the effects of cellphones and computers on young people’s lives, a newspaper column on the role of social media in the Tunisian uprising and a 4,200-word magazine article titled ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’”
So far, so good, though, again, it’s disconcerting to hear what the 10th grade papers used to be like. But then there’s this:
“Eleni Giannousis made a change in her 10th-grade English class that might make some purists blanch. She had students watch the filmed stage performance of “Death of a Salesman,” starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman, before they read the play. The idea was to have students absorb information through a medium they use for entertainment, one way she was experimenting with her lesson plans to try to meet the new goals.
“It wasn’t about making things easier for the students, but about challenging them to experience a classic in a different way,” Ms. Giannousis said.
Yes, I’m blanching. And yes, I’m skeptical.
As for nonfiction:
“While English classes will still include healthy amounts of fiction, the standards say that students should be reading more nonfiction texts as they get older, to prepare them for the kinds of material they will read in college and careers. In the fourth grade, students should be reading about the same amount from “literary” and “informational” texts, according to the standards; in the eighth grade, 45 percent should be literary and 55 percent informational, and by 12th grade, the split should be 30/70.”
I’m all for elevating nonfiction, but the Times suggests that, at Hillcrest at least, the only medium for it is English class. History and social studies, assuming these are focused on content and not on so-called “higher-level” thinking, should also be a major venues for reading. Indeed, by giving the English Language Arts standards the specific title “Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects,” the Common Core underscores the importance of reading in all subjects. Nowhere, incidentally, does it mention film and video viewing as alternatives to reading.
As for math, the Common Core names Statistics & Probability as one of six core areas for high school. How is this playing out at Hillcrest in particular?
“A math teacher, José Rios, used to take a day or two on probabilities, drawing bell-shaped curves on the blackboard to illustrate the pattern known as normal distribution. This year, he stretched the lesson by a day and had students work in groups to try to draw the same type of graphic using the heights of the 15 boys in the class.
“Eventually, they figured out they couldn’t because the sample was too small,” Mr. Rios said. “They learned that the size of the sample matters, and I didn’t have to tell them.”
A whole day in groups for what could be a 5-minute survey and plotting of data points in front of the entire class?
While the Times article shows just a few snapshots of a single school’s attempts to implement the Common Core standards, these snapshots collectively suggest a basic problem with the standards in their current, schematic incarnation. As the Times explains:
“There are guidelines for what students are expected to do in each grade, but it is still up to districts, schools and teachers to fill in the finer points of the curriculum, like what books to read.”
Sticking to general guidelines reflects widespread concern about the federal government micromanaging education, but leaves way too much room for interpretation. Given the dominant Constructivist paradigm, there’s way too much room, in particular for a Constructivist interpretation and implementation of the Common Core standards, and, thereby, for even further Constructivist penetration of America’s K12 classrooms. In the enthusiastic words of the Times, “In three years, instruction in most of the country could look a lot like what is going on at Hillcrest.”
To ensure that this does not happen, we must constantly remind the education establishment that what the Common Core calls for is a curriculum “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge” and therefore in opposition to much of the dominant paradigm.