Core Conundrum

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s back-to-school time. We will observe the season with curriculum-related posts this week and next.  First, a look at the Core Curriculum State Standards that supposedly have nothing to do with the federal government . . .

There are two kinds of cores: the kind that forms the center and the kind you throw away when you’ve eaten all the way around it.  A core, order obviously, can be both: thirty years ago we saw university core curricula destroyed after the traditional courses that supported them were eaten away by social revolution.  That’s part of the motivation for wanting to restore “core standards” to public education now: a sense that we missed something when we dumped educational benchmarks decades ago and essentially told kids to wing it.  Some of us are old enough to remember “new math,” “whole language instruction,” and other trendy theories that had their basis in philosophy rather than experience.  Declining test scores and rising panic about them has spurred the “accountability” movement, which seeks to get student reading, writing and ‘rithmetic levels back to what they were pre-revolution.

Not to be a wet blanket or anything, but I don’t think “accountability” has a prayer.  That’s because we’ve lost sight of two things: what education is, and who children are.

The demand for accountability can be traced back to “A Nation at Risk,” the 1985 report that indicated the sad results of a decade of experimentation.  Whenever you find a national problem, a national program is sure to follow, and George H.W. Bush’s Goals 2000 showed up right on time.  Goals 2000 proposed that all children arrive at Kindergarten ready to learn—as if that were a novel idea–and got to work drawing up standards and measures that showed the skills kids were supposed to acquire at each grade level.  It reminds me of when I bought my first homeschool lesson plan book for and wrote out all the pages I expected us to read, the exercises the complete and the discussions to have: by the end of the first week, reality had twisted through like a tornado, shredding my plans.  Everybody knows what an educated child should be able to do: “Can distinguish between fiction and nonfiction and identify basic literary forms such as poetry, narrative, etc.” “Can perform basic mathematical operations and determine when to use them.  “Can evaluate and combine multiple sources to defend an opinion.”

But nobody seemed to know how to create an educated child.

The much-maligned No Child Left Behind  (NCLB) tried to bring low-performing kids up to the level of their more-advantaged peers by setting clear goals and making teachers and principals accountable for reaching them.  LCLB tried to please conservatives by letting each state define its own standards, and please liberals by pumping more money into public education.  We ended up with the worst of both worlds: low-performing states quickly figured out that they could still get the funds if they just set their standards low enough, and progressives could always say NCLB didn’t work because it was underfunded.  Meanwhile, teachers, kids, moms, and anybody directly connected with the classroom came to hate it because of the additional testing it required: No test scores, no money—also less time for field trips, art and music, even recess.  Children’s authors who visit schools, like me, know there’s no point in even trying to book a school visit from late March to early May, because that’s when kids are taking MAP or TAKS or whatever the state calls its annual time-cruncher.

NCLB has outstayed its welcome, but what will replace it?  Enter CCSS, or the Common Core State Standards, a coordinated effort by the State Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, who commissioned a nonpartisan council called Achieve to write the standards and implementation guidelines.  Achieve has published the Language Arts and Mathematics Standards, which make up most of the Core; Science and Social Studies are yet to come.  Language Arts covers five areas–Reading, Writing, Speaking & Listening, Language, and Media & Technology–with 10 anchor standards for each.  Mathematics consists of eight basic principles in four domains for each grade level with the addition of six conceptual categories for high school—there’s a lot more to the outline, but I’m trying to be brief here.  The grand goal is “college and career readiness” (more on that later).

There’s nothing new in the standards themselves; they sound very similar to NCLB standards which owed their wording to Goals 2000 standards which were based on more or less traditional expectations.  What is new is the national scope.  CCSS sponsors are very insistence that what they’re setting forward is not a federal initiative and not a national curriculum, merely an outline for what should be covered.  It’s up to the local school district or state BOE to select the materials and methods.  States can voluntarily sign on, or not.  Just one little catch: states who wanted to compete for Race to the Top money four years ago had to adopt the standards.  Forty-eight of them did.  Some of those states are wavering about their commitment now, so the Obama administration is signaling that it may withhold Title I aid to low-income schools in states that don’t get with the program.  (The two exceptions are Texas, which is too big to mess with, and Alaska.)  The hand that holds the purse strings ultimately controls the game.

It’s hard to argue with what the standards actually say, except that they may be overambitious.  Whoever wrote that a first-grader be able to “Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information” probably has limited experience of first-graders.  But libertarians and conservatives are generally against CCSS because it’s the first attempt to define public education across all fifty states, and once that foot’s in the door, political objectives and causes du jure are bound to follow.  The justification is suspect, too: advocates of CCSS say it’s necessary in order for the US to compete in a more competitive world, but studies and statistics don’t bear that out.  There’s no correlation between student test scores and global economic ranking, and while American students have scored lower than kids from countries with national standards, the kids with scores lower than ours’ also come from countries with national standards.

So who benefits?  Three groups are lining up behind CCSS: publishers, librarians, and school testing services.  Publishers because CCSS is seeking an active partnership (access publishing criteria here) for producing the kind of materials they want.  CCSS also puts a heavy emphasis on non-fiction books for children, an area that promises steady growth in a declining market.  Librarians are interested in anchoring their place at the curriculum table and regaining some of their clout lost to electronic distractions.  Testing services are happy because guess how these standards are going to be evaluated?

More. Testing.

CCSS advocates insist that states and consultants are going to coordinate so that existing tests will be replaced.  But according to the teachers I know, that won’t happen right away, and maybe never.  Teachers generally are not fans of CCSS.  Students won’t like it either.  But who, after all, is the student—that entity at the very bottom of all this deliberation, for whose sake it’s all supposedly being done?

A student is a child is a human being in progress.  Education policy regards them as beings in process, units in a system to move from one stage to the next until the system finally spits them out “college and career-ready.”  There’s really no other way that an impersonal entity like “education policy” can regard them.  The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen applies here in spades, because children are small to begin with.  They have to be grown individually, by hand.

Ambitious plans like Goals 2000 and NCLB fall prey to vending machine thinking: put in x, receive y.  Put in Curious George, receive “Compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in stories.”  What’s missing is the child—his home, her parents, his fears, her obstacles.  A “text” will produce different responses in different individuals, or none at all.  Feed input A into Sally and you may get output C, or Mikey will give you part of output A because he was listening in, and Ernesto won’t click with it until third grade, but he would have been all over output A in math, if he’d been presented with it then and . . . . Parents know that, and PhD’s who write education policy must know it too.  So why do they keep making the same mistakes?

Education is an art, not a science, and “college and career readiness” is not the goal.  What keeps Mikey from being a stellar college sophomore could make him an excellent plumber and productive citizen.  But if he can hum Beethoven’s third and recite “The Charge of the Light Brigade” while unstopping toilets (my dad could do all three), he’ll be something better: a responsive citizen.  And a free one.  But first we have to free up the schools.

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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  1. Melissa Deming on August 14, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    Wow – thank you so much for this!

  2. Cathy on August 20, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    Reading this makes me even more thankful for the freedom to homeschool!

  3. Betsy on September 12, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    Well said, as usual, Janie! I’ll second the librarians’ push. I’m in a school media class this fall in my last year of my Information Science MS. We are developing “action plans” that incorporate information literacy standards from the AASL (American Ass’n of School Librarians) with the CCSS. If you want to be a vital force in the school scene these days, you simply must. And the librarians are also decrying the lack of emphasis on fiction. I’m so thankful for my kids’ small little Christian school (and it’s a university model school, so I have them at home two days!).

    The testing is supremely obnoxious on many levels and what many don’t realize is that teachers (and librarians) are being “tested” and evaluated more, too. And their “scores” are also based, in part, on their students’ scores. I’m all for more accountability, but it’s not going to happen with this system. There are way too many factors which assessment must consider. And, when you look at the U.S. scores compared globally, a lot of folks forget that not everyone is tested in other countries–you may only test the top tier who are in the education/academic track at their schools (as opposed to a more vocational track), so OF COURSE our overall scores on a few academic criteria won’t measure up. I won’t keep blathering on…

    (shudder) what a mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, eh?

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