A Teacher's Mixed Review of Common Standards

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As a number of states revolt over the idea of implementing the Common Core State Standards, I think we need to take a step back, look at the standards objectively, and ask a few questions. Will the standards make educators better teachers? Will they make students better learners? That’s all that matters when you get down to it. If the standards are successful in achieving these goals, let’s call a truce. If they aren’t, let’s use our good sense and can them.

The common core is not an earth-shattering revolution, at least not for Iowa teachers, of which I am one. In 2008, the state implemented the Iowa Core, and we have been working to incorporate those standards into our classrooms ever since.

Having to meet standards and then being held accountable is an experience that everyone should have in his or her life. I have standards when I coach teachers. I have standards for the students in my classroom. My administration has standards for me, and those standards push me professionally and guide me in my teaching practice. Having standards makes me a better person and a better teacher. I think it’s fair for the nation to have standards when it comes to education. This seems like common sense.

Where I feel the Iowa Core (and possibly the common core) is getting it wrong is in the massive number of standards that teachers are required to cover—an issue I struggle with as a middle school social studies teacher. And by placing such heavy importance on the standardization of testing, we are also overlooking teachers as the true assessors of knowledge. This predicament could lead to subpar teaching and learning, particularly if educators are forced to rush through material just for the sake of covering it and then place all our value in learning to one test.

“Having to meet standards and then being held accountable is an experience that everyone should have in his or her life.”

At times, I feel as if I’m drowning in Iowa’s social studies standards—there are roughly 160. I’m no math expert, but factoring in three years of middle school, I calculated that in order to cover all 160, a teacher would have roughly 3.3 days to teach each one. And that’s not counting the late starts and early outs; the days lost before and after any big holiday; or the countless time spent on discipline, fundraisers, or conversations with young impressionable teens about how to develop into socially acceptable human beings.

As any good educator knows, just because you’re standing in front of the room teaching your students, it doesn’t always mean that they are learning the material.

However, like all of us who are in a similar situation, I am concerned about standardized testing. I do believe standardized tests have value. They are one tool that helps teachers know what instruction to change and improve to help struggling students. I don’t believe standardized tests have all the answers, though. As I sat in on a literacy meeting with a sales representative for an assessment company recently, what I heard repeatedly was that its product would help raise our students’ test scores. I wondered: Are kids learning how to read better or just learning how to take a test?

I feel blessed to be in a school that lets teachers do their job, rather than replacing them with a workbook specifically aligned to deliver higher scores. Certain school districts place so much emphasis on raising reading and math test scores that they are not allowing some of their most talented teachers to teach, and are instead relying on prepackaged curricula that promise better scores.

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I have talked to teachers and parents at a number of schools that rely so heavily on standardized tests that a portion of the teaching week is devoted just to practicing and gathering data for them. The 3rd grade daughter of a parent I know begged her mother to pull her out of school because of the anxiety created by these high-pressure tests.

We also know that with standardized learning that we cannot actually measure every standard by a test. For example, one Iowa Core standard reads: “Understand the importance of volunteerism as a characteristic of American society.” I believe this is a great standard. I know it’s important to develop character and citizenship in our youth and that volunteerism does this. But, how do you test for character? And if you can’t test for it, do you get rid of the standard? I hope not. I believe the most worthwhile thing I can do is have my 8th graders host a community breakfast for our veterans. When they get notes from veterans saying that this is the first time they have even been honored, the students understand that standard.

Many other countries have structured curriculum and standards. South Korea has a nationalized, structured curriculum with clear standards that yield high results. When I was in South Korea at a teaching seminar in 2009, I asked a young Korean teaching assistant if he thought his students were smarter than Americans, as a result of his country’s educational system. He replied, “We are taught how to be good test-takers; however, Americans are taught to be innovators and to think differently.” I have pondered this statement for many years, and have come to the conclusion that we produce innovators because we give teachers the freedom to teach outside the box.

This brings me back to my initial questions: Am I a better teacher as a result of teaching to the Iowa Core? And are my students learning more as a result? The verdict is still out, but I believe that common standards can be a useful tool for teachers, parents, and students. Still, we must remember that it is just one tool and not the be-all and end-all to solve all of America’s education problems. As long as we have teachers who foster true thinking with school leaders that back them up, the United States can continue to grow innovative young minds regardless of any new education policy.

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