Standards Opinion

Common Core: Sinking Ship or Rescue Vessel?

By Stu Silberman — April 29, 2014 4 min read
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The following post is from Lea Ann Atherton, a 2013-2014 Hope Street Group Fellow who teaches writing at Lone Oak Middle School in Paducah’s McCracken County.

If one were to walk into my sixth grade-writing classroom this week, he would find himself in the midst of the culture of 1912 aboard the renowned RMS Titanic. He would hear language being used comparable to that of a panicked portly first class gentleman unsure of what the next hour might hold. He would discover students taking on roles of passengers telling powerful stories through the art of narrative writing. While the same scenario might not be taking place in exact replication in the classroom down the hall or in any other synonymously across the district, one would notice upon careful observation that through the lessons of room 219 at Lone Oak Middle School, students are not only being introduced to, but are mastering the Common Core Standards (CCS) for writing and language arts.

It is no secret that the debate continues as to whether CCS is making or breaking education as we have grown to know it in America. Everyone seems to have a strong opinion, and as a Kentucky State Teacher Fellow for Hope Street Group, I have agonized over the fact that I should as well. Until quite recently, though, I simply haven’t. I have always had the philosophy that no matter what the standards, I could and would adapt using what I know to be true about the content and what I discover to be prerequisite demands of the students. It would always be a masterful blend of the obligatory mandates and the imperative needs. So, when faced with the question of the role I thought CCS were playing, I struggled to know what I really believed. I knew how it looked in my classroom, but I wasn’t sure that things were as positive in other subject areas or even other grade levels about which I had a reduced understanding.

In life and in education, I think we often rebel against that which we do not understand. The more time I have taken to comprehend the requirements of CCS across the board, the more I believe this to be true. Parents have rebelled against the belief that their children will only learn a new modern and elaborate way of doing basic math problems, leaving the old common sense model behind. Teachers have grumbled that the literature they once found to be so engaging will no longer be allowed in the plan books. If those things are happening in schools and districts, the CCS are simply not to blame. In the cases that I have investigated, it is not the set of standards themselves that is placing teachers in a box, but instead a boxed program that has been adopted by the district to aide in the teaching of those required standards.

Because I have “proven” myself as a teacher who gets results and I work in a distinguished school under the leadership of a principal who has a very balanced approach to education, I have been given the utmost freedom to take the standards and design my own methods for teaching them. The standards tell me “what” to teach, but they do not force the “how.” Are there holes? Of course. While the strategies for using pronouns are key to mastering the standards in sixth grade, not many of the other parts of speech are required in such depth. That is where the master teacher takes command, and the needs of the students are addressed. No standards will be without flaws, as they are designed to meet the needs of humans who clearly are not.

The greatest flaw in any set of standards is the teacher’s inability to develop lessons and teaching to the needs of the students. The need for boxed programs becomes evident to administrators when teachers are not skilled enough in their content or their craft to fill those holes, regardless of the adopted standards being implemented in a district or state. This is just another indicator of the utmost importance of teacher preparatory programs at the college level. When teachers are released into classrooms without the content knowledge and skill set to teach effectively, leadership fills the void by spending time and funds for programs to shortcut the work and ensure standards are covered, thus placing mandates on the “how” resulting in protests from the educational crowd.

In my classroom and in those of master teachers, the standards are being custom-taught to creatively and innovatively meet the needs of students. Common Core Standards have simply raised the bar to ensure that children in every state, regardless of demographics or state performance of the past, are being held to the same expectation of excellence sought for all American students. As students continue to write of their time aboard the RMS Titanic, this teacher leader continues to believe being on board with CCS might just result in more college and career ready students finishing afloat in the future.

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