I first learned about Common Core State Standards at a professional-development seminar in the summer of 2010. At the time, the standards seemed relatively innocuous—yet another of the top-down mandates, I figured, that would be embraced momentarily as the “silver bullet” for myriad education problems before being thrown aside for the next big thing. I enjoyed the seminar, not because I thought the common core itself was so life-changing, but because I loved having the opportunity to collaborate meaningfully with my colleagues at other schools and share best practices.
Some three years later, the common standards factor into everything I do in the classroom—every single unit plan I create, and every single lesson therein, is designed to contain tasks that align with the standards. Do my assignments ask kids to cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis (RL 9-10.1)? Sure they do. Will my students analyze a theme as presented by two different artistic mediums (RL 9-10.7)? You bet they will. Will they be analyzing how an author draws on source materials like the Bible in a later work (RL 9-10.9)? Yup—within the next three weeks. They’re reading Lord of the Flies, and we’ll be discussing how the island is like the Garden of Eden, how Simon is the Christ-figure, and how the titular Lord of the Flies is another name for . . . well, I’ll let you figure that one out.
In my experience, the parents of our students have limited familiarity with the standards, taking it as a given that the curricula we teach our students contain the things they need to know. They’re less concerned with the specifics than with graduation requirements being met. In truth, the few who do know about the common core may be laboring under the same misconception that I was during the summer seminar: That the common core was merely a framework by which I could design more rigorous lessons, rather than a set of expectations about what students would already know and would be able to do in a certain grade—expectations upon which subsequent standardized tests would be based.
At the high school level, this has taken a while to materialize; the past couple of years, my students have still been cowering in the face of the New York state Regents examinations. This year, in addition to Regents, a new set of “assessments” is materializing based on the common core. As is the typical M.O. of the common core (wherein apparently a one-week seminar is expected to be sufficient preparation for a complete overhaul of one’s entire teaching style and body of materials), teachers haven’t even seen the format of this exam. Hey, on the bright side, at least we won’t be teaching to the test!
The thing about the common standards is that they are optimistic at best. However capable my students may be of making those types of connections and intellectual leaps under the guidance of a teacher, they are—for the most part—unable to do so on their own without significant scaffolding. And the test, presumably, will require them to do just that. In a more general sense, the common core operate under the premise that the kids have background knowledge and literary experience that they simply don’t. While I do not dismiss the goals of the common standards, and am happy to continue working with the students towards deeper comprehension, a broader knowledge base, and more lucid writing, to take for granted that all students will possess these same skills is naïve.
In the public schools, particularly, we work with students who are often several grades behind where the standards prescribe them to be due to interrupted formal education or language barriers; we also work with special-needs students, whose strengths and weaknesses are diverse. One mainstay of good pedagogy is “differentiation,” the act of tailoring lessons to individual students, or groups of students, in ways that address their individual needs and offer them challenges at their respective levels. The implementation of the common core as a set of intellectual requirements for students, as opposed to an instructional lodestar for teachers (as I’d initially understood them), seems to fly in the face of that—and to the extent that they inform standardized testing, even more so.
So what will I tell the parents of our students, should they ask me about the common core at parent-teacher night in October? I’m unsure. I certainly cannot imagine our parents exerting overt hostility towards the standards—I think confusion and concern about how this will affect their children’s chances of graduation are more likely. And if that is the case, I’ll tell them to continue monitoring their child, and keep in touch with me—the same as I always do.
Ilana Garon is an English teacher at a high school in the Bronx, N.Y. She recently published her first book, ‘Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?': Teaching Lessons From the Bronx.
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