Mostly I have resisted addressing the new national set of standards called the Common Core. The Core’s goals are lofty, its intentions good. Many teachers nonetheless are appalled by the new standards and I understand where they are coming from. Why do these educators reject the Common Core?
Part of the problem with the Core has been unreasonable expectations. More teachers should have been consulted in its creation. Almost none were involved until the Core’s content had been completed. Teachers could have reined in some of the Core’s more unfortunate choices.
While parts of the Core are excellent, some Core expectations are unreasonable for the ages for which they are intended. We are not born able to think critically and some of us — gasp! — are a little lost when trying to think critically in early elementary school. The idea that we should teach skills when we want students to have them, rather than when they are ready to learn them, has caused teachers looking at the Core to reject the Core overall, despite the fact that the idea of a national curriculum has formidable advantages, at least if we want to effectively compare students in different regions of the country.
I saw a perfect example of what I am talking about when my girls were little. In the upwardly mobile suburb where I live, most parents leap on literacy training. These are the same parents playing Brahms to children in the womb and buying educational, geometric mobiles to hang over cribs. I watched and learned that you could teach a two-year-old child the alphabet in a couple of months. You could teach the song quicker, but those kids could have been singing “Hey Jude” for all they knew. In a few months, though, you can hold up the “B” card and many little nippers will be able to shout “Beee!”
Or you can wait until that child is three, and he or she will learn the alphabet in about half the time. By five, some kids can get the alphabet under their belt in one intensive week. Obviously the times vary greatly, depending on the child’s development, interest, language skills, and background knowledge, as well as the parent’s motivation. The idea’s clear, though: If you wait awhile, kids are more ready to learn and they learn a lot faster. In Finland, children don’t start school until they are seven. Maybe that’s because sound research suggests that some perfectly normal kids are not ready to read until they are seven. A number of skills have to come together before independent reading can launch.
Critical thinking requires background knowledge. Background knowledge requires time spent learning. We don’t have much background knowledge when we are seven. Without that knowledge, critical thinking frequently becomes gobbledygook and gobbledygook in these times can be educationally disastrous. Teachers are now supposed to provide encouragement and praise for honest efforts. Under the Core, students will receive a great deal of credit on their national test even if they answer a math problem incorrectly, as long as their process shows at least partial understanding of how to do the problem.
The answer’s still wrong, however. When we praise critical thinking results that don’t make much sense because the student tried, we support fuzzy thinking and wrong answers. Trying to teach reasoning too soon may well prove counterproductive as students spew out silly answers and teachers reply, “That’s a good try, Jennie. I am glad to hear you share your ideas.”
Eduhonesty: Some answers are right. Some are wrong. Some make no sense whatsoever. Attempts to raise self-esteem that encourage wrong or substandard answers do not benefit our students in the long-run. But if we demand skills of our students that they are not ready to possess, and reward partially correct efforts, we will end up encouraging wrong and substandard answers.
Here are the Common Core standards for 3rd grade literacy:
Key Ideas and Details:
Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events
Craft and Structure:
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, distinguishing literal from nonliteral language.
Refer to parts of stories, dramas, and poems when writing or speaking about a text, using terms such as chapter, scene, and stanza; describe how each successive part builds on earlier sections.
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:
Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting)
Compare and contrast the themes, settings, and plots of stories written by the same author about the same or similar characters (e.g., in books from a series)
Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:
By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 2-3 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
Careful reading of the standards suggests the problem. These are laudable standards on the surface. For the child who can meet the standards, they are an educational win. What can be wrong with comparing and contrasting themes, settings and plots? The problem comes from the fact that many children are genuinely unready to read the expected level of literature by third grade. Many are barely ready to read when they are six or seven. Individual children are different and “differentiation” — to use an education buzzword — cannot begin to address the inappropriateness of these standards for a subset of third graders.
When we force these children to compare and contrast themes, settings and plots, they will oblige us. Third graders are extremely obliging. Teachers are also kind. For the most part, they will praise anything that makes the remotest sense.
What worries me and many other educators: The Common Core is a vast experiment using children as test fodder. So much research has been done on appropriate expectations for the different grade levels in our system. We are throwing that research in the trash in pursuit of goals that may well be unattainable. Who will pay the price if our expectations are unreasonable? America’s children will pay that price.
I’ll end with just one question: Since America’s educational system worked better in the seventies than it does now, why don’t we try doing what we did in the seventies instead of using children as lab rats?