Last night was the second of four informational meetings hosted by our school’s principal. The first one was an overview of Race To The Top. The topic this time was the Common Core and its instructional shifts in English Language Arts (ELA). After the abysmal turnout at the first meeting, I was absolutely dismayed to see that there were only two other attendees besides my husband and me. One was a teacher and there was one other parent.
Like the first meeting, this one was largely “factual” with a slide presentation on the smart board that was basically a reiteration of what can be found on EngageNY. To briefly summarize for those of you who have had the good fortune of avoiding the gag-fest presented by EngageNY, we learned of the 6 instructional shifts in ELA:
- Read as much non fiction as fiction
- Learn about the world by reading
- Read more challenging material closely
- Discuss reading using evidence
- Write non-fiction using evidence
- Increase academic vocabulary
It all sounds great, doesn’t it? And that’s what the other parent and teacher thought too! They were quite pleased that “we” were finally doing something to prepare our students for college. I made it clear that I, just like everyone else, want high standards. And nobody wants their students to be ill-prepared. But I did voice some of my concerns along the way. I’m in a difficult position as my son is only in Pre-K and I have yet to experience an abundance of hard evidence of the detrimental effects of the Common Core. But I am frightened of his future years in school, and I am fighting for that future.
I am afraid of such a strong focus on the Core Curriculum that creative endeavors will be lost or at least severely cut back. I am afraid that our students will no longer be seen as individuals with different strengths and weaknesses. I am afraid that the love of learning and the passion for lifelong learning will lose out. I am afraid that young children will be forced to learn in such a way that is developmentally inappropriate. I am afraid that the Common Core will not serve all students well and that those who learn differently will become disenfranchised with learning. I am afraid that the state mandates associated with the Common Core will take over education in our small school. I KNOW that our kids already endure way too many versions of assessments and tests, and I am afraid that scripted curriculum and worksheet curriculum provided by for-profit companies will take the place of real learning provided by innovative and caring educators. And I doubt that the implementation of this Common Core will solve any of the problems we are seeing in our schools.
I mentioned these fears, and more, and was constantly assured that everything would be okay. Our principal is hardworking and I applaud her for hosting these sessions! And maybe it’s my wishful thinking, but I hear skepticism in her voice when she explains the Common Core and puts her best foot forward explaining how we as a school will handle it. Whether or not she agrees with the Common Core, she truly does believe that our teachers can handle it… that they are doing and will continue to do a great job. I hope so! But what happens when they get so fed up with being told what to do that they shut down and just go with it? What happens when these teachers, who were once in control of their classes and curriculum, retire? What will young teachers be like when they enter the profession (if you can even call it that by then) and they know no other sense of normalcy besides the Common Core? How will we get back then?
But maybe we don’t want to. I say this because, although there were only two others in attendance, I was the sole dissenter. The principal did her best to address my concerns, but the teacher and other parent really just looked at me like they couldn’t understand why I had these concerns in the first place–like my fears were completely unfounded. They both told stories about our graduates not being able to read or write well enough to hold a job or keep up with a college education. And they stated adamantly that it was about time something was being done. In my opinion, their perspective was narrow and they lacked the ability to perceive any of the devious nuances of the Common Core. Clearly the propaganda behind the Common Core is working because, like many, they hear “reform” and “high standards,” and that becomes their focus.
With regards to the shift to read more non-fiction, we discussed various kinds of non-fiction, but I couldn’t believe that a large part of our conversation centered on discussing sources like instructional manuals to put together a table, the NYSEG brochure explaining our choices in energy providers, a label on a bottle of herbicide (Yes, apparently one graduate couldn’t maintain employment because the label gave him grief). And I thought, “yes, that’s terrible, that’s sad.. and also a bit pathetic.” Why do we need a Common Core to fix this??? And based on what they found relevant (labels, brochures, and manuals), you’re telling me that we need to completely redefine 14 years worth of education so that our students have the skill to follow directions??? (14, yes! The Common Core document covers K-12 and good old New York State added Pre-K to the mix.) I commented that this makes it sounds like the only purpose of the Common Core was to create people that are just smart enough to read the instructions, pull the levels, and push the buttons. Again, the look.
But the answer was the same… our students need to read better and write better. But what about art? “Our students need to read better and write better.” But what about music? “Our students need to read better and write better.” But what about young children playing? “Our students need to read better and write better.” On and on and on.
And I’ve nothing against non-fiction, folks. And there are certainly wonderful pieces of non-fiction out there that merit study. But where is the research that reading non-fiction will produce better readers and writers? I wonder, will students miss out of the true adventure of reading? Will the passion be lost? Will there be no spark in learning?
True story: I was talking about some research I read that negates the benefits of the Common Core, and before I could even get into it, “You see, that’s non-fiction! And you could read it and understand it and ‘unpack it’ (common core lingo).” Yes, I could I replied, but you see I read classic and contemporary literature in my high school English classes and loved every minute of it!
When I asked if teachers would still be able to control their curriculum, what they teach and how, I was told that the Common Core didn’t tell teachers how to teach. They could do whatever they wanted as long as they taught to the new standards. I asked how long it would be before all the rules, regulations, and VAM put a curb on that. My fellow parent politely informed me of this: “My 6th grader read Indian in the Cupboard when he was in fourth grade, and my now 4th grader gets to read it too.” Thus, I interpreted that all is well in her mind’s eye.
The Common Core informational brochure had a whole slew of suggestions for how we as parents can aid our children’s ELA learning at home. Problem is, the parents that care to read that brochure or take that advice are probably already doing these things anyway. We were presented with some tired old statistics:
- By age 3, children from affluent families have heard 30 million more words than children from parents living in poverty. (Hart and Risley, 1995).
- Children who have larger vocabularies and greater understanding of spoken language do better in school (Whitehurst and Lonigan).
- If children aren’t reading on grade level by third grade, are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma (Hernandez, 2011).
So can somebody please tell me how these standards, that were not created by experts in education, childhood development, nor in socioeconomic issues, can claim to be a solve-all when it comes to defeating these statistics? The same underlying issues will still be there. How many years will have to wait before we realize that the Common Core is a pipe dream and will not be the magical cure it promises to be?
Forgive me if it sounds like I am out to personally attack the other attendees. I am simply trying to paint a picture of the situation last night and why I left so frustrated. Indeed, we had clear differences of opinion. But at least we were all there, with enough interest to try to understand what it is invading our school.