The Forum on the Common Core with Kris Nielsen

I want to extend my thanks to Kris Nielsen for coming to Morris, NY and speaking to us about the Common Core State Standards Initiative.  His lively presentation summarized his first book, “Children of the Core,” and drew a decent crowd to my one-traffic-light village and the meeting room of our local volunteer fire department. We saw a good number of BATs. There were, of course, parents and grandparents who worry about the future of education for their children and grandchildren. And surprisingly, there was a relative large number of homeschool parents, who share many of the same concerns as public school parents, and wonder what the Common Core will mean for them. It was a wonderful evening and I thank everyone who came.

For a village this size, our local public school services about 500 PK-12 students. Like I said, we have one traffic light, besides the newly placed one outside of the school to allow pedestrians to cross the street to the parking lot. When I planned this gathering, I had no idea who would attend, if anyone. I publicized the event everywhere I could think, and others helped spread the word by posting it on their Facebook pages or hanging a flier in their community. My worries shifted between having nobody show up, to having an overflow of guests coming from neighboring towns and villages. We are a string of small rural places, spread out and isolated in some cases. Some of my guests wrote on the sign-in sheet that they do not have internet or email and they listed their phone numbers instead. We are slow to unite. Many are not yet informed and my hopes were that this forum would help us extend the conversation at least a little bit.

As it turned out, we had about 40 guests, which was a perfect number for our venue. Sadly, only a few were from Morris. Last year, our principal organized some informational events (see here, here, & here) and not more than 8 people attended each one. After the event, I emailed everyone who left an email address to thank them for coming.  I repeated some pertinent information and invited everyone to join our local group, Oneonta Area for Public EducationOne woman wrote back and said this: “Good presentation, but there should have been a lot more attending.  My husband and I are seniors, grand- and great grandparents, and are very concerned about our future generations.”  These are feelings I share.

I know Morris, NY is the last place on earth where anyone would expect to be gathering to discuss education reform. But this is where I live and when I talk to other people about education, it’s clear that many sense a problem… even if they don’t know what to call it yet.  My son is 5 years old and my daughter is not quite 2. When my son started PreK last year, I had no idea that I would come to learn of so many disturbing trends in education. As a parent, I want to be involved in all aspects of my children’s experiences in school, and be able to make informed decisions that are in their best interests.

I suppose it is by luck of nature or nurture that I tend to question authority and the status quo. I ask a lot of questions and demand real answers. I guess the mixed blessing is that my children also possess this same characteristic and give me a hard time every day! My daughter is already deeply involved in her why phase so I can understand how irritating too many questions can be. But trust me on this: When parents like me ask questions, we do it because we care, not out of disrespect for teachers or administrators.

Unfortunately when it comes to knowing and understanding what’s happening in schools, the state has made this very difficult and many parents are in the dark when it comes to not only what is affecting their children, but also why. Our forum on the Common Core State Standards Initiative was for anyone who wanted to learn more. It was a forum for anyone that intuitively knows that these reforms are flawed but might not yet understand them completely, or how everything ties together. It was a forum if you have questions and you’re simply sick and tired of being dispassionately redirected to the EngageNY website for empty answers. And it was also a forum for those that think they support the Common Core but wanted to hear the other side, which is too often neglected by our state leaders and our school administrations.

There are many reasons to be concerned. You might be a parent who is concerned about the changed in curriculum your child is bringing home. Your child might have been one among the majority of NYS students that failed the state tests. You might be a teacher at a school that just adopted modules, and you’re wondering how you can possibly maintain your autonomy. You might feel conflicted as you align your curriculum with the Common Core and know that some of what you must teach is developmentally inappropriate for your students. You might be an administrator who feels caught between a rock and a hard place. Or you might just be a taxpayer watching your school budgets bleed out due to unfunded mandates. There are many reasons to be concerned.

Robert Valiant, of Dump Duncan and a contributing member of the Left-Right Alliance for Public Education described one of the most overlooked flaws of the Common Core as “a monoculture of the mind.”

In agriculture it is recognized that over-reliance on a single crop can have a devastating effect on the human population when problems arise that cannot be quickly resolved. Look at potato blight and Ireland’s potato famine. Crop diversity helps protect against plant disease, pests, climate change, and soil depletion.

Human survival, including adaptation to a changing world, requires diverse ways of looking at problems and the trial of ideas of outliers. Why then would we ever think it was a good idea to have everyone learn the same things at the same time in the same ways? The elite understand the value of diversity of learning–that is why they send their children to prestigious private schools where expanding minds is the norm.

The apple is our contemporary symbol of education. The great American author, Henry David Thoreau, once wrote, “Surely the apple is the noblest of fruits,” in his essay Wild Apples. Apples have been cultivated over the ages for flavor, size, look, uniformity, longevity, and other particular traits. As a result, we have apples available all year round and able to endure transportation of thousands of miles. But Thoreau advocates for the wildest of apples. He wrote:

So much for the more civilized apple trees. I love better to go through the old orchards of ungrafted apple trees, at what ever season of the year, –so irregularly planted: sometimes two trees standing close together; and the rows so devious that you would think that they not only had grown while the owner was sleeping, but had been set out by him in an somnambulic state. The rows of grafted fruit will never tempt me to wander amid them like these. But I now, alas, speak rather from memory than from any recent experience, such ravages have been made!

Thoreau recognizes that although their taste might not “suit the palate of the civilized man,” those wild apples possess qualities not found in the standard retail fruit, some making the best cider in the world, others far too beautiful to eat–hundreds of varieties that are often overlooked, their individual qualities neglected.

A “monoculture of the mind” ignores individual qualities, as well as regional and cultural differences. We must resist a monoculture of the mind and insist on a liberating, mind-expanding education for our children. The Common Core offers a flawed solution to greater social problems that we rural New Yorkers know all too well. Susan Ohanian, the long-time teacher, free-lance writer, and brilliant critic of the Common Core wrote this:

Not everybody can–or wants to be–top banana. Some people will be presidents, others will be custodians. We need both. If our society is to function, we need every manner of worker. The shame is not in being a manual laborer, a waitress, or a health-service aide. The shame is that we refuse to pay these people a lving wage. (“One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards” 1999. pp.15/16)

The United States, New York State, and this area in particular is filled with a diverse population of people. We are caring, creative, and entrepreneurial. In contrast to the monoculture, standardization, and corporate style offered by the Common Core, we wanted thanked Kris Nielsen with a selection of unique and locally-sources products in a gift basket–honey, maple syrup, soap, jam, salsa, and even beer–just a small selection of what individuals in this area have to offer.

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4 thoughts on “The Forum on the Common Core with Kris Nielsen

  1. Nicely stated! I see a similar metaphor of common core. Common core is the rooted weed that will suffocate the rest of the garden. If we do not pluck it out, it will ruin our crop.

    • Perfect metaphor! Weeds certainly do overtake a garden if they aren’t kept in check. They smother other plants, spread quickly and steal valuable nutrients from the soil. We could go on and on!

  2. I was one of those who attended this meeting. I was very disappointed that more of the local people did not attend. I really did not see much advertising for it though. If in the future, you plan to have more in the Morris/New Berlin area please let me know and I’d be happy to hang posters, knock on doors, whatever it takes. It was a very informative talk and I appreciate your hard work.

    • Thanks for coming. I advertised it in all the local calendars of events, The Daily Star, Oneonta Calendar, WSKG, and I hung posters in NOrwich and Oneonta, as well as some other places. I know some other folks posted it around their communities and handed out fliers, or posted it to their FB pages. I posted it on FB and in the Oneonta Area for Education group. Yes, there could always be more advertising, and it’s hard to reach all the small communities around here and I will certainly take you up on your offer for the next event! If you’d like to organize something in New Berlin at any point, please let’s discuss your ideas and we can get something rolling! I’d be happy to help.

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