Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Common Core: “If you like your curriculum, you can keep your curriculum”

Common Core’s primary backers have been assuring us for years that the standards do not mandate any specific curriculum or prescribe any particular method of teaching. However, now that states have begun to implement Common Core, those same backers are singing a different tune. Professor Jay P. Greene highlighted the shift at the Education Next blog. For example, just six months ago, prominent Common Core supporters Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern wrote in National Review Online:

    "Here’s what the Common Core State Standards do: They simply delineate what children should know at each grade level and describe the skills that they must acquire to stay on course toward college or career readiness. They are not a curriculum; it’s up to school districts to choose curricula that comply with the standards."

However, now Porter-Magee and Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute argue that the standards must change “classroom practice”:

    "In order for standards to have any impact, however, they must change classroom practice. In Common Core states, the shifts that these new expectations demand are based on the best research and information we have about how to boost students’ reading comprehension and analysis and thereby prepare them more successfully for college and careers. Whether those shifts will truly transform classroom practice, however, remains to be seen."

What sort of changes will that entail? Well, for one, Common Core uses “lexiles,” which measure things like sentence length and vocabulary to rate the complexity of a text, to determine which books are suitable for each grade level. As Professor Blaine Greteman points out at The New Republic, the simplistic lexile scores absurdly conclude that “The Hunger Games” is more complex than “Grapes of Wrath” and that Sports Illustrated for Kids is more complex than “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Greteman concludes, “Lexile scoring is the intellectual equivalent of a thermometer: perfect for cooking turkeys, but not for encouraging moral growth.”

As Greene notes, the change in tune concerns not only the impact on curriculum, but also whether Common Core prescribes a given manner of teaching:

    "The National Council on Teacher Quality, with support and praise from the Fordham Institute, are grading teacher training programs on whether “The program trains teacher candidates to teach reading as prescribed by the Common Core State Standards.”   Wait.  ”Prescribed?”  I thought Common Core didn’t prescribe pedagogy.  But that was back when I was young and we were dating.

    It would be nice if Fordham and others trying to hold down the right flank of the Common Core advocacy campaign could keep their story straight.  The switch once the fight has shifted from adoption to implementation creates the impression that these folks make whatever argument they think will help them prevail in the current debate rather than relying on principle, evidence, and intellectually serious policy discussion."


The Latest Common Core Fight: Cursive (and Common Core Is Losing in Some States)

The swirling lines from Linden Bateman's pen have been conscripted into a national fight to keep cursive writing in American classrooms.

In years gone by, it helped distinguish the literate from the illiterate.  But now, in the digital age, people are increasingly communicating by computer and smartphone. No handwritten signature necessary.

Call it a sign of the times. When the new Common Core educational standards were crafted, penmanship classes were dropped. But at least seven of the 45 states that adopted the standards are fighting to restore the cursive instruction.


Bateman, a 72-year-old state representative from Idaho, says cursive conveys intelligence and grace, engages creativity and builds brain cells.

"Modern research indicates that more areas of the human brain are engaged when children use cursive handwriting than when they keyboard," said Bateman, who handwrites 125 ornate letters each year. "We're not thinking this through. It's beyond belief to me that states have allowed cursive to slip from the standards."


State leaders who developed the Common Core - a set of preferred K-12 course offerings for public schools - omitted cursive for a host of reasons, including an increasing need for children in a digital-heavy age to master computer keyboarding and evidence that even most adults use some hybrid of classic cursive and print in everyday life.

"If you just stop and think for a second about what are the sorts of skills that people are likely to be using in the future, it's much more likely that keyboarding will help students succeed in careers and in school than it is that cursive will," said Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of K-12 policy and leadership at the University of Southern California.


States that adopted Common Core aren't precluded from deviating from the standards. But in the world of education, where classroom time is limited and performance stakes are high, optional offerings tend to get sidelined in favor of what's required.


Maoist class war wrecked Britain's state schools

For too long teachers have thought it wrong to transmit 'posh' standards of literate speech, or encourage their pupils to betray their own culture

It was all over the media last week: a veritable tidal wave of eloquent regret and outrage over the destruction of the grammar schools. Set off by a political storm over social elites and the resurgence of a private school monopoly on power, it became a thunderous chorus of denunciation of that edict which had undermined the state education system. One commentator after another, supported by legions of letter writers to newspapers and commenters on websites, joined in the public grief over what was once described as the greatest act of vandalism ever committed by a British government against its own people.

None of this was new or unfamiliar – but this time the outpouring was so unflinching in its anger that it silenced even the usual critics. What feeble scraps of argument were flung against the flood of personal testimony and unanswerable historical evidence did not stand up to examination.

The claim that grammars had never really offered opportunity to working-class children, only to ambitious middle-class ones, was beaten back by a million anecdotes from those who had themselves been rescued from what would now be called “deprivation” by the 11-plus. At best, that was an argument that had only ever applied to the richer parts of south-east England: in northern towns (like the one where my husband grew up – and from which he was rescued by school selection) whose populations were overwhelmingly working class, whole tranches of the post-war baby boom generation reached higher education because of the 11 plus examination. Which is why, in the Sixties, Britain had the highest proportion of university students from working-class backgrounds of any European country.

So yes – all those people who gnash their teeth and rend their garments in lament for the loss of grammar schools are right. It was horrendous. It was unforgivable. But, in truth, it was not, in and of itself, the reason for the catastrophic decline of British state schooling. The grammar schools – and the selection process that gave access to them – were simply a mechanism by which a particular understanding of the relationship between education and society was implemented. It was the collapse of belief in the philosophy that underpinned them – in meritocracy – which actually did the damage.

Meritocracy means rule by the most able. It requires that those of greatest talent must be identified, and permitted to reach their full potential, so that they may be elevated to the highest-possible positions in national life. No other considerations – social position at birth, family connections or economic advantage – should be considered more of a qualification for office or public position than individual ability. That was the ethos of the grammar-school movement. But it was also the implicit assumption of the entire educational system.

The whole point of schooling was to enable those who could, to rise, to leave behind the limitations of their origins. In Britain, this had very particular class connotations: the industrial revolution had left a peculiarly ugly form of social deprivation in its wake which involved mass defeatism and passivity of a kind that even compulsory schooling found difficult to penetrate.

One remedy for this was the universal examination at the end of primary school – basically an IQ test that was designed to identify intellectual potential – which would eliminate the need for self-selecting aspiration. But of course, it could not eradicate the advantages that were often (but by no means, always) associated with middle-class life: verbal fluency, higher literacy, parental enthusiasm. So the exam – and more importantly, the idea of selection itself – came to be seen as tainted.

The very possession of ability was an unjust kind of privilege. Having the sort of home or family (even if it was not a wealthy one) that encouraged you to strive, was an unfair advantage. Intelligence was unevenly distributed – and therefore must not be grounds for discrimination. So when the grammar schools went, that was just the beginning.

If comprehensives had involved simple mergers between existing schools: if they had retained academic streams and technical ones, with the basic understanding of what education was for remaining intact, then the loss of those old institutions – while still sad – would not have been ruinous. But their abolition was only one victory in a much larger political struggle to preserve class loyalty.

If all of this sounds absurd to you, then you are still running on the assumption that education exists to develop individual human potential. And that is precisely what the new educational philosophy was determined to dismantle. Schooling was no longer about encouraging children to escape from the milieu that would sink their feet in the concrete of low expectations. It was consciously designed not to do that: not to imply in any way that the child’s background was inferior – however impoverished or genuinely deprived it might be. To impose correct grammar, or academic content, or “bourgeois culture”, on working-class children was a form of social imperialism.

The language of cultural revolution was entirely appropriate – because this was a Maoist class war. You did not want able children to escape from the working class: you cannot fight a war if your troops keep going over to the other side.

So the idea was explicitly instilled in a whole generation of teachers that they must not transmit “posh” standards of literate speech, or encourage their pupils to betray their own culture which was just as “valid” as all those elitist pastimes which were “irrelevant” to the reality of their lives.

Well, you know all this. Like many others, I wrote about it so often over two decades that I became sick to death of the subject. And, you may say, the worst is over now in terms of the preposterous ideology that was drilled into a generation of teachers. But here’s the thing: pupils who were taught back in the Dark Age of British state education are now teachers themselves.

They may not share the views of the headbangers who monopolise teaching union conferences, or accept the more ludicrous social engineering ambitions of their predecessors. But they have inherited a professional ethos which, until very recently, was designed not to instruct the young (“instructional” being the most pejorative word in the lexicon) in the accumulated knowledge of the adult world, in the best that their own heritage had to offer.

Which is why bringing back the grammar schools would not be a solution to our problems. What we really need is a restored belief in the liberation and the fulfilment that genuine education can provide.


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