"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Monday, February 13, 2012

Common Core Doesn't Determine Curriculum: Who's Behind the Curtain?

(Fifth in the series on Common Core.  Read the intro, part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

4. They say that Common Core does not determine curriculum, aka "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."

Common Core is just standards.  Standards lead to assessments.  Assessments lead to curriculum.  As Dr. Jay P. Greene stated, "To make standards meaningful they have to be integrated with changes in curriculum, assessment and pedagogy [teaching methods]."

People complain about teachers teaching to the test, but, at the same time, if those teachers are being evaluated by the results of those tests, why wouldn't they?  Also, if we are putting our kids into those testing situations, don't we want them prepared to succeed?  Yes, we want them to succeed.  And yes, the teachers will teach to the tests. 

I had originally started this blog to tell you how the curriculum hadn't been determined, yet.  You still have the opportunity in math, at least in Alpine, to give your input.  However, two things have occurred that you need to be aware of.

First, even though Alpine delayed Common Core implementation by a year, the textbook publishers are still scrambling to put things together for us to evaluate.  Singapore Math won't have their Common Core-aligned textbooks ready for evaluation till April.  Alpine will be ordering textbooks by then.  The decision will have already been made. We have to begin implementation in the Fall, as per the State School Board's requirements.  So, we are making decisions worth millions of dollars over a short period of time and without considering all the possibilities.  If it is determined some other textbook is better than the ones we select this year, we will not be in a financial position to change things around for several more years.  This is a rushed decision because of an arbitrarily-imposed timeline from the State School Board. 

Second, I became aware of an additional $15,872,696 grant from the US Department of Education (Federal Government) to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) to "support efforts to help participating States successfully transition to common standards and assessments."  As part of SBAC's plan, they will develop "model curriculum and instructional models" and "curriculum materials".  Remember,  "the federal government ... will not have a role in [the Common Core] implementation."  Do you still buy that line?

In Alpine, you have a small window of opportunity to give your feedback on the math texts that are available to choose from.  Every middle school will be having School Community Council meetings to present their selections and inform you of how Common Core will be implemented. 

There is no process for Language Arts involvement, currently.  I was told the Language Arts piece really isn't that much different.  We will just be realigning which materials go with which grade-levels.  So, for example, a book that might be for third grade right now, will need to be shifted down as an appropriate level for second or first grade.  But let's delve into Language Arts some more.

First, you need to know that the official title is "Common Core Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects".  So, when we say English, we also need to understand that our Science, Social Studies, and CTE (Career and Technical Education) subjects will be involved in Common Core teaching and standards.  (There is training scheduled in our district for those specialties for Common Core implementation.) 

Next, there is a heavy emphasis on informational texts (texts designed to convey factual information), as opposed to literature.  In the elementary grades, it is to be 50% literature and 50% informational texts.  In middle school, 55% informational texts and only 45% literature.  By high school, 70% must be informational texts and only 30% literature.  (See nice video here from Sue Gendron, policy coordinator for the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium, text percentage begins about 5 min in.  Please note, this is a leader of the assessment consortium, discussing the specific changes required in the curriculum because of the standards.)  I'm not opposed to informational texts, but I have a couple of concerns. 

My initial concern with the emphasis on informational texts was the child's engagement and enjoyment of reading.  When we first learn to read, we get hooked on the stories.  Over time, we develop sufficient skills and interest in reading that we can read more complicated things, conveying information, and learning facts and figures.  However, in the beginning, it's all about the stories.  I don't know about you, but my voracious readers don't read much informational text.  They read for enjoyment.  They read for entertainment.  If we take the enjoyment out of reading by making it all fact-based, we end up creating a problem that didn't exist before.  Not to mention that good literature allows you to learn from the experiences and mistakes of others, even if those others are fictional.  Take A Christmas Carol or MacBeth.  There are timeless principles to be learned from Ebenezer Scrooge and Lady MacBeth.  Or Huck Finn, saying, "You can't pray a lie."  I haven't read Huck Finn in decades, but that is one vivid lesson I remember from my sophomore American Lit class.  What interesting informational text did I read that year?  I can't really say. 

My next concern comes from the same place as my concern with the assessments.  Informational text is going to be written from a particular perspective.  Part of the reason education is supposed to be local is to allow us to maintain our local culture and values.  Education wasn't originally intended to displace parental and community values.  And yet, there is great potential for it in this context.  To alleviate concerns, it is important to note that every informational text is going to be presented.  Then, the student is to give the opinion from the text and construct a counter-argument.  There is great potential for good, as well as social engineering in this.  I have a lot of trust that our local teachers will do a good job.  I just worry about the assessments and what slant they will take.  Along those lines, we have the potential to do one of two things to our kids.  First, they can be taught moral relativism quite easily through the "question everything" model.  Second, since the majority of what is presented in school is presented as fact, anything contrary to the school's presentation (perhaps Mom's and Dad's perspective?) could be deemed incorrect.  It is very dependent on the local implementation, and, of course, the assessments.

Let me give you an example.  During the USBA Conference, I attended a presentation on Common Core.  The presenter, from the State Office of Education, gave us a quote from Ronald Reagan's address to the students at the University of Moscow in 1988.  In it, Reagan discusses the advantages of a free-market system.  First, we are asked to decide what claim Mr. Reagan is making.  Then, we are REQUIRED to talk with the person next to us and cite evidence that supports our conclusion and listen to our partner.  And finally, "considering the current economic conditions of 2012 what evidence could you use to support Reagan's claim for economic growth?  What evidence could you use to develop a counterclaim?"  What if I replace Reagan's speech with the Declaration of Independence?  "What evidence could you use to develop a counterclaim" to the idea that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights?  Do I want my kids to understand and know the opposite of unalienable rights?  Yes.  Do I want them to be taught that unalienable rights is a superior argument to the alternative?  Emphatically, yes.  Will that be done?  I don't know.  How will this be handled and tested?  Locally, probably okay...until the assessments prove otherwise.  In fact, this is a goldmine of opportunity for inserting an agenda into our schools.  With local control, we get to set that agenda.  With national control, we don't.  (And I won't even go into the potential for peer pressure in a classroom when discussing potentially charged issues.)

It should be noted that the State Board of Education has stated Utah will NOT be adopting the Common Core standards for Science and Social Studies, as they are too fraught with ideas and values contrary to Utah's culture.  I appreciate their sensitivity to our local values.  However, remember that the now-adopted English standards also include Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects.  Utah Law requires students to thoroughly study America's Founding Documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Mayflower Compact, etc.  So, my query about the counterclaim to the Declaration isn't without merit.  In short, I will be curious to see how that "Literacy" piece is incorporated into these other subject areas. 

One additional point, even though the US Department of Education is prohibited by any number of laws--including the orginal Act creating the Department of Education--from being able "to mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s curriculum, program of instruction...", the Department has effectively paid other entities to do what it isn't able to do directly.  However, under the law, if you pay someone to break the law for you, you are still guilty.  As a white paper, The Road to a National Curriculum, says:

By PARCC’s and SBAC’s admission, these standards and assessments will create content for state K-12 curriculum and instructional materials.  The Department [of Education] has simply paid others to do that which it is forbidden to do. This tactic should not inoculate the Department against the curriculum prohibitions imposed by Congress.
In truth, I assumed the US Department of Education would have waited two or three years, till we had fully implemented the assessments, to peer out from behind the curtain on curriculum.  But, I suppose when you are the Great and Powerful Oz, you don't need to pretend to follow the law.