Although it’s been nearly six years since I worked at a middle school, I’ve been having the feeling that we’re all back in middle school again. I should know – I spent nearly 30 years in middle school either as a student, teacher, assistant principal, and principal. Lately, it feels a lot like seventh grade: drama.
The Common Core drama that has enveloped education in our state and nation reminds me of middle school (and seventh grade, in particular) because of all of the name-calling, misinformation, disinformation, confusion, shouting, and general misbehavior. It’s time that we do what we do in our middle schools to reduce the drama: consider the facts and get our story straight. Since the shouting and invectives frequently use the Common Core as the rallying cry, the reduction of the drama depends on setting the record straight about standards in education.
We have standards for our students – the things we want our students to know, do, and be like. The newest version of our standards is called the Common Core Learning Standards. The standards in English Language Arts and Literacy call for our students to do more reading and writing of nonfiction, informational texts. We will shift away from textbooks to more authentic pieces of reading and writing that represent what really occurs in the many fields and disciplines in which our students will eventually find employment and interest. In mathematics, the focus is on helping our students become mathematically fluent. We focus on priority math concepts in order to allow for greater depth and real-life application. Think of: why, how, and when. These aspects of the standards are hardly controversial.
Coming soon should be the Next Generation Science Standards (although the drama and shouting may have impacted the adoption of a good thing). These goals for science education include engineering, math, technology, and problem solving to a degree not seen in the past, thus better preparing our students for the 21st Century. Again, hardly controversial. Perhaps sometime down the road when the drama dies down we will see a new set of standards for Languages Other Than English, the Arts, and others.
People are shouting about the Common Core and how bad they are. The [undramatic] fact is that there is nothing bad about standards. In New York, we’ve had common standards since 1996. There are twenty-eight of them that were organized into seven sets. The previous versions of ELA and mathematics have been updated and they are known as “the Common Core.” These standards are just the next chapter in the ongoing story of standards; sometime in the future we will have another, newer version of standards.
Standards don’t hamper creativity; they provide direction. Standards don’t dictate how you do things, they identify what should be done (and when). The how comes from the local curriculum. In New York, curricular decisions are made by school districts. Some districts write their curriculum and other districts purchase their curriculum. With part of the Race To The Top money, the State Education Department has purchased a curriculum and made it available to districts to use, if they choose. These are called the “modules.” Some districts have adopted the state purchased (but not required) modules. Some districts are adapting the modules. Other districts are referring to them, looking for good ideas in them that they can include in their locally-developed curriculum. None of these options is inherently good or bad. The trick is for districts to decide whether (and how) to use the modules for their own context. If districts don’t have a coherent curriculum, meaning different teachers do different things, then adopting the modules might be a good idea, providing both Common Core-alignment and coherence at the same time. For districts with an existing coherent curriculum, referring to the modules might be the best approach. Other districts are somewhere in the middle and are adapting.
The drama about the modules is just the usual drama that accompanies change. It might seem louder than before, but that might just be the different media we now have at our disposal. Despite what you might hear in the drama, the modules don’t stifle creativity and turn teachers into automatons. Anytime we do something for the first time it’s like this. Think about the first time you are traveling to a place you’ve never been. As you drive down the road, you are either clutching your map or listening very closely to the GPS or phone. That’s why people have ended up in strange places when closely following the Apple maps directions. The second time to a destination or the second time through a new curriculum it is different. We start to look up from the map and introduce some better routes or short cuts. Maybe we take a side trip or detour to avoid potholes in the road. We get more efficient about the journey and we enjoy it more. This is not a new phenomenon.
We’ve changed standards before. We’ve switched curricula before. And we will again. Let’s give ourselves permission to take a few trips through the curriculum to get it right. It’s hard to change to a different set of standards and it’s hard to change a curriculum. But, it’s what we do in education. Let’s graduate from middle school and leave the drama behind. We need that energy, after all, to make the changes.