The Common Core, Testing, And Other Distractions.

This week I received a note on behalf of a group of educators in a district where I used to teach, where the “culture of accountability” continues to take a heavy toll on teacher morale.  The note included the transcript of a heartfelt address to the district school committee, and I’d like to share the link to that transcript here.  It so happens today’s post is relevant to their address.  I am so glad these issues are being brought to the attention of school committees, and I am even more delighted to see that lack of planning and preparation time was included in their address.

An early installment of The Unrealized Maine Classroom addressed the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and Language Arts.  I put forth an argument that the standards themselves do not amount to a problem we ought to spend time, money and energy repealing.  The comments and emails that followed were mostly positive and encouraging, but some held steady that the Common Core Standards are bad standards and need to be repealed.  The majority of critics of the Common Core that I have come across, readers of this blog and elsewhere, do not make a solid case that the standards themselves are sub-par or inadequate.  Granted, one can extract a difficult-to-understand phrase or explanation within the Common Core standards if one digs deep enough, but most often criticism aims at over testing and weird homework assignments, both of which have far more to do with a local district’s curriculum and assessment decisions than the Common Core standards themselves. 

The Common Core and over testing two separate, very hot topics among education stakeholders, and I wish they were not.  To those individuals who devote energy and emotion to fighting the Common Core, I shake my head not so much because I disagree (I don’t think the Common Core standards are perfect), but because I so strongly feel your passion could be much better directed elsewhere.  And honestly, I feel the same way about testing.  We test too much.  Kids hate testing.  Tests make some students cry even.  And the data we get from tests may not even be as valuable as we make it out to be.  But tests are not ruining education.  Neither is the Common Core.

If I were to concede (this is just hypothetical) that the Common Core standards were bad standards, the reality remains that they are just standards, i.e. a list of guidelines for what math and language arts content should be taught in schools. They are not a curriculum, they are not teaching, they are not homework.  In order for a set of content standards to have a direct impact on quality of instruction, they’d have to be really, really bad standards.  As in, 1 + 1 = 3 bad.  D-o-g spells cat bad. And as a math strategist and close colleague of highly qualified and excellent literacy strategists, I beg for your trust when I say, they really aren’t that bad.  

For argument’s sake, though, let’s pretend, or assume, they are not good standards. In other words, let’s say the standards are badly worded in many places, hard to follow, confusing, and peppered with questionable content emphasis.  ** Interlude: This is hard for me, because I know this is not the case, having researched, having been trained and having taught the Common Core math standards since before they were made public in 2010, but I will respectfully play along.**  A school’s professional community, full of professionally trained educators, some experienced veterans and others fresh out of grad school with all the hot pedagogical trends tattooed in their brains, ought to be able to work with any set of content standards to deliver a quality curriculum.  Moreover, if the standards are not top notch in the eyes of the majority of educators, perhaps those educators ought to consider improving them.  Repealing the standards presents yet another major setback for both teachers and students for years to come.  In other words, if we did repeal the Common Core standards, and went back to the drawing board to adopt new standards, invest once again in all the professional development and curriculum re-design and re-purchasing (and yes, adopting new tests) that comes with new standards, where would we be then?  Years down the road and not any better for the effort, that’s where.

OK, back to reality.  I’m glad that’s over.

Now let’s talk about tests.  Everybody hates tests.  We test our kids to the gills, that is to say too much, and the data we get from all these tests is not always reliable and should never be relied upon to determine a teacher’s effectiveness.  I agree that it takes too much time to test kids, and that it can impact learning in a negative way. But I don’t agree that tests are taking over public education.  I don’t feel that tests are making it impossible to teach or to learn.  

For the most part, while we test too much, I think it is an issue that has become largely sensationalized.  We’ve all seen that image of the student sitting at a desk with a paper full of half-filled oval bubbles and a number two pencil in one hand, forehead in the other, and an expression that looks something like severe constipation.  The notion that all kids ever do is take tests now sits alongside other apocalyptic modern school myths like, “they never make them say the Pledge these days.”  Testing does sometimes get in the way of learning, it is a burden on students and teachers, but remember that for the vast majority of your child’s 175 days in school, your child is actually spending his or her time sitting through lessons.  

Feel free to take a stand against over testing or even the Common Core standards; if you feel passionately about either of those things, and you have done your homework (in other words, you have examples of what you don’t like about the standards, or which tests you feel are unnecessary), go ahead and make your voice heard.  Just know that your ultimate aim, whether it be new standards or less testing, will not in itself have a profoundly positive impact on what happens in classrooms.

What would be truly forward-thinking is if we started asking different questions about how we can engage and inspire our children in their school lessons.  What will it take, once we settle on the right standards and the right amount of testing, to really nurture a hunger for and love of learning in our students?  What can we do to reignite a passion for teaching for every classroom teacher?  

Every teacher has something unique to share with his or her students.  I’ll never forget the first time I shared my passion for music with one particular group of students.  They saw their teacher get honestly excited, and their faces lit up.  

Sharing honest enthusiasm is a way to show respect to young people.  I believe most students, whether they are in kindergarten, middle school or seniors in high school, can see right through artificial enthusiasm.  I remember being spoken to as though I was a chihuahua when I was a little blond-haired boy in corduroy overalls.

As a child, I always preferred to be spoken to by an adult with that adult’s normal voice.  Not the kiddie voice or the puppy voice.  I always knew when an adult was not really as excited to talk to me as he or she was pretending to be.  I knew because it felt disrespectful.

The same is true of adults who think all children prefer ridiculous combinations of bright colors.  I mean bright colors will always be a part of the elementary school experience, but that doesn’t mean every single wall, textbook, video, locker, cubby, mitten, cafeteria table, plate and juice box has to be adorned with the colors of the rainbow.  The same is true about cartoons.  Why is every online math program for kids under fourteen populated with stupid cartoon characters?

Human beings are natural problem solvers.  We’re not all good at it, in part due to all the bright colors, cartoon characters and silly voices shoved in our faces when we are children that distract us from enjoying the task for the sake of the task and not for its visual or auditory appearance.   But we are born with curiosity.  Some of us grow up to be more curious about nature, others of us are more curious about mechanics, others still are both.  Some are curious about other things.  We learn how to build things, create stuff, explore places, extract information, fix things that are broken, discover pathways, utilize our bodies to their most efficient potential, reason with each other, articulate ideas, and share knowledge.  The world is full of opportunities to try these things, fail at them, learn how to do them better, and eventually succeed. 

Our schools should be places where children go to have greater access to those things.

The internet provides a tantalizing window to those opportunities, and could be an amazing benefit to schools for that reason, but typically the internet is off limits to students because of the distractions it causes from school work.  This presents an interesting paradox, doesn’t it?  We send children to spend their day learning in a building that is intentionally cut off from the world around them.  

I am not suggesting we tear down the walls of our schools and let children run wild through the trees with paintbrushes, smartphones and percussion instruments. What I am saying is our problems in public schools are much bigger than the standards and the tests.  Replace the Common Core with a golden set of content standards written and researched by God, and reduce the number of tests by two-thirds, and I guarantee there will still be disengagement among students, dissatisfaction among teachers, and a United States that continues to lag far behind much of the civilized world in math and science, etc.

Let’s not let distractions keep us from focusing on the very things that teachers and students in Maine and elsewhere need in order to open those windows to the world of discovery and innovation.  Both teachers and students need flexibility and time to work to their potential.  For students, the time to innovate and discover is during their school class periods, and there is no shortage of those.  For teachers, that translates to daily professional time, planning and preparing for those lessons, of which there is a giant, crushing, morale-killing shortage.  When you work as hard as you can but still cannot teach to your potential, it is difficult to stay positive.  You can pretend to be enthusiastic, but either way you are doing a disservice to your students.  

Please let me know your thoughts.  Share your comments here in the comment section, at the Facebook page, or email me.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.