Friday, September 26, 2014

Kid Policy: Scapegoating the Common Core

Kid Policy:

Scapegoating the Common Core

A Facebook friend of mine, who regularly (and, in my opinion, justifiably) expresses her frustration with the amount of homework her first grader has to confront, recently expressed another frustration: the math worksheet her daughter had for homework was not well-designed, and its intent was difficult to decipher. Specifically, there was a word problem that didn’t seem to be clear regarding whether the purpose was to construct a subtraction problem, an addition problem, or identify a place value relationship. Her Facebook post was asking for help figuring out what was expected.

It didn’t take many comments before someone growled about the “Common Core” and how it’s ruining education. Several others chimed in on this train of thought. I have witnessed this response many times in the last few years, as parents and educators cope with their dissatisfaction with mountains of homework, struggling teachers, disconnected administrators, and rigid standardized testing expectations. Inevitably, these concerns generally wind up focused on the Common Core as the enemy. The problem, however, is that the Common Core isn’t the problem.

These indictments of the Common Core (technically, they are officially called the “Common Core State Standards,” since they were developed by representatives from the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO)) are often misguided and misinformed, and are grounded in the belief that the federal government is, once again, interfering in our lives, telling us what to do, and supporting private (often “charter”) schools at the expense of public schools. This viewpoint is encouraged by journalists and pundits from both sides of the aisle who perpetuate the notion that the Common Core creates unrealistic and burdensome expectations on students, especially young students.

Here’s the thing, though—if you actually take the time to read any of the Common Core standards, you will notice four specific things that seem to get lost in this conversation:

  •       The Common Core is not a curriculum. There are some model curricula that have been developed to provide examples of ways to implement some of the standards, but these are models only. There is no requirement that any state, district, school, or individual teacher use the model.
  •      The Common Core does not specify HOW to teach any specific standard. See the first point above. The Core does not, can not, and will never dictate what type of philosophy or pedagogical approach districts or teachers have to use.
  •      The Common Core has nothing to do with how much homework your child is assigned. See the previous two points above. The development and implementation of curriculum, homework, testing, and even recess, is determined by the state, the district, the school administrators, and (increasingly rarely), individual teachers.
  •      The Common Core is not required to be adopted by individual states unless the state is seeking to supersede (or circumvent) the requirements of No Child Left Behind. The Core Standards were originally conceived of, and developed by, individual states wishing to either raise the standards above what was set by NCLB, or to be granted a waiver from NCLB.

Again, the Common Core isn’t the bogey man—it is a set of research-based standards that simply attempts to organize basic skills and content into a practical sequence that is intended to align and clarify the patchwork of quality standards that has historically varied widely from state to state (follow this link for a brief, reasoned explanation of the process, or this link to go to read about “myths versus facts”). There is certainly a compelling discussion to be had regarding the politics, adoption, and implementation of the Common Core by individual states, and the affect that this process has had on teachers, students, and families, but unless we make ourselves familiar with the actual content of the Common Core documents, it is difficult to elevate such a discussion beyond rancorous politics and inflammatory rhetoric.

So, who should we direct our anger at when a seven-year old child routinely comes home with 2 hours’ worth of poorly designed worksheets? First of all, yelling at the teacher won’t help. Many teachers are as frustrated as parents with current trends in classroom practice and curriculum development, which often dictates rigidly scheduled instruction and intense pressure to standardize teaching along with content/skill standards for children. It is also pointless to rail at the federal government—the Common Core is not mandated or administered by the federal government, though its implementation is, in some cases, tied to federal guidelines.

I think our anger needs to be directed at what lies at the heart of the disempowerment of teachers, the pressure on districts and administrators to prove their efficacy based on test results, the disregard for family interactions, and the objectification of children as raw material—and that is the corporatization (and monopolization) of education. To point to the most compelling and far-reaching example of this trend: It is no coincidence that the dominant corporation that is working toward a near monopoly throughout the pre-K through college schooling experience, Pearson Education, has convinced states to adopt their assessment tools; has lobbied districts and private schools to purchase their scripted curriculum packages to teach to those tests; has acquired several publishing divisions to develop and sell those packages (such as Scott Foresman, Penguin, Puffin Prentice Hall, Addison Wesley, and Silver Burdett); has reached into all facets of teacher education and preparation to produce teachers who will be proficient at using only their materials; and has sponsored and conducted much of the (little bit of) research that has been done on the effectiveness of those materials.

It is also important to understand that Pearson was not historically even interested in education until the 1980s, suggesting that their current iteration did not grow from a rich history of education experience and passion, but simply from a desire to maximize profit by exploiting a segment of a market that was limited until education became a viable business proposition in the late 1990s. Even their own description of their beginnings from their website notes their late entry into education:

“Pearson’s roots are grounded in global innovation that transforms the landscape and stands the test of time. Our London-based company started in 1844 as a construction company building such noteworthy projects as the Sennar Dam in Egypt and the Manhattan tunnels in NY. We turned to media in the UK in 1921 and diversified into global book publishing in 1971 and education in the 1980s, dabbling in numerous industries along the way.

Then, in 1997, everything changed. In a bold and somewhat controversial move, Marjorie Scardino was hired as one of the first female CEOs of a major FTSE company. The decision ushered in an even bolder aspiration: to transform education globally in order to improve people’s lives through learning.” (

A company that “dabbles” until it finds a profitable direction is not a company that is passionate about education. They are passionate about profit, and “transform[ing] education globally” is not “in order to improve people’s lives through learning,” but to improve the bottom line for Pearson’s board and stockholders.

The only real indictment of the Common Core in this picture is that it has enabled Pearson to streamline their products by giving them a single set of standards to use as their alignment tools, rather than producing multiple products that respond to different standards in different states, which has facilitated this corporate approach to education.

So, what to do the next time your kid brings home that mountain of homework that doesn’t make sense to you? After you take a deep breath, ask the teacher what curriculum package her/his school is using, and whether he/she has much input into its implementation. There’s a good chance that your child’s teacher is as frustrated and disempowered as you, and an equally good chance that Pearson is somewhere in the picture. Then ask the school administration why they chose that curriculum, and ask for the research that supports their approach. If the school doesn’t use a scripted curriculum, then ask the teacher the reasoning behind the assigning of a heavy homework load, and be prepared to challenge that reasoning by familiarizing yourself with the work of Alfie Kohn here, or the position taken on Great here, which notes that, “In fact, for elementary school-age children, there is no measureable academic advantage to homework.” (You can also point out that a Canadian couple successfully sued to have their children exempted from all homework, arguing that there is no compelling evidence that homework helps learning, as explained in this article.)

But bashing the Common Core? That’s not going to help. And it only serves to divert attention away from the profit-monster that is driving corporate U.S. education policy. And no, I’m not a raging-socialist-anti-capitalist-commie who is suggesting that companies shouldn’t make a profit. I’m just an experienced, informed, concerned educator (and parent) who believes that they shouldn’t do it by turning children into manufactured products of an educational machine. Call me crazy....

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kid Considerations: Starting Over

Kid Considerations:

Starting Over—Taking My Own Advice

Two of my earlier blog posts focus on helping children with separation anxiety and with the transition from preschool to kindergarten (“Lift and Separate: Separation Anxiety in Young Children”; and “Movin’ On Up: Transitioning to Kindergarten, with Tips for Easing Anxiety,” both from May 19). It has been a while since I have managed any new blog posts, and the reason for that is also the reason that I realized I needed to revisit those earlier posts and heed my own words.

After a career spanning 36 years as a preschool teacher and administrator, I recently closed the preschool program that I founded 28 years ago. This was a difficult decision to make, but it was the right one. As I sent off my final group of kids to the adventure of kindergarten, I immersed myself in the process of sorting, organizing, storing, liquidating, and disposing of the wealth of materials, supplies, and furnishings that we had accumulated over those years. This was a huge, daunting task, and one that pretty much consumed most of my time for over a month, culminating in a public auction that was both gratifying and difficult. After deciding what to take home (items both sentimental and practical), what to keep in storage (business records and picture books), or what I would need to have to continue providing professional development (teaching materials and, again, picture books), I watched as a sizable group spent 3 ½ hours on a steamy summer evening scrutinizing, considering, and bidding on the rest.

When the dust had settled, 90% of what we had put up was in the hands of others. Many of the bidders that evening were teachers or program owners/administrators, several were parents or grandparents, and the rest were mostly people who make a living selling good quality used toys and materials at flea markets. I was especially pleased to see so many of our educational materials find their way into the other preschool and care programs, including the hundreds of picture books that were still on the shelves.

As I sit here now, I can imagine the fun and learning that children are experiencing with the same items that our kids used for so long, and the separation is a little easier. There have been many times in the last several weeks when I have stopped to remember the advice I have given to countless parents when their child is facing a major transition, whether it’s going to kindergarten, moving to a new house, welcoming a new sibling, or saying good bye to someone who has passed on. The primary point of that advice has always been that change in difficult, but it is important to convey to your child that you believe he/she is strong enough manage that change, and to help them through it by providing love, support, and, most importantly, as much consistency as possible.

I am certainly no stranger to change, but this particular change was one of the more challenging I have confronted. Just as a child entering kindergarten experiences excitement and uncertainty, sadness and joy, and fear and hope, I, too, was experiencing many of the same feelings. I am fortunate to have many wonderful family members and friends to provide the love and support, but I realized that it would be up to me to provide the consistency. Since I am not stepping immediately into a full time job at another location, for me, consistency referred to a few key points: developing a routine and sticking with it; creating a space at home dedicated to the work I will be doing (i.e., writing, research, and the creation of professional development workshops); and being sure to remain mindful of and attentive to my emotional space.

Now that the school has been closed, the remaining stuff has been disposed of, given away, or stored, and the keys have been turned in, I am ready to begin kindergarten again with my eyes and heart open.