jasonbwatson

October 24, 2014

A fourth view

In the October 2014 issue of its magazine, Christianity Today asked three individuals to answer the question, “Do the Common Core education standards endanger religious freedom?” with the subtitle to the Open Question column reading, “Why a nationwide standard for classrooms may cause concern.” While I think that Kevin Theriot, Karen Swallow Prior and Kristen Blair each offer some valuable insight and perspective, I think that Theriot and Blair are wrong in answering the question in the affirmative—especially since they are reaching to do so.

Theriot, a senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, writes that while the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will have only an indirect effect on religious liberty “at least initially,” the CCSS create “another tool for big government (judges, legislators and education policymakers) to control the beliefs and actions of parents and their students.” This is a bit of a stretch. The case in question, Parker v. Hurley, ruled that once parents decide what school their children will attend, they have no constitutional right to dictate what their children will be taught in that school. While neither you nor I may like the fact that in this specific case the material being objected to was sexual material in kindergarten and first grade classrooms, the ruling is otherwise consistent with what we would expect and hold to in a private school. The decision of parents to enroll their student(s) in a private school does not entitle them to dictate the school’s curriculum or to pick and choose which elements of the school’s chosen curriculum their student will learn, so why would it in a public school setting? While the à la carte approach to education may seem desirable, the result would be to significantly impair the ability of a school or a teacher to prepare for instruction and grade student learning.

Theriot suggest that the CCSS will “creep into parochial schools and even homeschooling,” with the result being that students will necessarily be taught material that is inconsistent with their religious convictions. Since the CCSS are being reflected in college entrance exams and the GED, Theriot thinks that homeschooling parents may “feel pressure to align with Common Core.” While I think that is an alarmist argument, it also ignores the fact that the CCSS is not a curriculum. Any teacher—whether in public, private or home school—could use any curriculum he or she chose (within the confines of the district or school curriculum decisions in the first two instances) to satisfy the CCSS. In other words, there is nothing within the CCSS that would—or even could—require anyone to teach their student material inconsistent with their religious convictions even if they want to align with the CCSS.

Theriot further argues that “allowing the federal government to make decisions historically left to local school boards necessarily weakens the individual parent’s ability to influence those decisions.” That is no doubt true. The use of that argument in this context, however, assumes facts not in evidence. Actually, it assumes facts that are not facts. The federal government has not, and cannot under current law, make decisions about what state or local school boards will adopt for standards, curriculum, testing, etc. The CCSS was not developed by the federal government and it has not been forced on any state by the federal government. Every state that has adopted the CCSS has done so within the guidelines existing for that state. Yes, the federal government has incentivized the adoption of the CCSS by tying Race to the Top funds to the adoption of the CCSS or equally rigorous standards, but there are two huge facts ignored by most even acknowledging that fact. First, the federal government incentivizes all kinds of things by tying its desired result to dollars. If “we the people” do not like that then there are ways to change it, but that is a problem entirely separate from the CCSS. Second, the option to develop equally rigorous standards and still tap into Race to the Top funds is one that few states have chosen to pursue, though several are doing so now that they have received an outcry of opposition over the adoption of the CCSS. Standards development is difficult and time consuming and many states chose to simply adopt the “off the shelf” standards that are the CCSS rather than invest the time, effort and money into developing their own. Too, foregoing the federal dollars is an option no state is likely to pursue, though it is a legitimate option.

Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and she is alone among the three respondents in CT to answer the question in the negative. Prior correctly states, “So many myths and misunderstandings have proliferated about Common Core that some of its critics seem not to know that Common Core is limited solely to these two foundational subjects: math and language arts.” I have read and even heard teachers from other schools suggest that the CCSS is dictating the teaching of sex education in their schools. This is absurd; there is nothing in the CCSS that addresses sex education or requires it in any form.

Prior also writes, “Common Core is merely the foundation upon which those states and private schools that adopt the standards can construct a building of their own choosing.” She goes on to elaborate on what I stated above—that there seems to be considerable confusion, whether innocent or intentional—over the fact that standards and curriculum are two different things. Writes Prior, “standards are the goal; curriculum is a means of accomplishing the goal; testing is the measure of success in meeting the goal. Common Core consists only of standards (or goals). Curriculum and testing are up to schools to adopt.” Any school could teach toward meeting the goals of the CCSS without ever changing its curriculum. The CCSS involves very little of what is taught or learned and focuses much more on how students learn. The intention of the CCSS is to ensure that students are equipped with the skills needed in order to enter the workplace or pursue higher education. That, I would suggest, should be the goal of every school in the world; if any school did not have the adequate preparation of students for success in adulthood as a goal I would question the purpose for the school’s existence. I have said for years that the ultimate purpose of education should be teaching students how to think. This is no small part of the goal of the CCSS—to equip students to learn information, facts and skills but also to learn why those things are and how they can be used, applied and developed in the real world.

Prior makes an excellent point that few so focused on screaming about the government take-over of education seem to be paying any attention to, and that is that Christian schools should be among the most well-equipped to achieve the goals of the CCSS and to provide curricular resources that assist teachers in meeting those goals. “Christians are particularly equipped to create and provide back-to-basics, skills-based curricula aligned with these strong educational standards. Not taking advantage of this opening for cultural influence would be to squander a unique opportunity.”

Prior also writes, “Fears about Common Core’s potential to infringe upon religious liberty stem from broad concerns about governmental overreach.” She is correct in that assessment but, again, this is an unfounded concern because (1) the CCSS does dictate the teaching of any curriculum, and (2) the government is not dictating or requiring the adoption of the CCSS anyway. To the point about religious liberty, Prior concludes, “Equipping the students who are the future of our nation with the most basic intellectual and life skills will help religious liberty to flourish,” and I agree with her wholeheartedly on that point.

The final perspective in the CT piece is provided by Kristen Blair, an education writer and author. She begins her response by writing that the CCSS has pushed to “the forefront of fierce national debate” the question of who decides how and what children learn. While this assertion is accurate, it does ignore the fact that the CCSS do not dictate or prescribe what children learn. (In case you are wondering, I am well aware that I sound like broken record as I keep saying that, but the alternative is so widely declared by CCSS opponents that I have little alternative). The CCSS does address how children learn, and if the national debate were solely about that I would suggest that would be a good thing. Do we want our students to memorize math facts or do we want them to memorize math facts and understand why they are facts? Do we want students to be able to name the titles and authors of classic literature only, or do we want them to be able to do that as well as understand the positions and arguments made within those works of literature while also learning how to read, understand, interpret and utilize informational and technical texts? I know where I stand, but those are legitimate debates to have.

From there, however, Blair strays. She writes, “the [CCSS] over time will likely diminish local choice.” Her support for that position is that the CCSS were developed “without significant input from parents or the public.” This is debatable too, but even if granted this has nothing to do with diminishing local choice. The adoption of the CCSS is local choice (if you define local broadly enough to include the state government) and the implementation of the CCSS—including curricular choices—is truly local choice (since most public schools have procedures for the adoption of curricular materials at the local district level).

Blair continues with yet another of the wide-spread assertions that the CCSS has been “divested of much classic literature.” This is simply not true. The CCSS text exemplars (and again, these are recommendations– they are not mandated) include a healthy variety of “classic literature” in addition to the “informational texts” that some think are replacing literature. Grades 9-10, for example, include recommendations for stories, drama, poetry and informational texts. Homer’s The Odyessey, O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Poe’s “The Raven,” Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73,” and Dickinson’s “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” are but some of the recommended reading for high school freshmen and sophomores.

What are informational texts recommended for grades 9-10? Speeches by Patrick Henry, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ronald Reagan are listed for Language Arts. The History/Social Studies information texts include works on Custer, art, fish, African Americans in the Civil War and great composers. Science, math and technical subject recommendations include Euclid’s Elements as well as works on stars, the circumference of the earth and a government document on recommended levels of insulation. Not only do the fiction recommendations exceed the nonfiction recommendations, there is nothing wrong or detrimental about the nonfiction recommendations. The fact is, there simply is not sufficient time for students to read, study and learn all of the text exemplars included in the CCSS and it would be difficult for anyone to argue that are insufficient options contained with the standards. In other words, even if these were prescriptive titles and not simply suggestions, there is plenty of “classic literature” included. The fact is, though, they are not prescriptive. Blair seems to think that they are, writing, “They are no longer open for discussion,” and suggesting that the CCSS are “muting parents’ voices.” At the risk of being blunt, that’s a lie.

To her credit, Blair acknowledges that the CCSS is not a curriculum, but she also suggests that it does not matter. Differentiating between standards, curriculum and testing is “disingenuous” she says, because “standards, curricula and tests form a trifecta: standards drive curricula and testing.” To a certain extent that is true; who would intentionally test students over information they have not been taught? For the CCSS to dictate curriculum, however, the standards would have to include student knowledge about specific texts, and that expectation is simply not there. The closest that the CCSS come to addressing specific authors or titles in grades
11-12 are as follows:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7
Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.9
Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.

If having standards that expect high school seniors to read at least one Shakespeare play and one play by an American writer, or to be able to show how two texts from the same period of American literature treat similar themes or topics is overly prescriptive than I cannot imagine any standards that would be considered acceptable.

The bottom line is this: whether you like the CCSS or not—and that could certainly be a legitimate debate—they do not endanger religious freedom. Religious freedom is under attack and endangered on many fronts in America today but the CCSS is simply not one of them. Effective countering of the attacks on religious freedom could be far more wisely directed at the judicial requirements that states accept same sex marriage, at the legislatures and educational organizations trying to grant “civil rights” to transgender individuals, at government attempts to coerce privately held organizations to provide abortifacients to their employees, or at judges penalizing individuals for refusing to provide services for homosexual marriages. If you want to argue about the merits of the CCSS please feel free to do so…but do so from a position of truth and an accurate presentation of the facts.

November 6, 2013

What About Common Core? (part 2)

Indiana has been one of the states at the forefront of the Common Core debate. That is due in no small part to the fact that Indiana was among the early adopters of the CCSS and due to the fact that there has been a concerted effort in Indiana to un-adopt the standards.

One of the leading opponents of the CCSS in Indiana is Heather Crossin. So successful have Crossin and her grassroots organization been that Indiana decided this year to temporarily suspend Common Core adoption. But what got Crossin so worked up about Common Core in the first place? In 2011 her then-eight-year-old daughter brought home a math problem that struck Crossin as odd not because of the problem itself but because of the fact that despite getting the mathematical answer correct, Crossin’s daughter received only one point out of three. Why? Because she did not provide the correct reason for how she knew that a 448 foot bridge was longer than a 407 foot bridge. Crossin’s daughter answered said that she knew it was because 448 is a larger number than 407. The Common Core-aligned textbook being used in the classroom, however, wanted the student to compare the numbers in the ones, tens and hundreds columns individually and determine that 448 is larger than 407 that way.

From that one problem launched Crossin’s crusade, now formalized in the group Hoosiers Against Common Core. The group’s purpose, according to its web site, is to bring “together concerned people from all points of the political spectrum in order to effect legislation resulting in the reversal of its [CCSS’] adoption.” Why? “For some, the idea of violating states’ rights is important. To others, they oppose it strictly from a quality perspective. A majority oppose it because it stifles curriculum development and teacher/school autonomy in choosing what is best for their students.”

Therein lies the problem, though. The CCSS does not stifle curriculum development. It may well serve as an excuse for those developing curriculum or those adopting it, but the fact that the CCSS makes a convenient excuse does not make it the actual problem. Furthermore, the CCSS does not “negate teacher/school autonomy in choosing what is best for their students.” The reality is that teacher autonomy is, always has been, and almost surely always will be restricted by the fact that teachers have supervisors at various levels above them to whom they must report. Teachers, therefore, cannot use whatever books they want as the textbooks for their classrooms. That is not unique to CCSS and it will not go away if CCSS is trashed. There could be legitimate and healthy debate about the autonomy of public schools to exercise autonomy in textbook selection, but that is a debate that precedes CCSS and will still be around after CCSS, as well. In other words, CCSS has served to get Crossin’s attention, and the attention of others, but what they are really worked up about is a more deeply-rooted problem with public education (or any education aligning itself with any system that restricts its autonomy, since Crossin’s daughter was at a Catholic school).

See, when Crossin questioned the principal of her daughter’s school about the bridge problem and the approach used in the new textbooks, the principal told Crossin that the school had no choice but to use the books because they aligned with the CCSS. That is not true, though, at least not entirely. Whether or not that specific school had the autonomy to select its own texts I do not know. I do not know how textbook selection works at that school in particular or in Indiana in general. What I do know, though, is that the implication that the textbook in question was the only one aligned with CCSS and therefore had to be used is not true. There are many textbooks that align with the Common Core standards, and their number is growing. Furthermore, the math standards established by the CCSS provide plenty of room within the guidelines they establish for discretion in textbook selection.

The CCSS standards for mathematics begin with eight Standards for Mathematical Practice. What are those eight standards? That students should (1) make sense of problems and persevere in solving them; (2) reason abstractly and quantitatively; (3) construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others; (4) model with mathematics; (5) use appropriate tools strategically; (6) attend to precision; (7) look for and make use of structure; and (8) look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning. I am no mathematician, but I fail to see anything in those eight standards that should raise the hackles of any parent or educator.

To the specific problem that first made Crossin aware of the CCSS I would say this… The problem is ideally suited to address the second of the eight standards above. Crossin’s daughter provided the correct answer as to which bridge was longer, and her reasoning clearly demonstrated quantitative reasoning. She may not have accomplished the level of precision or abstract reasoning that the textbook’s authors wanted, but that would be a problem with the way in which the problem was written, not with the CCSS in general. It also highlights a problem with the teacher who graded the problem; it makes no sense to provide a student with only one-third of the possible credit when the student provides the correct answer!

Even when looking deeper into the specific standards for specific subjects within the field of math the standards are emphasizing only the facts and skills that students should master, such as this standard within the Geometry area: “Derive the equation of a circle of given center and radius using the Pythagorean Theorem; complete the square to find the center and radius of a circle given by an equation” (CCSS.Math.Content.HSG-GPE.A.1). This is, to my mind, a fairly basic standard that any Geometry student should be able to meet, CCSS or not.

The Hoosiers Against Common Core includes a gushing endorsement of a piece written in the New York Times in June “defending traditional mathematics.” That article, by an associate professor of philosophy and a professor of mathematics, asserts that most math instruction today is on “numerical reasoning” rather than the “more traditional focus on understanding and mastery of the most efficient mathematical algorithms.” However, the CCSS do not discount algorithms or the mastery of them. They do expect math teachers to explain to students the reasons why algorithms work, and they expect students to grasp the reasons, but this is not a knock on Common Core. As the Times article points out, this is not even new to math! The article states, “Although every decade has its bad textbooks, anyone who takes the time to look at a range of math books from the 1960s, 70s or 80s will see that it is a myth that traditional math programs routinely overlooked the importance of thoughtful pedagogy and taught by rote.”

In fact, the third grade CCSS standards specifically state that students should be able to use “algorithms based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction.” In other words, exactly what the Times article argues for and exactly what Hoosiers Against Common Core seems to decry about the CCSS.

So if the CCSS are not the problem, then where are we now? Oh, we are back at bad textbooks. The simply reality is that good textbooks, good teachers and good schools have been doing what the CCSS now outlines for years. The most effective teachers will find almost nothing in the CCSS that will alarm them because they have already been doing what the CCSS asks them to do. The best textbooks will require little if any adjustments because they already do what the CCSS ask them to do. Contrary to what anyone may say, the CCSS simply do not require specific textbooks! So the uproar over the CCSS is really over a much broader, and much deeper, issue…one I will continue to explore next time.

November 5, 2013

What About Common Core?

Unless you live under a rock or pay no attention to the news you have undoubtedly heard of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), most often referred to simply as the Common Core. It would be silly for me to spend multiple entries here addressing the state of education in America today and not address Common Core. In reality, I may even need more than one entry to do it justice, so bear with me.

The odds are probably good that you have heard about Common Core mostly by way of hearing complaints about it, hearing or reading why it so terrible. Now, this may surprise you if you have read the other posts on education, but I am not convinced that the CCSS are as horrible as many people, groups and talking heads have made them out to be. Are they flawless? Of course not. What is? For starters, though, let’s look at what exactly the CCSS are…

First, I should acknowledge that whatever the flaws of the CCSS may be—and I will address that issue shortly—the motivation behind the CCSS is a noble one. The Common Core State Standards Initiative has as its slogan, “Preparing America’s Students for College and Career.” Though certainly not a complete overview, that is what every school strives to do for its students. Furthermore, it is difficult to find something in the CCSS Mission Statement with which to disagree:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

That the mission of the CCSS is one on which just about everyone can agree is evident in the fact that the CCSS have been adopted by forty-five states, the District of Columbia and four territories. At the same time, it is certainly not necessarily true that something is good just because it is popular, and I am not suggesting that, either.

To date, CCSS have been developed for Mathematics and English/Language Arts. Please note that the standards themselves serve only to outline a basic level of knowledge and understanding that students in the United States should have. In other words, the CCSS is not a curriculum.

At the same time, it is important to remember that these new standards are likely going to indicate in many areas—particularly in many public schools—that students are not achieving the level of success that the many groups endorsing the CCSS want them to achieve; indeed, that they should achieve. For example, Kentucky was the first state in the nation specifically tied to the CCSS, having adopted the math and English standards in 2010. When the assessment results for the 2011-12 school year were released, “the share of students scoring ‘proficient’ or better in reading and math dropped by roughly a third or more in both elementary and middle school the first year the tests were given,” according to an article in Education Week.

It is important for anyone considering the CCSS debate to keep in mind a very important distinction between adoption and alignment. Any good school adopts its curriculum, textbooks and materials based on the quality of the content and (at least for Christian schools) the worldview of the text, always aiming to adopt the textbooks and supporting materials that will most effectively meet the needs of its students. It is the responsibility of the school to carefully consider each textbook selection and to choose those curricular materials that will best meet the needs of its students.

Contrary to what Glenn Beck and others may say, there is nothing in the CCSS that will strip local schools of their control of their curricular choices any more than there was in previously existing state standards. The CCSS is just one more in a long line of outcome-based education models, concerned almost exclusively with whether or not the skills enumerated are achieved by the students as evidenced through their performance on standardized tests.

Now, make sure you come back for the next post, because I do not want you to go away thinking I am an unabashed defender of the CCSS. There is still more to the story….

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