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Posted at 03:00 AM ET, 09/20/2011

Where the Common Core State Standards fall short

This was written by Jeffrey N. Golub, a teacher, author and consultant in Seattle. He was for 13 years an associate professor of English education at the University of South Florida and for 20 years a junior high and high school teacher who won several teaching excellence awards. A version of this post was originally published on Anthony Cody’s blog, Living in Dialogue, published on the Education Week Teacher site.

By Jeffrey N. Golub

The story goes that, some years ago, a Midwestern university decided to build a new library on its campus. So an architectural firm was commissioned to design and build the building. Within weeks after its opening, however, the new library began to sink into the ground. Seems the architects had not factored in the weight of the books

Oops!

This tale, it turns out, is actually an urban legend that has been circulating among students on college campuses and elsewhere for years and years. The situation never happened, but the story seems a pertinent analogy to the problem that plagues the Common Core State Standards that have recently been “built.”

The standards in English language arts and math are an attempt to standardize what students learn from kindergarten through 12th grade, and have been a big part of the Obama administration education reform platform. Though not mandated, 44 states and the District of Columbia have adopted them so far.

The standards, like the library, are not “well-grounded”because the authors failed to factor in crucial aspects of instruction, omissions that will, unless corrected, render the standards ineffective and inappropriate. Students, teachers and school systems that labor under them will suffer.

Some of these neglected and omitted aspects of instruction include the following critical elements:

1. The standards may be standardized, but students are not.

Students have different needs and abilities, different interests and concerns; they come from different backgrounds and bring different life experiences and different work habits to the classroom and to their study of the content. Imposing a restrictive structure and set of expectations — and insisting they all move through the same content at the same time and in the same way doesn’t make much sense, does it?

2. Reading comprehension involves much more than simply learning information from the text.

Of course it is important for students to gain knowledge from informational texts, but competent and comprehensive reading instruction engages students in practicing and developing many more skills with many more kinds of literature. Reading poetry, short stories, novels, and many other literary genres engages students in constructing, negotiating, comprehending, and communicating meanings, and these thinking skills and language competencies are the central business of just about every English class.

3. The world of the future that students will inhabit may not be exactly the same as the current world.

The stated goal of the standards is to prepare students for college and careers, but we don’t know for certain what careers and opportunities will exist even 10 years from now. What specific job-related skills and competencies will be necessary? Will they be the same as the competencies required today? Maybe. Maybe not. If we are to successfully prepare our students for what lies ahead, we had better look to the future and develop envisionments that will inform our current educational efforts.

One envisionment that may have some merit is to adopt a curriculum that develops students’ creative, logical, and critical thinking skills. The idea is not to teach these skills through direct instruction; such an approach could lead to a constrictive and restrictive listing of microscopic sub-goals.

Instead, the goal would be to design an increasingly complex series of projects to pursue and real-world problems to solve that would immerse the students in these kinds of thinking skills. The idea is to set up situations that require students to draw upon, and thereby develop, their creative, logical, and critical thinking skills.

Marion Brady, a distinguished director of instruction, teacher educator, author, and newspaper columnist in Florida, has already designed such an innovative curriculum in which the students engage in what he calls ”Investigations.”

His curriculum guide, titled “Connections: Investigating Reality - A Course of Study,” and available for free download on his website, outlines collaborative projects in which students investigate and explore patterns of information, relationships, people demographics, environment, shared ideas, and the dynamics of change, among others. Such a series of projects and problems depend heavily on students’ thinking skills and reflective behavior. You can’t put this kind of instruction on a standardized test. .. nor should you.

4. Teachers are a critical and integral part of any curriculum development and assessment effort.

Teachers are the designers and directors of instruction. They make hundreds of instructional decisions every day: what to teach, and when and how to teach it; who needs extra help and extra time with the work; what choices should be made available to the students for ways to complete the activity or assignment; what texts and other resources should be used for the content under study ... and the list goes on and on.

No high-stakes test can effectively replace the many kinds of ongoing formative assessments and kid-watching strategies that teachers use in their classes every day to determine next steps. Teachers in their day-to-day observations and evaluations of students’ language performance, coupled with their own judgments of their students’ needs and progress, help teachers to shape and shift their instruction to be continually responsive to the students’ emerging competence and literacy through language.

Teachers do not have a problem with accountability. They are responsible for making learning happen for their students, after all, so they welcome authentic assessments of the progress that they, and their students, have made. But they do object, and rightly so, to a situation in which they are being held accountable for a curriculum over which they have no control.

The various standards schemes — with their accompanying high-stakes tests — have substantially taken away teachers’ control of their instructional efforts and hampered their work in the classroom.

Currently we have a situation in which the teachers’ designing and decision-making functions are no longer valued and are severely constrained, a state in which assessment has deteriorated into a debilitating series of high-stakes tests that leave teachers with almost no time for authentic, substantive instruction. Iinstead they must devote precious classroom time to test-preparation that may or may not have anything to do with developing students’ communication competencies and language performance.

It is unfortunate that the teachers and their pivotal instructional roles in curriculum development and assessment are ignored in the standards.

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