The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Common Core supporter: ‘I see the opportunity being squandered’

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By Stephen Lazar

The Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) seek to define “college and career readiness expectations.” Forty-five states have adopted them, and are moving briskly towards full implementation in the coming year. Last January, I wrote that the standards “represent the greatest opportunity for history teaching and learning to be widely re-imagined since the Committee of Ten set the basic outlines for American education over a hundred years ago.”

While I stand by that statement, with each step towards implementation I see the opportunity being squandered. We cannot possibly continue to move solely in the direction of “college and career readiness” in History & Social Studies education without ensuring that “civic” readiness is valued equally.  Additionally, we need to ensure that as states write new curricula, that they contain the proper balance of content, skills, and understandings.  New curricula will need to ensure students use an inquiry-based approach to go in depth with a smaller amount of content to gain the wider breadth of skills and dispositions required for civic, college, and career readiness.

All teachers working in Common Core states are currently engaging with the changes demanded by the Common Core. In too many places, this is happening without sufficient time and supports, but it is happening very quickly nonetheless. The U.S. and state Departments of Education have poured over half a billion dollars into the assessments already, and, beginning this year, the results will be high-stakes for students and teachers. All systems are moving full speed ahead to assess core skills without sufficient consideration of the end to which these skills are applied. Two things need to happen to avoid driving off a cliff.

First, we need to ensure we are driving in the right direction. The Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the two groups responsible for the Common Core, quietly released a brief vision statement this past September, which called for a framework that would provide inquiry-based standards to prepare students for civic life. This is coming far too late. With all the momentum already behind the move towards the College and Career readiness standard, the third C is likely to get lost in the shuffle. It is imperative that our public schools do not forget their core responsibility and civic mission. Primary and secondary schools cannot merely be a farm system for universities and jobs. Rather, as public institutions, they must ensure that a new generation will be prepared for active civic engagement as youth and adults.

Second, we need to remember that backwards design is not a simple linear process. These assessments will exist before anyone has had a chance to develop curricula that will prepare students for the assessments. As any strong teacher knows, the development of a curriculum should occur hand-in-hand with the development of standards and assessments. As Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe remind us in Understanding by Design:

…though the three stages present a logic of design, it does not follow that this is a step-by-step process…don’t confuse the logic of the final product with the messy process of design work.

It will take revision to ensure that the assessments actually address the standards, and that the curricula actually prepare students for them. As each is developed, alterations will be necessary at all three stages; it is naive and simplistic to assume that changes to the standards and assessments will not be necessary once implementation occurs.

Even after we ensure we’re headed in the right direction, with the right tools for the job, there are still numerous pitfalls ahead. New York State is currently attempting to make this happen. The New York Board of Regents recently released a draft of a new 9-12 Social Studies Framework. The Curricular Framework recognizes that the purpose of Social Studies “is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”

Towards that end, the Framework claims to allow “students to develop an understanding of concepts and key ideas driven by case studies, analysis of primary and secondary source documents, and an examination of patterns of events in history,” and teachers “to have increased decision making power about how to teach and illustrate conceptual understandings and key ideas to promote student understanding.” On those three points rests the entirety of the work I do with curriculum, teachers, and students.  Count me in!

However, the framework undermines these very goals by providing a list of concepts to be fed to students that is far too long. A certain interpretation of history and civics is established through the “Key Ideas,” which are meant to be transferred to students, as opposed to a series of questions or statements that could lead to the inquiry necessary to develop civic responsibilities, as well as demonstrate most of the Common Core standards, including argument, (Writing 1) and comparing texts with different views (Reading 9).

Along with a number of other high-caliber Social Studies teachers in the state, I have founded a group called Insightful Social Studies to try and reform the Framework. Our long term goal as teachers is to better help students learn to make sense of our shared societal situations via meaningful social studies instruction that focuses on powerful and relevant questions, deep consideration of crucial issues and authentic civic engagement. Our current struggle is to spark an effective resistance to the “laundry list approach” to social studies standards provided by the current draft NYS Social Studies Framework, and thereby to build greater support for meaningful social studies. We want to see three main things in any adopted curricular framework:

  1. The framework should emphasize questions and inquiry, not answers.
  2. The framework should emphasize transformative depth rather than useless breadth.
  3. The framework should provide the freedom for school communities to choose from a menu of paths and emphases to best serve their students.

We hold that these shifts will demand the actual inquiry, thinking, rigor, and decision making practice that is necessary for students to be prepared for an active Civic life. For example, the current Framework demands that eleventh graders know that “The success of the revolution challenged Americans to establish a system of government that would provide for stability, while beginning to fulfill the promise of the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence.”

This assumes that the Constitution provided stability, an idea challenged by the Civil War, and that it was a step on the road to certain ideals, despite its protection of slavery and the slave trade. It also fails to look at the Constitution in the context of the present day. Instead of starting with the answer, it would be better if we started with questions, such as:

  • To what extent did the Constitution succeed in fulfilling its stated goals in the Preamble?;
  • To what extent did the Constitution fulfill the promises of the Declaration of Independence?;
  • How well does it still work today?;
  • How might it change to work better?

These are the very questions with which intelligent and engaged adults struggle, as civic decisions are made on a daily basis throughout the United States. It is this civic realm, which is foundational and supportive of the academic and economic realms, that current pedagogical reforms must buttress.