Debates in education everyone should care about: Critique of the Common Core (and why we might need it anyway)

I just read a scathing critique of the coming Common Core standards, which would propose to standardize education across the nation. Since I’m not in the public school classroom at the moment–and I’m not even in the U.S.–I’ve been pretty removed from the debate. But I have heard reasons for concern firsthand. For example, that the architects of the Common Core standards were barely paying attention to what’s worked, ignoring lessons learned in states with strong schools.

If the portrayal of the Common Core in this article is accurate, it points to even more reason for worry among those of us who believe in the value of fiction and personal writing to engage learners. This passage of the article casts the Common Core–and its main author, David Coleman–in an especially damning light: 

Coleman  is on a  mission to slash  both the amount of personal narrative in writing  and the amount of fiction in  reading. This is based not on any experience teaching –except at the University of London–but because, he insists, readers gain “world knowledge” through nonfiction, which he calls “informational text.”  Listening to Coleman evokes  Kafka’s The Castle: “You have been in the village a few days and already think you know everything better than everyone here.” The difference is that Coleman provides no evidence that he’s been in the public school village even a few days.

Skeptics who might doubt that replacing  Brown Bear, Brown Bear with a Wikipedia entry on Ursus arctos will stave  off our nation’s economic woes  might wonder: Why, if fiction is no more vital than leftover turnips, is there a Nobel Prize in Literature and not  in lawyers’ briefs or material from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Web site (listed as a Common Core  exemplary text).

I agree that the thrust of many of the recommendations–especially the slash and burn approach to fiction and personal writing–are disturbing. In fact, they fly in the face of what worked for me as an educator with students most in need of inspiring instruction. And in the face of my values as a writer of books that matter for teen.

Still,  isn’t there a difference between saying that _these_ standards are misguided and saying that a national set of standards is necessarily misguided? After all, curricular standards themselves are not new; they exist (usually in flawed form) state by state.

I’m the first to balk at the idea of a high-stakes multiple-choice test that turns third grade for low-income kids into a year-long drill practice instead of a world of discovery. The first year of TAKS in Texas, there were elementary kids in the school where I tutored puking in the bathroom because they were so frightened about the tests. Ditto that for the exit-level TAKS test that special-ed and ELL students must take without modifications.


I did see firsthand that the more rigorous and actually decent TAKS ELA exam in Texas forced educators (who had been passing along students without even making sure they could write a single coherent paragraph using textual evidence) to do what they were supposed to do all along: educate. As in, Educate Every Student. Not just the ones who were easy to teach, already wrote well, and spoke perfect English.

They finally had to pay attention to students (usually from communities with a history of being underserved) who previously were ignored. They had to pay attention because there was some standard in place, and because the test forced some accountability.

Students’ education should go well beyond the test and national standards. Certainly it should not be limited to a sterile “information-only” diet. But standardization does draw attention to disparities and offer opportunities to raise the bar for students who are currently getting a sub-par education.

So my question is, what can we do to get a better set of common core standards into place? How do we use this as an opportunity to readjust our shared compass?

Sounds like we, as a nation, are in need of some soul-searching writing far more than we need another informational text.


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