I recently finished teaching a semester of English 102—the University of Nevada’s second required core writing course. My students’ first formal paper, which had been due about a month into the semester, was to select a reading from the text and write a rhetorical analysis about it. I wanted them to explore HOW the piece was written, specifically, as well as WHY it had been written, for WHOM they believed it had been written (and how they could tell), and then I wanted them to consider the effectiveness of all these choices that the writer had made.
But despite having spent two weeks in class going over rhetorical analysis and practicing doing such things in class during discussions, of my 24 students, I really only got three true, honest-to-goodness analyses. The rest were pure summary. Try as I might, I had real trouble getting them to understand the difference between summary and analysis. One student told me that I had been the first teacher he’d ever had who had pointed out the difference to him.
Meanwhile, others struggled with the most basic vocabulary terms, while two others flat-out plagiarized whole sections of their papers—there were no quotation marks and no references of any kind. Those students both told me that they were very sorry, but they didn’t know how to cite sources, and didn’t understand what paraphrasing meant.
I’ve written blogs before about my students—my frustrations with their lack of critical thinking skills or resourcefulness, their poor literacy skills, their disinterest in learning. But here’s the thing: The scenario I described above, this most recent class of mine…it’s the best one I’ve seen in my 12 years teaching this class. Each semester in the last couple of years, I’ve noticed it getting a bit better. And this is just one reason why, as a college English teacher and the parent of a 5-year-old, I’m a big supporter of the Common Core Standards Initiative.
I was moved to write this post by a few things: First, I’ve been reading and hearing a lot from a lot of people about how awful this Common Core thing is. Second, I recently wrote an article about it for Nevada’s Washington Watch, and got an opportunity to learn a lot about it. And I think there are a lot of parents out there who are seeing their kids doing new things in school, learning lessons that seem excessively rigorous or that don’t appear to make sense according to how we learned things when we were in school.
I think a lot of the problems stem from people not knowing what Common Core is. A 2013 Gallup poll actually found that 60 percent of parents polled didn’t know what Common Core was, and a good many of them believed it was some sort of diet or exercise regimen.
In the course of my research, I’ve learned quite a bit about Common Core, and the more I know, the more excited I am about it. But I also think there hasn’t been enough easy-to-understand information made available to parents, at least here in Northern Nevada, and consequently there are a lot of myths surrounding it that are causing some concern.
Myth #1: It’s just another screwed-up aspect of the test-crazy No Child Left Behind legislation.
Common Core is, in no way, affiliated with No Child Left Behind. Here in Nevada, the testing associated with Common Core hasn’t even begun yet. It’s set to roll out next year, and this new assessment program, Smarter Balanced, is intended to assess strengths, not to point out deficits. It’s also intended to eventually scale back on the amount of standardized testing that students are currently getting. So the tests they’re taking right now have no relation to Common Core.
Common Core is a set of standards—here in Nevada they fall into English Literacy and Math, and Science standards have recently been adopted but not yet implemented—intended to provide consistency for students, regardless of in what state they’ve earned their education. Math in Nevada shouldn’t be different from math in California or Idaho.
Myth #2: It’s a federal takeover of education.
The Race to the Top Initiative was a federal initiative designed to increase global competitiveness for American kids. Part of this initiative offers grant funding to schools and districts that meet the goals of Race to the Top. Common Core was developed by academics—principals, teachers, researchers—as well as government and business leaders as a way to counteract the “mile-wide, inch-deep” style of education in which kids memorize dates and names, take tests, and then forget the subject matter. Race to the Top grants have been offered to states who adopt Common Core, so of course it’s encouraged. But it is in no way a federal mandate. States had the option whether or not to adopt it, and how they would do so. Three years ago, Nevada became one of 45 states to adopt it, and have been phasing it in slowly throughout various grade levels.
Myth #3: Common Core will de-emphasize literature and the arts.
Common Core is built on the idea that students dig down deep into texts, integrating a variety of approaches. One of the overarching goals of Common Core is to improve students’ critical thinking and analytical skills. For instance, in a math text, students not only would learn fractions in an abstract way, they would get to do hands-on work with money to play with the concept. Then they might do word problems in which the class looks deeply at the text to ensure that students know all vocabulary and practice critical reading skills to truly understand what the question is asking. A history class, meanwhile, might involve studying a presidency, reading and analyzing a speech made by that president, digging into vocabulary and determining whom his audience was, and doing a debate to practice argument about historical issues. In other words, such lessons make meaning in ways that last long after any tests have been taken. Poetry, drama, and fiction may actually become part of history or social studies teaching.
In other words, literature and the humanities are inextricably linked to all Common Core-aligned teaching.
Myth #4: It places unreasonable expectations on kids.
It’s intended to be harder. And shouldn’t it be? Why should our kids be allowed to rank dead last among all states for education, per-pupil funding, test scores, rates of completion, and college attendance? Nevada has consistently ranked in the bottom for nearly all education measures. As the parent of a soon-to-be kindergartner—in a district where kids aren’t even guaranteed a full day of kindergarten yet—I want my child to experience some rigor. Washoe County School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez told me that he recently visited a kindergarten class in the district. Kindergartners have been in the ideal situation since Common Core was adopted, getting to start out using these principles. On the day he visited, the kids were not only reading books and writing stories, but they were studying the history of the American colonies. He learned from them that each colony actually had its own president; they then proceeded to explain to him what the specific duties of these presidents were.
I want that for my daughter! To me, that’s not unreasonable. To me, that’s what she deserves. Just because I may not understand the math she will bring home doesn’t mean that’s a bad thing. The way I learned may not have been best. Maybe that’s why I’m terrified of math.
Yes, there’s more rigor, but isn’t that a good thing? Older kids who have been used to doing things a certain way will surely find these changes unsettling, and change is uncomfortable and sometimes scary. But you have to start somewhere. You start, and as time progresses, this will be normal. This will just be how school is. And in turn our kids will be better prepared for a challenging world.
Myth #5: It takes power away from schools and teachers.
While standards must be met, is entirely up to schools and teachers how this is done. Teacher-led training is taking place around our district, and educators are seeking their own texts to meet standards and address their unique students’ needs. If anything, this is the biggest challenge, because it doesn’t come handed to teachers on a plate. It’s hard work as they adapt. But this is not one-size-fits-all thinking, which was a criticism often leveled at No Child Left Behind.
And here’s one final consideration:
While many states, California among them, have devoted large budgets to Common Core implementation (California dedicated $1 billion to this), Nevada has implemented it without any additional funding. Schools have been given no additional resources specifically designed for Common Core implementation. So it’s going to be rocky for a couple years until we’ve gotten used to it. In the first few years of the new assessments, the scores won’t be that high, because students will not have been meeting these standards for long. And the standards themselves will certainly evolve.
But I, for one, am thrilled about where we’re headed.