Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Common Core and the Common Good and Where the Smart Kids Are: Comments on Recent Blog Posts by Famous People

 This post is in regard to the following two articles: 

The Common Core and the Common Good

Where the Smart Kids Are

From what I see, Mr. Blow (The Common Core and the Common Good) is correct.  There is nothing wrong per se about the common core standards.  What is wrong is how they are being implemented and general conditions of teaching these days.  Teachers work directly with students too many hours of the day and don't have nearly enough time to prepare lessons, to look for top quality lessons, to grade student products, to work with other teachers, to work with parents, etc. It is as though you were being given a test on your knowledge of differential equations, before you had a chance to study them, and were then given a test on the subject, to be completed in 10 minutes.

I am wondering if it is even possible that Common Core will be implemented well.  Schools are on such stringent budgets right now; class sizes are rising higher and higher; curriculum specialist positions have been cut drastically.  My sister is the assistant superintendent for a school district and they have repeatedly cut her budget.  Many years ago, she had curriculum coordinators in each of the broad subject areas, but over the years they have cut and cut and much of the burden has fallen solely on her.  People just can't get it into their heads that teachers and school administrators have to have enough time and support to do their jobs well.  Yes, you need well trained, intelligent teachers, but you can't get by with hiring just one of those well-trained, intelligent people and expecting them to do the jobs of several people at once.

And as for Annie Murphy Paul's article about students in high schools in other countries, I believe that the problem starts at a much younger age than high school.  I was subbing in a school recently in a mixed-age classroom of 3rd and 4th graders.  I asked the students I taught (as per teacher instructions) what the best part of their day was. The answer was overwhelmingly “recess”, followed by “going home”. When pressed to mention something they had done DURING instructional time, most of the students could not think of a single thing. The students seem to think that education is something that is done TO them and not what they do for themselves. There is no buy-in to the process. They aren’t interested in the gimmicks that we try to use to get them involved; they aren’t interested in finding out answers to any questions. In fact, they don’t even HAVE any questions more complex than where to get paper and pencils, how much time they have until recess or lunch. They have no concern for the abysmal quality of their work, because, in fact, it doesn't seem to them that it is THEIR work, it is work they have to do for the teacher.

The students were supposed to write a "sticker story".  Using stickers to make a picture or using stickers to represent individual words, they were to write a story with details and a beginning, middle, and end.  They were to use grammar and spelling as well as they possibly could.  This writing was to become part of their portfolios.  It is a good thing this is the "before" sample, as I found the writing to be terrible.  Some of the stories were clever and humorous (considering that they were 3rd and 4th graders), but the mechanics of the stories were awful.  Most of the students could not even print correctly (mixtures of capital and small letters at random).  Most did not capitalize or punctuate correctly.  Spelling was abysmal.  And very few of the stories actually followed the directions, with a beginning, middle, and end.  I helped a number of kids get a story outline, but even that didn't help.  Many of the students told me that they weren't good at X, one (or more) of the requirements of the writing, so they simply gave up.  We just can't allow students to say this.  We have to STOP giving students a pass on this.  We need to insist that they keep trying until they CAN do it.  We have to help them learn to CARE about the quality of THEIR work. 

Another assignment that they had was to compute the "value" of their names, given that A = 1 cent, B = 2 cents, and so forth.  Even though they insisted that they had done this "last year" and it was "2nd grade work" (which they were, actually, correct about), there was at least 1/3 of the class that couldn't do it.  They couldn't figure out how to write their names and assign each letter a "value", and ultimately, they couldn't add a sequence of 7 or 8 (or however many) numbers.  And, yes, this WAS modeled for them. 

Now, I know that I am "just a sub", but I know, also, that it takes time to make sure that each of the students gets help in doing the assignment.  Fortunately, two students were absent from an already not-so-big class (21 students; 19 there today), so I was able to help individually the students who could not do the assignment - and to make sure that the ones who tried to hide that they couldn't do it were still held to its completion. But many teachers are not fortunate to have such small classes. 

We have to stop allowing students to say that they aren't good at something.  That is the whole reason for them being in school - to learn to be better at things.  Teachers seem to have the mantra now that students should be valued for their differences and that students don't need to be good at everything.  That is certainly still true, but they can and should be held to being much better at the fundamentals - and I include arithmetic and basic writing as part of those fundamentals.  We can't keep allowing kids to beg off doing better than this. 

I was disappointed and discouraged by the level of skills I saw.

There are times when I would like to turn the whole school model upside down.  I subbed once in a school for teenage students who, either because of jobs or child care responsibilities or disciplinary reasons could not attend a regular high school.  Instead, they came in whenever they could to a large, open space room.  In the center of this room were tables and computers for student access.  Around the periphery of the room were cubicles for the teachers.  Students could make appointments with the teachers for instructional time, either individually or in groups, or could just ask teachers questions during the course of their work.  Yes, there were requirements, but, like the Korean schools, the requirements were in the form of exit exams for various courses or various types of diplomas.  It was the STUDENT's goal to finish the coursework.  The teachers were there to help.

I would like to see this type of buy-in at the younger grades, too.  Kids come to school so eager to learn and then it gradually disappears, until by 3rd or 4th grade, they are already jaded.  I wish I could be a long term observer in some other countries around the world to see what it is about their schools and their cultures that keeps students committed to THEIR educations. 

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