Common Core From the Inside

A few years back, in an effort to supplement by income, I became a substitute teacher and eventually settled into a rather steady calling at a local K-8 elementary school.  This school is ethnically diverse- mainly Hispanic and Asian students with a smattering of black and white students.  Substitute teaching is NOT organized babysitting while the real teacher is off, and they are required to follow through on the assigned lesson plans and classwork.  In the recent years, there were three major changes at this school- (1) a brand new, technologically state-of-the-art building, (2) a new principal, and (3) introduction of the Common Core curriculum.

Despite its ethnic diversity and the obvious language barrier problems one may encounter as a result, this school was known as the “country club” of the city’s elementary school system.  Their graduated eighth graders were regularly in the top of the their classes in high school.  That is no longer the case.  Last year, despite pep rallies and an almost Gestapo-like atmosphere to ensure silence during state testing periods, every grade level failed to “meet standards” on those tests.  In other words, the school went backwards.  I seriously doubt the physical design of the school and all its technology was responsible.  That leaves either the new principal or the new curriculum.

As for the principal, two things are noticeable.  First, she micromanages down to the minutest of details.  Once, I was asked to leave another grade to relieve a pre-K teacher of 3-year-olds because she did not like the set-up of that teacher’s classroom and it needed to be rearranged.  After a particularly cold and snowy winter and the weather breaking, recess outside was denied because the noise off the playground “might” distract upper grade students taking a state test on the upper floors on the other side of the school.

The second problem with the principal is her apparent misunderstanding of New Jersey’s School Choice Program.  As designed, schools with declining enrollment were permitted to accept students from other districts provided their was adequate classroom space.  In this particular city, students are assigned to neighborhood schools.  This principal has accepted students from other lower performing schools despite the lack of adequate classroom space.  For example, there are three kindergarten classes, each with 28 students.  Of those 28, one estimates that 7 per classroom are from areas other than this particular school.  There is a vast difference between a kindergarten with 28 students versus one with 19 or 20 kids.  In other words, her misunderstanding of School Choice has led to lowered performance

Turning to Common Core, the transition to this curriculum has not been seamless.  The amount of teacher “retraining” is enormous and a boon of work for me (to the detriment of taxpayers).  What I found was that practically every teacher found Common Core- especially the math- downright silly, confusing and unnecessary.  The first year, some simply ignored it and went about teaching the way they knew best.  Unfortunately, state standardized testing does not agree with those former methods.  They require that the student not only arrive at the correct answer, but also the three dreaded words to students: “Show your work.”  If that work is not the Common Core way, points are deducted.  As a result, because a teacher’s success is somewhat defined by these scores, they have succumbed and now teach “the Common Core” way.

Additionally, the new curriculum requires new text books which, I suspect, is one nefarious reason behind its implementation.  Text books which for years have done a fine job of teaching students are now suddenly obsolete.  Many classes do not even have text books and teachers are left to making copies of problems from their books- or the Internet- to hand out and have students complete.  This switch-over in texts is costly to the school system and lucrative for the educational text book industry.

Regarding language arts, there has been much ado about the content of some books on the “recommended reading list.”  My experience is that even those these books are “recommended” and that some of them have age-inappropriate content, no teacher has actually recommended these books or listed them as required reading.  I have seen a drifting away from classical books and creative writing with added emphasis on books celebrating cultural diversity and technical, non-fictional writing exercises.

Most importantly, Common Core has created a one-size-fits-all mentality which denies teachers the opportunity to teach as they see fit.  Most realize that not every student is college material, but they are forced to teach as if they are.  There is no better example than the following: two years ago (before Common Core) there was a no-nonsense young teacher assigned to sixth grade as in-class support for the lower performers.  A veteran of the public school system in Philadelphia, she developed a style where every kid assigned to her knew what was expected and they met those expectations no matter what it took.  For some, it was drilled repetition and various other techniques.  She obtained results and she took no guff from any student- her results spoke for themselves.  She would simply give a look that would immediately silence an unruly classroom.  She also was not a team player as concerns Common Core.

Ms. R (as I will call her) was reassigned to educational purgatory- not assigned to any particular school but went where she was needed on any particular day.  The stated reason for her absence was that there were not enough “Title I kids in 6th grade,” so there was no need for her position.  Two months later, there was another teacher (Ms. G) suddenly assigned to sixth grade in-class support for slower learners.  Now that they are 8th graders, they are nowhere near where they should be had Ms. R remained there. (Quick follow-up: Ms. R has left the public school system and now teaches at a private school for less money)

Common Core removes the ability of good teachers to teach in a manner they know will get results.  Even if they surreptitiously thwart the Common Core way, there is the test that forces that method upon the teacher.  It is not only a disservice to the student, but also to the teacher.  It drives a wedge between the student and parent and if there is anything I have learned, it is that parental involvement and interest in their child’s educational outcome increases that child’s chances.  Common Core is the wedge driven between parent and child/student when it comes to homework.  In double-digit addition/subtraction, we no longer “borrow” and “carry;” we “regroup-” a notion foreign to most parents- and one that takes over a minute to complete.  In math, it is an unneeded reinvention of the wheel.  Fractions are now taught in kindergarten when most kids have the inability to sit for more than 20 minutes.  Rote learning of multiplication tables is a thing of the past.  We are training a Nation of technical book writers.  Civics and how government works is absent, replaced by a series of books that celebrates the cultural/ethnic diversity of America rather than the common bonds that should hold this country together.  More time is spent on slavery- something eliminated over a century ago- than the Constitution.  Teachers have to walk on eggshells around the subject of Christianity when it comes up (as it invariably does in world history), but stress the contributions of Islam and the Muslim world.

In summary, I see in microcosm what states are seeing on the grander scale- standardization to the point of mediocrity.  Independent studies of many states’ academic standards and curriculum have determined that they were superior to Common Core yet they have abandoned them in search of more federal dollars.  It is not, as Arne Duncan once stated, suburban soccer moms upset to find their kids are not as bright as they thought they were; it is people like Arne Duncan forcing mediocrity down the throats of students, parents and teachers alike while administrations and elected officials scoff at these concerns.  Welcome to the re-education of America.