Common Core Standards – Bad Policy or Scapegoat?

One can hardly read a paper or click a link without seeing something about the Common Core Standards (CCS) and the standardized tests aligned with them. Many are usually quite negative. Some positive comments sneak in there, too, but those favoring the standards don’t seem to counteract the juggernaut of bad press: Schools want to opt out of testing, teachers rebel against the curriculum, parents complain the tests are too hard and use vocabulary way above grade level, and on and on. There are myriad issues tangled together here, not the least of which is the complaint that students are tested too often to the exclusion of solid teaching time. These complaints all deserve attention, but I want in this posting to look at the standards themselves and see how they intersect with critical thinking.

First off, I want to say I’m no fan of the government micromanaging educational institutions, as I have stated earlier on this blog. So when the CCS came out, I was dubious. Here’s another ham-fisted governmental attempt, I thought, at controlling schools by mandating rigid, watered-down standards that mean nothing.

I saw this kind of control in the extreme when I taught in Kazakhstan and Russia, both systems that were, and still are, under very tightly controlled, authoritarian Soviet and post-Soviet regimes, where most teachers are harassed into teaching the state-sanctioned curriculum. Instructors are forbidden to amend the curriculum to address their students’ needs and there is no hint of critical thinking going on, what with the copious amounts of memorization on the menu. Sadly, there is no shortage of similar situations in the U.S. either. But I do think the CCS got something right, which is the focus on critical thinking.

In a March 17th, 2015, article titled “What are the most challenging Common Core Standards?” (http://www.eschoolnews.com/2015/03/17/most-challenging-standards-870/2/), I found the following quote. (Note: The author, Rob Waldron, is the CEO of Curriculum Associates, which sells a program to help teachers deal with the new standards. But I think his points are still valid.)

Findings show that, among students whose data is included in the research, in reading, students need extra support with informational vs. literary text, as well as increasingly complex texts.

The most challenging standards are those that require synthesis skills, including those related to:
• Determining central ideas or themes and summarizing details
• Analyzing text structure
• Integrating and evaluating content in diverse media and formats
• Analyzing similar topics and themes across texts

Whamo. These skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation are right smack dab at the top of Bloom’s critical thinking hierarchy. (See previous post on this.) What’s not to like, then, about these standards?

Plenty, as many point out. But what’s behind these complaints? Here’s what I think. Teachers may have difficulty teaching to the CCS either because they are not critical thinkers themselves (maybe in some cases) or they have never been shown how to teach these skills (more likely). Next, students are frustrated because they have never been taught these skills and feel out of their depth being asked such questions on exams. Too, with a poor performance on the standardized tests, students fear they won’t get into a good college. So it makes sense to blame the test itself. Third, some parents may condemn the CCS because they may see them as a threat: “I don’t know how to help my kids with their homework” or “The way I learned was good enough for me. Let’s go back to the basics.” Finally, some may feel threatened by this approach to education because it would mean students are taught to think independently, and that is not good for those wanting to control others, such as highly authoritarian groups, governments, and educational systems mentioned above. They have a vested interest in keeping people busy with memorizing and eschewing critical thinking.

Here’s an excerpt from a paper I wrote titled “Teacher Education and Educational Lending: A Cautionary Tale” that gives one reason for maintaining status quo in highly authoritarian Russia:

According to Stephen Webber (2000) in his book School, Reform and Society in the New Russia, the Soviet teacher-education system remained remarkably constant from the 1930s to the 1980s and beyond, when the focus was on the lesson, not the child (Long & Long 1999). That way, lessons could be used in any school in any part of the country. This focus on the lesson led to teaching that was often “uninspired,” state Long and Long (1999), and led to an emphasis on memorization and repeating back on exams, often verbatim. This dull approach to education was intentional because “[i]nspired teaching could prompt young people to think in unpredictable ways” (p. 102).

Pretty depressing, huh? Some readers might be thinking, Hey, we’re not the USSR, never have been, and won’t ever be. I agree; however, if we don’t want to be the USSR, then let’s get going on critical thinking and stop trying to stuff those old standards down students’ throats. Let’s upgrade, which is what the CCS are trying to do.

In the end, we can hypothesize all we want about the reasons for any resistance to training in critical thinking and the Common Core Standards in the US, but the sad truth is that students are not getting the training they should in critical thinking. Consequently, if they are tested on those skills, they will do poorly and end up blaming the test and the CCS, when we should be providing proper teaching training. (To be clear, I’m emphatically not blaming teachers. I am one myself and I chafe at being the scapegoat for all the ills of the educational system.) While I think maintaining the status quo may be seductive to many, I think we are killing the messenger (i.e., the Common Core Standards) when we have not had enough time to build the infrastructure to support such a change in the cognitive development of our students.

Long, D., & Long, R. (1990). Education of teachers in Russia. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press.

Webber, S. (2000). School, reform and society in the new Russia. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Combatting assumptions

We all make assumptions. Life wouldn’t go very smoothly if we didn’t. But we get in trouble when our assumptions lead us to incorrect conclusions, i.e., females cannot do hard, physical labor, or that guy is a dullard just because his expression is lifeless. But when my husband is watching a football game, I know from the School of Hard Knocks that he will not hear what I am saying. Making this assumption saves me time, frustration, and our marriage.

Assumptions come from habit or behavior verified by past experience. My Freshmen international students come with loads of assumptions about Americans, professors, and of course, their country and all the habits/beliefs they’ve learned there. Often these assumptions are regarded as The Truth and may not even register as an assumption until it’s challenged. For instance, my Saudi Arabian students were shocked when their Asian classmates showed disapproval at their custom of polygamy. Having several wives is just a fact of life in Saudi Arabia. It is neither good nor bad to them. It just is, and no one questions it.

To shake them out of that stupor, I use a technique from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (a super-duper book, by the way). This method works well when people assume they understand both sides of an issue, say, arranged marriages. I ask them to write a conversation between two people, Persons A and B, who hold opposing views. In that dialog, they must state what A thinks B believes and vice versa. This step is crucial because they need to be certain they can articulate what the other thinks. Each side then explains why the other is wrong. This technique helps them be more dispassionate, clear, and intellectually honest about the issue. Works every time.