My First Days With Full-blown Common Core
In this post I write about my experience as a traditional public school teacher facing Common Core (CCSS). Before I do so, there are a few statements I must offer.
First, let me be clear that I am writing about my own experiences on my own blog using my own computer and sitting in my own home on my own time.
Second, I teach in a wonderful school for an administration that cares about their students. The atmosphere at my school is one of undeniable support. Our school is a strong community, one that is always seeking to grow. My district has a solid, established reputation statewide.
Third, if I am going to endeavor to teach my students to think critically and to act with conviction, I must first model as much myself.
And now, for my experience with CCSS.
In 2010, I attended my first department meeting in which I was told our district would be phasing out our curriculum and phasing in something called the Common Core. I was told that it would be simpler for having fewer objectives. We were to phase in slowly, with the transition being complete for the 2014-15 school year. I was also told that there would be assessments but that these were not written yet.
This was two years prior to passage of legislation that my job would depend upon student test scores, so that issue was not part of the discussion.
In other meetings, I was told that CCSS required that I teach differently; the example given then was about some new way to do math. I am not sure why this was presented in an English department meeting, but it was.
Last year was our first (and, it turns out, only) transitional year. The curriculum reminded me of moving from one house into a temporary residence on the way to Who Knows Where. Our curriculum specialist tried to help us choose materials for this curriculum in transition. We used what books we had available. This was also the first year that teachers were evaluated using student test scores. I was very aware that I had little control over how my students fared on the End of Course (EOC) test. My goal was to teach; this I kept as my focus.
I learned upon returning to school this week that we were no longer “transitioning.” We were now completely CCSS. This year my students will take EOC; my job this year will be contingent upon EOC; PARCC will begin next year.
US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been on a crusade for states’ not dropping out of CCSS. Thus, it makes sense to me why John White dropped us in full-blown CCSS a year early: foot in the door. White figures that CCSS is less likely to be dropped in Louisiana if it is already instituted. Wait until the legislature feels the weight of that PARCC price tag. I think we might be following Georgia’s lead.
CCSS is a top-down adoption. Notice how many times the word “told” occurs in this post. Obama and Duncan told states that they must adopt CCSS to be eligible for Race to the Top (RTTT) funding. At the state level, the “collaboration” came after CCSS was established; the word is that CCSS was adopted “with overwhelming support from the public and from educators.” Our district told us what the new material was that I would use for teaching, and they told us that veering from the approved literature would require principal/district approval.
That brings me to the “telling” at the school level.
My first meeting during our three beginning-of-year teacher days was a meeting on CCSS. It reminded me of a time-share sales pitch. I was told that I had freedom in my classroom. I was told that my classroom was my “car” and that I “have the keys to my car.” I was told that CCSS would not require extra time or preparation. I was told numerous times that if students did not excel, it was that I was failing the student.
I was also told more than once, “We are going to do this,” the unspoken message being, “Don’t even think of objecting.”
I was told that students would learn if only I would provide the opportunity.
I thought of the numerous students last year who told me, “I’ll just take the zero” on the periodic grading of their semester-long research project until they reached the point that they had to complete the work in order to earn a C or D.
I was told that I need to challenge students by bringing them to their “frustration level”– that doing so would challenge them to work and that they would rise to the occasion.
I envisioned students throwing up their hands in resignation and transforming into behavior problems.
I have been told that CCSS will make students “college and career ready.”
I remembered that CCSS had not been pilot tested.
In a second meeting on CCSS, I was told that we would focus on literacy across the subject areas. In order to do so, we were expected to regularly do an activity called a “close read.” In the two-hour meeting, I learned that the close read activity had a number of components and that it would take hours of class time to complete.
The activity was not suggested. It was decided, and I was “told.”
I imagined my classroom “car” to which I “had the keys” as being without wheels, on blocks.
I was also told that we would be regularly be expected to write “text-dependent” assignments using a template provided by a company called Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC). I was told that PARCC has a lot of text-dependent questions, so I needed to use this template to create a text-dependent writing assignment for students as often as (the unofficial expectation) once a week.
(LDC is a Gates-funded effort whose founder, Chad Vignola, a non-educator, was fired from the New York Board of Education for concealing an ethical breach but kept in the job with then-NYC Chancellor Joel Klein because “no one else could do his job.” The LDC website also mentions Vicky Phillips and Carina Wong, two Gates employees who announced CCSS four months before it was officially finished. As for Klein, he now works for Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify, the company that won the $12.5 million contract to design CCSS assessments.)
In our grade-level meetings, the faculty was told to write a close-read assignment and a template task for the first teaching unit. We were told to do so as a grade-level collaboration, with all teachers having the same task. We were told to make copies of the result to include in our professional folders.
I did as I was told.
I understand that this is the nature of top-down “leadership.” The only one with the freedom is the one at the very top. All others have some consequence, the outcome of which they seek to determine by controlling the actions of those lower than them in the chain. So I understand why my district is so prescriptive in telling me as an English teacher the specific literature I am to use and why my school administration is telling me not only what to teach but how to teach it, down to the exact lesson template. They are grasping for control.
One might object and say that it isn’t actually CCSS that is controlling my classroom. I say, yes it is. First, CCSS is top-down, and by its nature, CCSS drives districts and school administrators to micromanage their teachers. Second, a part of CCSS is the CCSS assessments, which in this reformer world are high stakes for teachers, administrators, schools and districts. The punitive nature of the CCSS assessments virtually guarantees micromanagement of the classroom.
In a meeting the second day, I was told that our district would increase the number of standardized tests to include one at mid-year. I was also told that I would be provided test data on my students to better inform my teaching.
More tests to accommodate an untested, high-stakes curriculum engine.
My administration is not micromanaging all of my teaching decisions. However, I understand that as PARCC draws nearer, both district and school administrators will feel increased pressure to control the “top-down” levels below them– the teachers and students.
In instituting this unpiloted CCSS, I realize that my classroom has become one high-stakes experiment.
My goal is to walk the CCSS tightrope as best I can out of respect for administration while continuing to guard and exercise my professional judgment.