Saturday, February 28, 2015

Common Core Standards...Really

Dr. Terry L. Simpson
Director of Teacher Education
Maryville College

From My Cluttered Desk...

              It was 1988, and I was in a doctoral program at the University of Texas A&M-Commerce, which is located in Commerce, Texas.  My 15-year-old daughter was sitting in my apartment completing her homework.   The TV was on, and I was watching the Republican National Convention.  Speaker after speaker came to the podium and trashed public education in the United States while extolling the strength of public education in Japan.  For some reason, not one of the speakers mentioned that education in Japan is controlled by the national government, and schools operate under a rigid set of national standards. Finally, Jennifer had had enough, and she threw her books on the floor, stomped over to the TV and yelled, “You just want us to go to school on Saturday!”  From the standpoint of a 15 year-old, that was all she needed to know about education in Japan, and she wanted no part of the Japanese education model.
              With that introduction, and in the face of better judgment, I tread into the Common Core minefield.  As I have listened to and read opposition to the Common Core, the arguments remind me of my 15-year-old daughter’s opposition to the Japanese education model, except that these critics are not 15 years old. 
              One local politician running for the school board stated that the Common Core Standards were “dumbing down the curriculum”.  Really?  Several months back, I sat in the central office of one of our rural school districts and watched as in horror they received their students’ test scores.  The percentage of students that scored proficient in math under the previous standards was above 70% while less than 25% scored proficient under the new standards.  Surely, this is not an example of “dumbing down” the math curriculum.  If someone wants to sit down and discuss the math Common Core standards and whether many of these standards are assigned to the grade level of students that are developmentally ready to master these standards, I am ready for that discussion.
              The attempt of the federal government to force the Common Core standards on the states is President Obama’s plan to control education.  Really?  The origin and development of the Common Core standards did not take place in the secret offices of the United States of Department of Education in Washington, D.C. 
              The Common Core standards will destroy the concept of patriotism in the American History curriculum.  Really?  Common Core standards have been developed only for Mathematics and English/Language Arts. 
              Do the academic standards in American education need to be changed and made more rigorous?  Before you answer that question, let me share a few experiences.  In the late 1980s, I was completing a doctoral program at the University of Texas A&M-Commerce, and while completing the program I taught two undergraduate classes.  In one of those courses I had a woman from France.  She had been in the United States with her two children and husband who was completing a graduate degree.  They were preparing to return to France, and she was horrified.  She had discovered that when her two children returned to school in France, they would be two years behind in mathematics when compared to French students their age. 
              In 1986, I visited China with an education delegation and had the opportunity to meet and talk with middle school students in Beijing.  Their instruction in mathematics and science was at a much higher academic level than the typical instruction in American middle school.  Plus, they could converse in three different languages.  While visiting a school in Brazil in 1998, I discovered that students in Brazil study Physics each year in their secondary curriculum.  In 2000, I was awarded a Fulbright Grant to teach at Tartu University in Estonia during the fall semester.  Estonia had made a commitment to be a top tier country in science, and they are well on their way.  The papers the students wrote for me in English were flawless, and they could research topics in three different languages. 
              The city Maryville has a significant Japanese population, due mainly to Japanese industries, especially Denso Manufacturing.  Denso rents space at Maryville College and the Japanese government sends a principal to hold Saturday school for Japanese students so they will not be academically behind when they return to Japan.  Do the academic standards in American education need to be changed and made more rigorous?  You answer the questions.
              Teachers tend to teach the way they were taught and achieved success in school.  It is difficult to get teachers and even teacher licensure students to move away from this comfort zone.  The key factor is a common resistance to change.  I am 66 years old, and the standards I met in order to succeed in grades 1-12 are no longer sufficient.  The standards that students met even 20 years ago in order to be academically successful are no longer sufficient.
               Colleges and universities must change, and this change must reach deeper than educational methods courses.  Instruction in college level math and English can no longer be the same as usual.  In my humble opinion, instruction on this level will be the most resistant to change. 
              However, as Director of the Teacher Licensure at Maryville College, I am well aware of changes we need to make in our program.  One of our goals in the Maryville College Teacher Licensure Program is to equip future teachers with various teaching strategies and instructional models so they will have the background knowledge, learning theory and confidence to adjust to new and more rigorous standards as they progress through their professional careers as teachers. I am responsible for the instructional models approach in our instructional design, but we must make adjustments and do much better in preparing our graduates for success in the Common Core standards.  We would be remiss if we demanded any less.

Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee! What have we done to the school curriculum?

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System Diane Ravitch wrote, “If we want to improve education, we must first have a vision of what good education is. We should have goals that are worth striving for.”

After teaching as well as being an administrator for 38 years, I have earned the right to comment on the trends in education in our country and especially in my home state. My first concern is the removal of Tennessee local and state history as a course in the P-12 curriculum. Yes, I am aware that it is to be integrated into the American history curriculum; however, this integration will seldom take place in a consistent and coherent process. I am appalled by the lack of knowledge and understanding students have about our local and state history. Dollywood, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg simply reinforce the stereotypes about the East Tennessee region and students buy into this Southern Appalachian hillbilly stereotype. The current and future generations of students do not know who we are. This is a tragedy. 

Removing geography from the high school curriculum is my second concern. Again, I am aware that geography is to be integrated into the history curriculum. This integration will seldom take place. The result is we don’t know who they are. I have even heard teachers say, “All those MEXICANS should go back the Mexico.” When did you learn that creating stereotypes of those who are different can have very negative consequences? I learned this concept in the second grade. Our diversity has always made us better. I certainly hope the off-spring of the brothers James and John Simpson who fled the poverty and religious strife of Ulster (Northern Ireland) made this a better country in spite of the English power structure along the colonial eastern coast claiming that the Scots-Irish riffraff from Ulster was trashing the colonies. We did trash the White House when Andrew Jackson was elected President!

Emphasizing STEM courses (science, technology, engineering & math) by removing or limiting the access to other subjects, especially the social studies, humanities and the arts, is my third concern. At what point in this new curriculum will we wrestle with the great moral questions of our society? Where will we debate and define “the good” in our nation? Where will we learn compassion for “the other”? By slashing these subjects in the curriculum in favor of technical skills, we may graduate more technocrats but lose our soul as a nation.

In the book When Learned Men Murder, David Patterson reminded us of the meeting in Germany on January 20, 1942, which outlined the Final Solution. “Of the 14 men who sat down to discuss the murder of the Jews, 8 held doctorates from the finest universities in Central Europe. Those universities were as interested in being technologically advanced and politically correct as are our own.” Furthermore, Haim Ginott, who survived the death camps a later became a teacher and child psychologist wrote,

"My eyes saw what no person should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and killed by high school and college graduates. So I’m suspicious of education. My request is: help your students to be human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and spelling and history and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our students human."

Yes, we need to reform the strategies we have historically used in math instruction, and we need more graduates in engineering, math and science. However, we do not need to decapitate the other academic subjects in the curriculum to achieve this goal. We not only need students who are academically strong but who are morally strong. “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts” (Einstein). 

Terry L. Simpson (July 2014)

  • Patterson, D. (1996). When Learned Men Murder. Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.
  • Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System. New York: Basic Books. 
  • The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive and Secure Nation. (2013). Cambridge, Mass: American Academy of Arts & Sciences.