When Florida’s new governor, Ron DeSantis announced last week that he was pulling our fine state out of the Common Core State Standards by executive order, I had to wonder how many people even knew we were a Common Core state. After all, when too many citizens complained about the Common Core before its adoption (with complaints ranging from the reasonable to the accusation that “Common Core is Communism!”), Florida pulled a bait and switch. They added a few standards to the Common Core and changed the name to the Florida Standards. We pulled out of the PAARC testing consortium and hired a company named AIR to create a new test called the FSA (the Florida Standards Assessment).
So I think a lot of people really didn’t know we were still, in practice, a Common Core state.
Common Core has been controversial, but not, I think, for the right reasons. The English/Language Arts standards had a troubling philosophy at their foundation, summed up by their architect, David Coleman, whose attitude toward students was that “No one gives a shit about your personal opinion or your story.” The disastrous instructional shifts have led to an era of cookie cutter writing based on text-evidence and an almost complete disappearance of personal and narrative writing – the kinds of writing students actually find motivating – and useful later in life. The kind of writing testing by FSA can be automated these days (it can be scored by an algorithm, after all), so it won’t be in much demand from humans in the near future.
On the Math end of things, the standards appeared to want to promote less skill-and-drill and more number sense – actually thinking about what numbers do and how they interact. This approach failed to impress an awful lot of parents who felt they didn’t know how to help their children with their homework. After all, the object isn’t to understand numbers – it’s to follow instructions and get the right answer… right?
I often look back wistfully on the beginnings of my teaching career, back when standards and high-stakes testing were just a twinkle in the Florida DOE’s eye. Back then, I was given a classroom, a textbook (if I chose to use it) and a copy center account. However did I know what to do?
Being a fairly good, and fairly educated, reader and writer myself, I thought hard about the different ways we can understand and interact with various kinds of text – and I tried to get my students to interact with texts in much the same way. I tried to get them to love writing and dabble in many forms of it successfully. They generally did. And you know what – in the end, that’s what I still do.
But what about teachers who don’t feel the same way about their subject as I do? What about teachers who need more guidance? How can we be sure there is equity?
Good questions. Instead of having all the answers, perhaps what we need is questions. The people who are celebrating the Common Core’s demise in Florida should be asking questions instead. What will replace the Common Core? Who will decide what it will be? Will it actually be better than our current standards? How will it be tested? How much confusion will the switch-over between standards and tests cause for our students – especially our youngest students? We keep changing initiatives, changing programs, changing tests and standards, and our students are caught in the middle. Are we changing the wrong things?
Of course, all of this leads to even bigger questions – and questions are what we should all be asking before we leap on the next standards bandwagon. Here are a few questions to ask.
Won’t standards always leave something out or emphasize some skills or ideas over others? In the end, if we focus on testing, aren’t the tested standards really the only ones that matter, because testing narrows the curriculum? Don’t standards imply that knowledge within a subject is static, stagnant, and unchanging?
Do standards really influence instruction as much as we think? Don’t teachers who teach formulaic writing continue to dole out 5-paragraph templates to their students even as more progressive teachers teach actual organizational skills? Do standards really make teachers think more deeply about what they teach, or prevent many of them from having to think at all?
Is mastering a set of skills-based standards really the best way to think about education? Couldn‘t we be thinking instead about personal habits of mind we want students to have, like curiosity, creativity, and empathy? Is have a clearing stated goal always the best way to learn – or can you learn more by simply exploring?
What, in the end, is the purpose of education? To produce young people who have, as the Common Core put it, “college and career readiness”? Or is there more to education than college and careers? Is all of education nothing but vocational training? Should education have a character component? A social-emotional component? A democratic component?
Is the goal of education really to get students to follow instructions better, or to think better? Can a real education actually be tested by any kind of automated test, multiple choice or otherwise? Don’t such tests always lead to binary thinking? Is binary thinking useful in a world that increasingly offers us ambiguity, and choices between multiple right options?
What does it mean to be smart? Does it mean to pass tests? To know a lot? To be able to think well? How do we define thinking, or thinking well? What does it mean to be intellectually healthy? Should we perhaps begin by defining intellectual health and then making that our aim?
Are we wise to build our entire educational system around our students’ ability to answer questions and solve problem? Could we build our system instead around increasing their capacity to identify problems and ask questions?
Maybe the first and most important standard, if we must have them, should be: Ask good questions.