Guest post by Dr. Jeffrey N. Golub.
The story goes that, some years ago, a Midwestern university decided to build a new library on its campus. So an architectural firm was commissioned to design and build the building. Within weeks after its opening, however, the new library began to sink into the ground. Seems the architects had not factored in the weight of the books.
This tale, it turns out, is actually an urban-legend that has been circulating among students on college campuses and elsewhere for years and years. The situation never actually happened, but I mention this story anyway because it seems a pertinent analogy to describe the problem that plagues the Common Core Standards that have only recently been 'built'. They, too, are not 'well-grounded,' so to speak, because the authors of the standards have failed to factor in some crucial elements or aspects of instruction. This failure of foresight and insight will surely cause the standards to 'sink' - to become ineffective, inappropriate, and intolerable. The biggest problem with this 'sinking' that is sure to happen is that the students, teachers, and indeed, whole school systems that will labor under these burdensome 'goals and expectations' will sink right along with them.
Some of these neglected and omitted aspects of instruction include the following critical elements:
1. The standards may be standardized, but the students are not.
Students are different. They have different needs and abilities, different interests and concerns; they come from different backgrounds and bring different life experiences and different work habits to the classroom and to their study of the content. Imposing a restrictive structure and set of expectations - and insisting they all move through the same content at the same time and in the same way doesn't make much sense, does it?
2. Reading comprehension involves much more than simply learning information from the text.
Of course it is important for students to gain knowledge from informational texts, but competent and comprehensive reading instruction engages students in practicing and developing so many more skills with so many more kinds of literature. Reading poetry, short stories, novels, and so many other literary genres engages students in constructing, negotiating, comprehending, and communicating meanings, and these thinking skills and language competencies are the central business of just about every English class. Where are the goals and expectations for students' ability to engage in transactions with literature (Rosenblatt) and create envisionments (Langer) and experience the universe of discourse (Moffett)?
3. The world of the future that students will inhabit may not be exactly the same as the current world.
The stated goal of the standards is to prepare students for college and careers, but we don't know for certain what careers and opportunities will become available by the time the students complete their Secondary education. What specific job-related skills and competencies will be necessary? Will they be the same as the competencies required today? Maybe. Maybe not. But, if we are to successfully prepare our students for what lies ahead, we had better look to the future and develop envisionments that will inform our current educational efforts.
One envisionment that may have some merit is to adopt a curriculum that develops students' creative, logical, and critical thinking skills. No, the idea is not to teach these skills through direct instruction - such an approach could too easily lead to the establishment of a constrictive and restrictive listing of microscopic sub-goals that would soon reveal the same deficiencies of insight exhibited by the current standards schemes.
Instead, the goal would be to design an increasingly complex series of projects to pursue and real-world problems to solve that would immerse the students in these kinds of thinking skills. The idea is to set up situations in such a way that students would need to draw upon, and thereby develop, their creative, logical, and critical thinking skills. Marion Brady, a distinguished director of instruction, teacher educator, author, and newspaper columnist in Florida, has already designed such an innovative curriculum in which the students engage in what he calls 'Investigations.' His curriculum guide, titled "Connections: Investigating Reality - A Course of Study" and available for free download on his website, outlines collaborative projects in which students investigate and explore patterns of information, relationships, people demographics, environment, shared ideas, and the dynamics of change, among others. Such a series of projects and problems depend heavily on students' thinking skills and reflective behavior. You can't put this kind of instruction on a standardized test...nor should you.
4. The teachers are a critical and integral part of any curriculum development and assessment effort.
Teachers are a critical, integral part of the educational enterprise: they are the designers and directors of instruction, after all, and are decision-makers, too. They make hundreds and hundreds of instructional decisions every day: what to teach, and when and how to teach it; who needs extra help and extra time with the work; what choices should be made available to the students for ways to complete the activity or assignment; what texts and other resources should be used for the content under study...and the list goes on and on.
No high-stakes test can replace the many kinds of ongoing formative assessments and kid-watching strategies that teachers use in their classes every day to determine next steps. Teachers in their day-to-day observations and evaluations of students' language performance, coupled with their own judgments of their students' needs and progress, help teachers to shape and shift their instruction to be continually responsive to the students' emerging competence and literacy through language.
Teachers do not have a problem with accountability. They are responsible for making learning happen for their students, after all, so they welcome authentic assessments of the progress that they, and their students, have made. But they do object, and rightly so, to a situation in which they are being held accountable for a curriculum over which they have no control.
The various standards schemes - with their accompanying high-stakes tests - have substantially taken away teachers' control of their instructional efforts and hampered their work in the classroom. Currently we have a situation in which the teachers' designing and decision-making functions are no longer valued and are severely constrained, a state in which assessment has deteriorated into a frequent, debilitating series of high-stakes tests that leave teachers with almost no time for authentic, substantive instruction -- instead they must devote their and their students' precious classroom time to 'test-preparation' that may or may not have anything to do with developing students' communication competencies and language performance.
It is unfortunate that the teachers and their pivotal instructional roles in curriculum development and assessment are ignored in the Standards, as well as the other crucial elements described above. And so we are left with a 'sinking' document that cannot provide a satisfactory foundation for instruction. But this unfortunate result - an unnecessary and unproductive consequence of these omissions - doesn't have to happen if the authors and other sponsors of the Common Core Standards will stop what they are doing for a moment and consider the critical, integral elements of instruction that they have 'left behind' - that they have not factored into their scheme and structure. These elements are there whether the standards authors acknowledge them or not. To ignore them will surely sink this enterprise. To address them may result in a workable document we can really use to guide our instruction and develop our students' communication competencies and literacy in authentic, engaging, thoughtful, coherent ways.
What do you think? Has the Common Core Standards left the critical role of teachers out of the equation? Can this enterprise be rescued?
DR. JEFFREY N. GOLUB, teacher, author, and consultant in Seattle, Washington, worked for 13 years as Associate Professor of English Education at the University of South Florida [USF], preparing students who wished to teach English in the public schools. For 20 years previously, he taught English, speech communication, and writing classes at both junior and senior high schools in Seattle. In 1990, while teaching at Shorecrest High School in Seattle, he was one of 10 English teachers in the country to win the State Farm Insurance Company's "Good Neighbor" Award for innovative teaching, and in 1994 he was awarded the University of South Florida's Teaching Excellence award. And he loves chocolate. He can be reached at [email protected]
Brady, Marion. 2011. Connections: Investigating Reality - A Course of Study. Available at www.marionbrady.com
Langer, Judith A. 1995. Envisioning Literature: Literary Understanding and Literature Instruction. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.
Moffett, James. 1968. Teaching the Universe of Discourse. Boston, MA. Houghton Mifflin.
Rosenblatt, Louise M. 1995. Literature as Exploration. Fifth Ed. New York: Modern Language Association.
Rosenblatt, Louise M. 1978. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
The author wishes to thank Yvonne Siu-Runyan, NCTE President, for her considerable help in revising drafts of this article.
Image used by permission of the author.