Friday, October 19, 2012

It's Not About State's Rights: An Argument for Common Core

I did not attend school in just one state. I spent five years in eastern Michigan, two years in Illinois, five years in Wyoming, and two years back in Michigan, this time on the west coast of the state. Growing up I had a decent education, spotty at times, but never consistent. Some schools and states were more rigorous than others, and while I graduated from high school with a 3.9 GPA, I can't say that I was entirely prepared for college. There were gaps, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of those gaps were a result of my inconsistent education for 13 years (if I include preschool). The expectations on me as a student changed with each move, and now as an adult, a parent, and a teacher myself, I wonder if things would have been different had there been consistent expectations across the country.

Every four years politicians pay lip service to the issue of education, promises are made, vague ideas presented, and once the election is over, little changes. This year it appears that the issue of education involves discussion of President Obama's Race to the Top initiative and the implementation of Common Core State Standards, or CCSS. Education is an issue that should not be politically polarizing, yet it is this year, and it appears that it is polarizing because one side doesn't want to admit that the other side MIGHT have a good idea. And that goes for both parties. But current discussion about CCSS, especially from what I'm hearing in Indiana, is primarily political and centers on the antiquated idea that state's rights trump federal reform.

There is a time and a place for the rights of states to take precedence over the federal government. And yes, I do believe that there are certain areas where the federal government is getting too big. There are certain issues about which individual states have a better idea of how things should be run than people in Washington D.C. who are too far removed geographically and ideologically from the issues that face citizens outside of the central East coast. But education is NOT one of these issues. The whole concept of individual state's rights was put into place in the late 18th century in an age where the only way to get news from one state to the next was to travel in wagon or on horseback to get that news across state lines. And the United States of American was formed out of thirteen very different colonies that had their own economies, religious ideologies, and needs. This is not the case in the 21st century. Yes, states still have their own economic ventures and needs based on geographic location and traditional ideals, but we can now travel from coast to coast in a matter of hours, a trip that 150 years ago took 3+ months by wagon, several days by train, to complete. I can Skype my sisters-in-law in Florida and Colorado for free, and my kids can talk to their cousins and aunts in other states and see them, all in real time. Twitter, Facebook, and email all allow me to instantaneously communicate with friends and education colleagues across the country and the world. I no longer have to wait days or weeks to get a letter and then more days or weeks to get a response to my response. Not only that, but we live in a mobile society. People move across state lines all the time, taking with them children who have to abide by new rules in new school systems every time they move. Teachers move across state lines and suddenly have to figure out how what they learned in education programs in one state match up with what is being taught in the new state where they live. And I have had both experiences as a student and teacher. I got my teaching license in Nebraska and have taught in Illinois and Indiana. When I got to Indiana I was suddenly shocked by the difference in expectation by the state, but I shouldn't have been shocked because there shouldn't have been an issue. Had there been common standards I would have had the same experience across all three state lines.

Yes, we need a common curriculum across state lines for the sake of all of our nation's children and teachers. And for all you non-educators out there, state standards to not tell me what to teach or how to teach. I still have a fair amount of freedom in my classroom. Instead, standards tell me what my students need to know and what skills they need to have by the time they leave my classroom. How I do that is up to me. It doesn't limit me, it frees me from the pressure of deciding on my own what they should know. It ensures that I know what my students should know by the time they get to me. Curriculum standards are the checks and balances of the education system.

But for some reason, non-educators (and some educators) don't like that. They don't like that people in Washington, D.C. are determining what our children should know by the time they finish elementary school, or by the time they graduate from high school. And this has led to some in Indiana making claims that CCSS actually waters down our rigid state standards. Clearly they haven't read through all of the standards. After spending yesterday working through the standards as I did curriculum mapping with my department and department head, it became perfectly clear how much more difficult the CCSS are, at least for English. The new Common Core standards require that English students not just demonstrate reading and writing ability, but that they are able to apply those skills to everything that they do. Now the CCSS require students to study rhetoric in both composition and reading, and they are not just reading literature. They are to read non-fiction and apply those non-fiction pieces to the literature they are reading and the writing that they are producing. They are required to read more complex texts than in any state standards that I have seen and they aren't just reading them, they are making connections between all texts and studying purpose and audience with everything they read and write. The requirements for my American Literature students will be more similar to the requirements for my AP Language students, only not quite as complex. The new standards are not easier. They require students to apply their knowledge which will allow them to be better students and citizens. Is it perfect? No, no new educational plan is perfect. Education is not an exact science. Non-educators want to treat it like it is, but it isn't. It is trial and error with the end purpose being better teachers, better methods, better materials, and better educated students. But how do we know CCSS won't work if we aren't willing to give it a try? Not an "I guess I can see how this works" but an "I'm going to dive in with everything I've got to make it work" try. And educators need the support of the non-educator public.

Yes, there are elements of CCSS that give me pause, but I am willing to dive in and see where it goes. I know that things will change, they always do, but how can we see if CCSS will work, flaws and all, if we don't give it a try? I'm willing to do it for me, my students who might cross state lines, my own kids in case we ever leave Indiana, and all of my fellow teachers. What do I want to see others do? Stop making this political. Stop making this about your own personal feelings about government interference. It isn't about you. It's about the kids and those who work with them. If people start to look at education that way, we might actually be able to accomplish real reform.