‘I’ ON CULTURE
There have been many headlines about the new Common Core curriculum. Educators, parents and students have been warned that there’s a new sheriff in town. There are different tests, different demands. Everyone quakes in fear. Forget it; it’s just a new shade of “lipstick on a pig.”
Educational leaders change the name of the game every couple of years. To paraphrase an old TV show, “the names are changed to protect the guilty.” A few years ago, the current plan was brought in. Teachers were required to go through countless hours of retraining. Administrators had a whole list of things to be done. And students did no better. The biggest advantage to school districts was that a slew of senior teachers retired a bit earlier, which lowered costs.
Years ago, individual school districts chose the programs they thought worked. Many classroom teachers were even allowed to select books their students would read. They developed different ways to teach specific skills. Now the federal government pushes changes on the states, which force the school districts to adopt the new ideas by forcing standardized tests through; they evaluate schools and teachers as much as students.
When I was in high school a half-century ago, I took a class called “MIT Physics,” a precursor to the Advanced Placement programs. It was a very tough class, the hardest I faced in school. But since it covered different subject matter than what was taught in the standard course, most of us in the class failed New York’s Regents Exam in physics. We learned a lot more, but the bureaucrats were interested in their standardized tests. So the course eventually was ended. Now, classes like that have been reworked so students can handle the required tests.
Common Core, for all of the stories about it, simply repackages materials in a slightly different way. The main testing is in reading and math. Think about that. If there were a change in the science curriculum, the subject matter might radically change. But reading is reading. To paraphrase an old song, “An A is still an A, a B is still a B, the alphabet doesn’t change at all as time goes by.” Common Core simply rearranges all of the specific educational objectives. One advocate of the change reported there are fewer than half under the new curriculum, but they are “deeper.” That means they’ve rewritten them and merged them. The key is still to be able to actually understand what is on the page and to be able to get information and organize it. If children get through the third or fourth grade and can do that, they probably will be all right in school.
The math, ironically, is a bit more problematic. In attempting to raise measured performance, those in favor of educational change decided that wrong answers were all right “as long as the child can explain what was done.” The educators were mocked for arguing that if a student could defend the idea that 3 x 4 = 11, partial credit should be given. That reminded me of a great line from an old Tom Lehrer song, “Counting in base eight is like counting in base ten… if you’re missing two fingers.” The real problem was that most education professors hated and feared math themselves. They included only one math person on the whole team creating the new curricula. That person refused to buy into the idea that getting the right answer was not important, but, since he was only one against many, it was probably decided that one was so close to zero, that there was no opposition.
Of course, students already do get partial credit when handling many complex equations in more advanced math, and it is hard to defend not getting simple math right. Of course, we can now change another old adage: “Almost only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and math tests.”
But in the long run, none of this really matters. There are constant calls for change every few years, because it is the simplest and easiest way to avoid responsibility. And this is a nationwide program, so calling out Superintendent Wayne Gent and our local board is useless. They are caught in the web as much as we are. They were not given a choice.
Instead, give your children and grandchildren a lot of help. Encourage reading not only for school but for fun. Push them to learn the multiplication tables. And take the time to make certain they understand how important learning is. The packaging means nothing; the actual learning is all.