Individuality vs. the Common Core

Steinbeck’s East of Eden has been on my reading list for a long time, I finally decided to tackle it this summer. So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I like it. Last night, I stumbled across a passage that reminded me a bit of one of our era’s current educational debates:

from East of EdenEast of Eden 2

“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual…I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If glory can be killed, we are lost.”

After reading that passage, I couldn’t help but wonder, what would Steinbeck think of the Common Core State Standards? Would he view the movement as a homogenizing force, one that takes away student creativity?

Steinbeck’s words highlight the potential pitfalls to any educational movement involving standardization of the curriculum. The good thing about the Common Core State Standards is that they do not prescribe any particular curriculum. They were written to be open-ended and to promote critical thinking instead of eliminate it. On the other hand, I worry that anxiety about high-stakes testing will cause teachers and schools to purchase so-called Common Core curriculum packages and that classrooms will become narrowly focused on helping students pass the Smarter Balanced assessments tied to the Common Core.

Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Student AchievementIn Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement, authors Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman explain the basic philosophy behind the Common Core Standards and how they will transform what we teachers are already doing. According to Calkins et. al., the spirit behind the Common Core Standards is that students need to be independent readers, writers, and thinkers. One thing the authors point out is that scripted programs and fill-in-the-blank writing activities will not support the lofty goal of student independence.

While I don’t agree with everything the Common Core Standards say, the authors of Pathways give me some hope. Here are some of the positive takeaways from the book:

  • On Student Independence:  “The Common Core focus on proficiency and complexity, yes, but also on independence. The Common Core want to be sure kids graduate from high school able to do quick, on-the-run research when needed, to express their thinking verbally and in writing, and to summarize, synthesize, analyze, and design without needing teachers to insert the key questions along the way or to walk students through a step-by-step approach” (12).
  • On Limitations of the Common Core: Calkins et. al. point out that the Common Core place limitations on what is not covered by the standards: “Limitation 1 even begins: ‘The Standards define what all students are expected to known and be able to do, not how teachers should teach‘” (13).
  • On Curriculum Selection: “Our first suggestion to school leaders, then, is to guard against responding to The Common Core with a knee-jerk reaction to add a host of new programs, each of which gears the label of Common Core. It is easy to add new programs–for decades, American schools have been characterized by a constant stream of new, new, new, but the results haven’t been all that impressive” (183).
  • On Our Current Standardized Tests: “When high-stakes tests ask little for students, schools that teach only low-level literacy skills can appear to be doing an acceptable job. In addition, published basal or textbook programs that merely ask students to fill in the blanks as a substitute for writing can appear to be satisfactory. Teachers who follow scripted ‘teacher-proof’ programs, not thinking in response to what students do, can appear to be effective. They can all appear that way because the tests ask for only low-level work” (187).
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