Are Schools Misinterpreting Common Core Standards as Common Teaching?

As a high school English teacher, I taught many things that didn’t excite me or pique my personal interests. That’s part of the job when one is following a curriculum, meeting standards, and working with other teachers. I get that. I never let the students know I didn’t love aspects of the curriculum that the district required all teachers to cover. I taught it to the best of my ability and sometimes, I even surprised myself by growing fond of a certain text or style of writing. What I don’t get, however, is the way in which standardization has been taken to extremes recently, effectively robbing the autonomy of excellent teachers, all in name of the Common Core Standards.Teachers in at least four districts across the state of Arkansas, reported to me that their school districts are requiring teachers to teach in lockstep, not just covering the same content (as would be expected) but also covering it in the same exact way, even going so far as to require the use of the same lesson plan on the same day by, for example, all ninth grade teachers. This is disturbing for any number of reasons, most of all it grinds against the grain of how I understand teaching and learning, as a complex task that relies on teachers’ understanding of classroom context and the needs of their students to dictate, within reason, the way in which content is presented. Teaching is supposed to be about learning and every different class of students is likely to learn at different rates and in slightly different ways.

My first reaction? This is not at all what the Common Core Standards indicate as examples of good teaching. CCS are about interdisciplinary units, teaching for depth rather than coverage, and pushing students towards more critical, analytical, argumentative types of thinking. Every ounce of experience I have tells me that those pursuits take time, differing amounts of time depending on how accessible that brand of thinking is to students. But differentiating the length of time spent on lessons isn’t possible when all of the teachers across a single district are following the same plan. Simply put, no two teachers cover material in the same way and no two classrooms of students, even at the same school, are ever going to be similar enough to be taught in the exact same way, from the same lesson plan. This is a thoughtless approach to teaching and learning, perhaps one that isn’t widespread across the country. I hope not.

A principal at one of these districts, when questioned by teachers about why this approach was being mandated, responded by telling them they just need to KISS, Keep It Simple, Stupid, when it comes to lesson planning and staying together on those lesson plans. I’m still a little dumbfounded that a school leader would say that publicly; it seems to imply and accept the very worst expectations for teaching and learning. When adults think and speak of the act of education in offensive ways like this, I fear what the future holds. My fears were realized when I visited a different school only to find the lesson plan written and posted on the outside of each classroom door.

This ‘teacher-less teaching,’ has also hit higher education in the preparation of new educators. The Teaching Interns with whom I work in our university’s Master of Arts in Teaching program have explained that they, in some cases, cannot be given the reins to teach a single two or three-week unit of instruction, even a mini-unit of three days unless the entire school or the district follows the same plan. This isn’t to say that experienced teachers can’t learn from new ones—some of the most valuable strategies, methods, and approaches I’ve gained as a teacher were shared with me by my own student teachers. But to force an entire school or district to follow the plans of a single brand new pre-service teacher is nonsensical at best.

The students with whom I’m fortunate to work are some of the best and brightest entering the teaching profession through a traditional program. Over the past five years, the mean GPA of those seeking an MAT in English Education is just over 3.6 on a 4.0 scale. We know that smarter students make a larger positive difference in their students’ standardized test scores (though that really shouldn’t be the only goal we respect) but these future teachers did not sign up to teach from the same lesson plans, the plans their colleagues made or worse yet, the plans an outside group designed. In enacting these requirements, schools are reinforcing the distrust of teachers prevalent in society. By taking instructional planning out of the hands of all teachers, schools can be sure that all are at least teaching average lessons.  Keeping it simple, stupid.  But in doing so, these schools are–unsuspectingly–also affecting the greatest common factor, the talented and effective teachers who now have to teach from the same lessons.

Talented students don’t sign up to become teachers for the money. Talented students recognize the opportunity to maximize their potential in a field that recognizes flexibility, creativity, differentiation, individuality, and the ability to meet the needs of all students.  I fear that the talented future and existing teachers we need in this country are going to flee from the teaching profession if it means following a one-size-fits-all plan and keeping it simple, stupid. Unfortunately, I am seeing some of my future teachers already questioning their career choice when faced with the deprofessionalized classrooms in which they are learning to teach.

My class is reading Dr. Peter Smagorinsky’s textbook Teaching English by Design while experiencing this homogenization in their internships; this week, we discussed several passages that argue for teacher autonomy and illustrate reasons why we should question, challenge, and overthrow teacher-less teaching.

“Teachers ought to consider their own interests and needs when deciding what to teach. They should reflect on the value of their judgment in knowing what students might benefit from studying, even if the students haven’t identified it as an interest. To meet your own needs, think about your interests and knowledge.” (p. 135)

Smagorinsky’s reputation is unparalleled as a teacher, writer, researcher, and teacher educator. He continues, qualifying that teachers should rely on students to guide their instruction, a concept that in the time of standards created by people far away from the classroom and lesson plans created by other teachers, seems completely and most unfortunately, distant.

“Students know when teachers are going through the motions. Many student evaluations of teachers that I’ve read over the years have stressed the importance of teachers being enthusiastic and passionate about their work. Nothing kills enthusiasm like teaching topics and books that you don’t like.” (p. 135)

And perhaps that is what I find most disheartening about all of this, the CCS does not dictate that teachers meet particular standards through particular texts or in lockstep–common–ways. This is death by a thousand compromises and another indication that we are seeing seeds of an implementation problem, a misinterpretation of what the standards are and aren’t, as a response to this nationalized approach to education.

On one hand, the educational climate of 2012, may very well contribute to this oversimplification of teaching and learning in ways like this, taking complex standards and reducing them to a curriculum guide replete with boxes to be checked off at the end of each day. The teachers I’ve heard from are some of the best I’ve ever met and the interns in the teacher education program, as I’ve mentioned, have talents that exceed most of their peers. To enact the CCS appropriately will require truly exceptional–not common–teachers. Most I know are quite capable–or will be quite capable if given a chance to write and experiment with lesson and unit planning–of designing their own path forward.

“Because the teaching profession can often be frustrating, it’s important to have as much control and authority over your teaching practices as possible in order to feel that you are having the effect on students’ lives that you hope for” (Smagorinsky, p. 137).

I couldn’t agree more.

If you are teaching or learning to teach in a lockstep environment like the ones I’ve described, please consider participating in the EduSanity movement by adding your comments, forwarding this to others, posting to Facebook, retweeting, pinning it, etc. It’s time to take back the classrooms.

*****

suggested citation:
Goering, C.Z. (2012, October 8). Are schools misinterpreting Common Core Standards as common teaching? EduSanity. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/10/08/are-schools-mi…ommon-teaching/

Comments

  1. Ugh. Its no wonder that charter and private school enrollments are burgeoning. Teachers are flocking to them too. They often offer a more “professional” environment where teachers still teach according to the standards, but with the flexibility and creativity that their expertise permits.

    I understand the “fear” of not making the grade that school administrators can have, but can’t they also see how demoralizing this practice is? Next stop – proctors and computer-based Skinner programming.

    Double ugh.

  2. Being unaware of the depth of the CCS and not having seen these “lesson plans” it is difficult to comment on how much autonomy has been taken and how much left. But I would like to present the other side of the debate: first off, where do we draw the line on teacher autonomy? Is there a point whereby the standards are simply ignored and not met when teachers choose what they think is important to deliver well and where certain topics and outcomes can be de-emphasized? Second, if the standards are well enough written to be unequivocal in their interpretation (and where teachers work together well enough to agree upon possible activities and assessments that will meet those standards) then common lesson plans would not be necessary – rather, negotiated acceptable levels of performance and teaching strategies could present a rich body of work to choose from or draw from for inspiration. The problem is that as long as there are standardized tests but lax standards, it will be difficult to deliver common outcomes without some content restrictions. Finally, a robust curriculum should offer a variety of ways to deliver the lesson plan under varying conditions. Many new teachers appreciate the opportunity to work from a common well-defined lesson plan until they are comfortable and familar enough to innovate with the content without compromising standards.

    1. It’s a matter of the state and district interpretation of the CCSS. If the state and district require teachers to follow scripted lesson plans (from Pearson for example) designed from the CCSS, there is no teacher autonomy. If the state or district allows the CCSS to be just that, standards, then teachers SHOULD have flexibility to approach the standard using the best research-based practices.

      Why would we ever want every teacher doing the same lesson plan? The students in classroom A come to school with often very different needs and backgrounds that the students in classroom B. And that’s in the same school! Can you imagine how successful a lesson plan based upon the cultural and social needs of students in rural Kansas would be in a classroom in suburban Connecticut? It’s apples and oranges. Differentiation and creativity would be void and the very pedagogy that teachers have spent years honing in their professional education would be null.

      Finally, if new teachers are graduating teacher education programs uncomfortable or unfamiliar with planning a lesson without the crutch of a scripted program, we are in serious trouble, folks.

  3. I enjoyed the ‘Are Schools Misinterpreting Common Core Standards as Common Teaching” article – definitely going to pick up Teaching English by Design today. When I took a job as Dean of Curriculum and Instruction the first thing we did was throw out the textbooks (especially the Saxon Math books), have teachers write their own standards based on the standards for the state, ACT standards, any state standards from other states, and anything they wanted to add to them, and then make their curriculum map — that coupled with weekly coaching based on each individual teachers wants/needs for growth led to massive gains last year on the ‘state tests’ we take — all from teaching how we want and working from teacher created documents vs. teaching a prescribed curriculum map.