A Tale of Two Standards

or, Why I Don’t Despise Common Core.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the Common Core State Standards in common (K-12) education. Some teachers think it will revitalize the curriculum and return the focus to critical thinking and problem-solving. Other teachers criticize the “one size fits all” model and worry that the skills taught are not developmentally appropriate. Although I do share the concerns over age-appropriateness, there is one part of the CCSS that I think is crucial, and that I hope will remain a part of education in America even if the standards themselves are abandoned, and that is the (theoretical) universality.

I suppose the first thing I need to do is explain exactly what a “standard” is, lest I be accused of supporting a “cookie-cutter” or “pre-scripted” curriculum. Standards do not tell teachers how to teach; they simply help guide teachers as to what to teach. For example, here is a standard from the Oklahoma Priority Academic Student Skills (better known as PASS; the standards that will be replaced by Common Core) for 11th Grade Language Arts:

Standard 1: Vocabulary – The student will expand vocabulary through word study, literature, and class discussion.
Apply a knowledge of word origins (words from other languages, history, or literature) to determine the meaning of new words encountered in reading and use of those words accurately.
1. Apply knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon roots and word parts to draw inferences about the meaning of scientific and mathematical terminology.
2. Use reference material such as glossary, dictionary, thesaurus, and available technology to determine precise meaning and usage.
3. Analyze the meaning of analogies encountered, analyzing specific comparisons as well as relationships and inferences.
4. Rely on context to determine meanings of words and phrases such as figurative language, connotations and denotations of words, analogies, idioms, and technical vocabulary.
5. Use word meanings within the appropriate context and verify these meanings by definition, restatement, example, and analogy.

(Source: Page 27 of this PDF.)

Nowhere in this standard or its details is there any mention of how vocabulary should be taught; the standard merely makes explicit the fact that students should increase their vocabulary, and some details are given as to what types of things students should be able to do with words at the close of their 11th grade English course. Teachers are left to their own devices to determine how they feel this skill is best conveyed. Some teachers, for example, are fans of assigning students a certain number of essentially random words per week, which they will study, complete exercises with, and probably have some sort of assessment over. Other teachers prefer to integrate vocabulary study with literature study by assigning words that students will be encountering in the literature they will shortly be studying. There are benefits and drawbacks to both approaches, but the bottom line is that nothing in the standards is forcing teachers to choose between either method, because the method is left up to the teacher. Granted, in some school districts, the choice is made not by each teacher individually, but by the English department as a whole, but again, there is nothing in the standards themselves to advocate any particular teaching method.

Furthermore, I think this vocabulary standard is a good goal to aim for; students should be able to make inferences as to the meaning of unfamiliar words, and they should also be comfortable enough with the available reference material to verify their inferences. Students should be able to interpret analogies (there are some who would argue that analogies don’t exist outside of standardized tests, but I think that the critical thinking skills needed to solve analogies are applicable far beyond multiple-guess exams). Students should know what a thesaurus is, and what kind of information they will find there (I had a student once who thought it was a book of maps – no, sweetheart, that’s an atlas). Students should know the difference between a word’s connotation and its denotation, and they should be able to restate a definition in their own words.

Certainly I won’t argue that Oklahoma’s PASS standards are perfect. A consultant who led a professional development seminar I attended once told us (the seminar participants) that the main drawback to the PASS standards was that there simply was not enough time to teach every standard to mastery. The consultant claimed that teaching every standard to mastery would take approximately 250 clock-hours, but all we have is 175 50-minute class periods (and even this is an overestimation, since fire drills, pep assemblies, and other activities that take time away from classrooms are not taken into consideration). The problem there is that teachers have to “pick and choose” which standards to cover and which to gloss over. This process, of course, leads to gaps in student knowledge, which is the very thing the standards were created to prevent! Therefore, the first thing I would do to improve PASS would be to find a way to make it possible to teach every standard to mastery in the time given, either by eliminating standards or by adding time.

Unfortunately, while this process will eliminate many of the problems, it still ignores a fairly large elephant in the room, an elephant that CCSS is actually designed to eliminate: the differences in standards between the states. This is important because not every student stays in the same school system for their entire educational career. Statewide standards help with this problem, but some people persist in moving from one state to another, which completely fouls up the works when different states have different standards. This is something that I have personal experience with, since my family moved from Chicago to northeast Oklahoma when I was fourteen. In Chicago, I’d been a part of the gifted and talented program, but the rural high school I attended had no such program, which meant that I was ahead in most of my classes. On the other hand, I had been a part of a pull-out independent-study program that met during my social studies class, so I was rather behind there. Standardizing what-gets-taught-when makes it far easier for students who move between districts or states to slide nearly seamlessly from one school to another without resorting to the pre-scripted cookie-cutter approach that teachers are (not without reason) extremely wary of.

I was unable to find data as to the percentage of students who do not spend their entire educational career in one school system, but I suspect that it is over fifty percent. Although CCSS may not be the exact solution that students need, I do hope that we can avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater and incorporate the useful parts into the next generation of school “reform.” In a perfect world, teachers would be writing the standards themselves based on careful research as to time constraints and developmental psychology, and someday I hope to see this very thing happen. Until then, all any teacher or student can do is the best he or she is capable of (but that’s a conversation for another day).

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