What champions of Common Core are missing

I don’t post about my job as a high school English teacher a lot. Too much information makes administrators nervous, and once I start it’s hard for me to decide where to draw the line. But this post isn’t so much about my specific school, so maybe I won’t end up in the principal’s office. Again. We’ll see.

Today I read what apparently was already an old column by Joel Stein in which he discusses “How I Replaced Shakespeare.” In it, he talks about some of the objectives of Common Core, a method of teaching that most schools — including mine — will adopt by the 2014 school year. In some ways this is simply “replacing one piece of nonsense for another,” as Winston Smith would say in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. But soon kids won’t know that. (We’ll come back to that.) Common Core replaces P.A.S.S., which replaced something else, which replaced something else, etc. If you’ve ever worked in the corporate world you can relate this nonsense to Six Sigma and all the other philosophies somebody who got paid more than you dreamed up to make you a better worker.

Now, I’m often accused of being too negative. So before I make a startling revelation about why Common Core won’t work, let me state that there is some good here. Oklahoma’s current end-of-instruction exams are primarily multiple choice. The English exam has an essay component, but it only accounts for 14 percent of the final grade. Common Core will require students to write, and to do that they must THINK. Here’s how I think it will work. Students currently read a short passage — fiction, poetry, or nonfiction — and are asked MC questions such as, “The theme of this story can best be described as ___________” and they answer A, B, C or D. What do we know? Lucky guess, or the kid really knew the answer? A Common Core question would be more like, “What is the theme of this story? Support your response with examples from the text.”

Ah. Now we can see what the student really knows. Does he know what theme is? Does he understand how to distill that theme down to a simple sentence? Can he find evidence that supports his hypothesis? And hey, while he’s doing that we can evaluate his spelling, grammar, punctuation, diction and syntax. This is good. This makes the kids think. Thinking kids make happy teachers.

In his column, Stein discusses a conversation he had with Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers — who, along with the National Governors Association, created the Common Core. According to Stein, Wilhoit said CEOs and university professors pushed for Common Core to happen. The only people who opposed it were lovers of literature. Stein writes:

“That happens to be a lot of high school teachers,” Wilhoit said. But students aren’t reading nonfiction on their own, he added, and their history-class assignments tend to be short textbook summaries, not primary sources. “It’s not a good trend, ” he said. “I guess it’s a by-product of the media world we live in.”

So … the only people opposed are the ones who have to actually implement the plan? Hmm. Success is assured! Stein, who seems a sensible man, points out the ridiculousness of this.

But if you ask me, that’s a failing of history classes, not English. Among the nonfiction the Common Core curriculum suggests are FedViews by the Federal Reserve of San Francisco.

Who the hell wants to read FedViews? The boringness of the very name makes my head wobble toward the point where it wants to slam against my desk while I reach for my cell phone to check Facebook for news of the zombie apocalypse. We would give up Orwell for FedViews? C’mon!

Switching to a focus on non-fiction doesn’t excite me and I think it’s a bad idea. But most any English teacher would tell you that. If we really want to fix education, I have a different idea.

And this is where I might get myself in trouble. The CEOs and university professors and even Stein himself seems to have missed a vital variable here. This was true in the 1980s when I was a student and it was evident in full force when my son graduated from his high school a few years ago and it’s a real problem where I teach. You see, history classes are often … overseen … by guys who were jocks in school but not good enough jocks to go pro, so they decided to become high school coaches. The way to do that is by getting a teaching certificate. This requires they sit through a few hours per day with kids before they get to plan and practice for the next game or meet or match, but movies and worksheets they don’t grade will keep those kids busy while he watches ESPN or reads the sports page.

Hold on! I know many history teachers who really teach. Yes. Some are good friends of mine and I respect and admire them for what they do and they are intelligent enough to know that if they truly teach their subject I am not including them here. If they’re honest, they’ll also admit they have colleagues who do exactly what I have described. My son’s history teacher was the head football coach. My son would often turn in papers on which he’d written … well, things that were not the correct answers over and over and he’d earn a grade of 100. I have a student who is failing six of his seven classes, but he has a 100 average in his history class. This is not new, and sadly it is not uncommon.

English teachers typically take on their job because we love literature. We love language. We love communicating and we know that nonfiction will teach us facts but fiction teaches us truths.

What am I getting to? We don’t need Common Core anymore than we needed P.A.S.S. How about we hire laymen as coaches and teachers as teachers? And make athletics an extracurricular activity that has to be earned instead of a blow-off class that pulls half the teachers out of the classroom one (and sometimes two) period(s) every day? How about we get rid of schools’ help wanted ads that read, “Football coach wanted. Teaching field open.” No, I am not joking; I have seen those ads. How about we get the politicians and the booster money out of the school and put in teachers who love their subjects? How about we enforce some discipline among the students and hold parents accountable? Can we instill respect for themselves and their school and community so that they want to learn and improve themselves?

It won’t happen, of course. Common Core will follow P.A.S.S. into the ashes. Students like mine who took their American History EOI a couple of weeks ago will continue to realize that watching movies and getting easy 100s on every assignment left them totally unprepared for the test that will determine whether or not they have to retake the class. And schools will continue to look for good coaches and will continue to do what the state tells them to, even when they know it’s wrong.

And soon the proles won’t remember that we were at war with East Asia yesterday. We have always been at war with Eurasia.

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