FROM READERS: Common Core debate deserves to be informed

Wednesday, May 21, 2014 | 4:53 p.m. CDT; updated 12:49 a.m. CDT, Thursday, May 22, 2014

Danielle Johnson is the reading specialist at Oakland Middle School, where she has worked for 14 years as a reading intervention teacher and new teacher mentor. She is also a candidate for a Ph.D. in Literacy Education at MU and a member of the Missourian's Readers Board. This was originally published on her blog.

You know what would really suck? Being a doctor and having to get online only to risk seeing your profession under constant attack. It would be so annoying to have the standards that dictated your action under constant scrutiny.

Can you imagine having researched practices like keeping insulin levels stable during trauma be ridiculed on talk shows and posted by political parties so people could guffaw over the stupidity guiding your daily commitment to patients? Can you imagine politicians demanding that the objectives for patient care adopted by the board that oversees medicine in your state being overturned by politicians because they were never consulted as those objectives were written?

Oh wait … That doesn’t happen very often, because we appreciate and respect medical professionals as experts in a field who have access to information and expertise that we do not possess. Though we engage them in conversations where we might question a practice or ask for extra insight because we have heard contradicting information, we ultimately yield to them as people who took a really hard test to get where they are today. We trust them to put in the hours and hours of research both in the library and in the field so that we can confidently hand ourselves and our loved ones over to them when only their special training will do.

I am in awe of doctors. This post is in no way an attempt to undermine them. It is an appeal to the general public to help me understand why teachers are not always held in the same light. Why is our field not also considered one built on research? A field that you cannot practice in unless you pass a test and are certified by a board.

I can’t keep my mouth shut anymore in regards to critique of the Common Core and other rants about public schooling in general. I have watched post after post from friends who seem to be against them because some people they align with are against them. My gut tells me these posters have not read the Common Core. My gut is frustrated.

I have read the standards. (You can, too, here: Not once, not twice, but at least 10 times I have read these standards. I have read them in a room full of teacher representatives from all over the district. We read them and underlined them and annotated them and placed them side-by-side by grade and side-by-side by topic. We asked questions to tease out the subtle differences from one year to the next. We did everything we could do to make sure they were right for our kids.

I read them again in a room full of teachers from around the state as we considered how to use them to improve the reading and writing of students in all content areas. I met with teachers in Lake of the Ozarks, Boston, and New Orleans to see how to implement these standards in a way that best prepared children to be productive adults.

If you take some time to glance over them you will see they are pretty benign. They ask that students use textual evidence to support an opinion. They ask students to read both fiction and non-fiction texts so that they understand the literal and inferential meanings in the passage. They ask students to consider media with a critical eye. Math-wise, they ask that students understand how tens work and not just to perform calculations with no understanding of why and how numbers do what they to. After all, any old phone can calculate.

Teachers take classes to master the art and science of teaching. In the average methods courses I teach at MU, we read up to 100 pages a week over the course of 16 weeks together. These pages represent the best research available in our field so that when we make a decision about a child, we make it based on what is proven to work. When our first attempt doesn’t work (because we deal with human minds, which are complex, beautiful and unpredictable), we try another strategy or we read another book in hopes that we can do our job well.

This dedication appears to be unnoticed when I see Common Core bashing filling up my newsfeed. Often the people who call Common Core into question later admit to me that they have not read a single standard for themselves.

Don’t get me wrong — I would hate a world where we did not question things like the Common Core. In fact, I find some faults with the standards. I've heard lead reading researchers share similar concerns. But our concerns are based on both qualitative and quantitative research. Our concerns are over the demands that are simply too intense for some young readers.

What used to be expected of 8th graders is now expected of 5th and 6th graders. This decision came from people outside of the field of education who thought we were doing a piss poor job of getting kids ready for the workplace so they placed arbitrary and perhaps impossible lexile expectations on youth. We also fear the absence of poetry, creative writing and other humanities that there was little room for after the cramming of objectives necessary in our push to be constantly better than other nations.

I will engage in a thoughtful debate with anyone armed with information. If you enter in the conversation with research you have done yourself, I stand to learn from you. I can question my standing beliefs and weigh them against my knowledge from in the field and out so I can consider adapting my beliefs.

Dr. Anthony Muhammad helped me best understand the phenomenon of every man as expert when it comes to education by explaining that you begin the apprenticeship for public school teaching when you step foot in your first classroom at age 5. Everyone’s years spent in the classroom seats afford an inside look not common regarding other professions. (I have no idea what my good friend does all day at Edward Jones, though I know she works hard).

But things look different from the other side, I promise you. We know things on the other side that we don’t expect you to know. We get paid the “big bucks” in hopes that you will yield to us.

Please, question and push us as you would anyone caring for your loved one, but trust and respect us as well. There is simply too much work to be done in this world for us all to carry the burden of all the necessary human preservation tasks.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.

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Mark Foecking May 22, 2014 | 8:25 a.m.

"What used to be expected of 8th graders is now expected of 5th and 6th graders. This decision came from people outside of the field of education who thought we were doing a piss poor job of getting kids ready for the workplace so they placed arbitrary and perhaps impossible lexile expectations on youth. We also fear the absence of poetry, creative writing and other humanities that there was little room for after the cramming of objectives necessary in our push to be constantly better than other nations."

As someone who has worked with the products of our educational system in a technical setting, and also with the products of myriad other world educational systems, I debate everything in this paragraph. We have been doing an increasing poor job at giving US students practical writing and arithmetic skills. I think there are many reasons for that, including reasons that the schools cannot control (parental involvement being the biggie), however, many of the other world educational systems are far more like the one that I grew up with.

That system emphasized a drilled, memorized set of knowledge upon which everything else was based. I think the reason you say "What used to be expected of 8th graders is now expected of 5th and 6th graders" is because concepts are being introduced earlier without as much grounding in the fundamentals as was the case 40 years ago. We drilled in math and language and hated it, but we did for the most part get a fundamental understanding that I see a lot of college graduates today do not have.

Asian students typically ace the math part of the ACT/SAT. This is because they drill until it's coming out of their ears, and this is the basic reason why so many of our science and engineering students are Asian. We could learn a lot from them.


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 22, 2014 | 10:54 a.m.

Seems like the issue is NOT whether there should BE a common core - that concept seems to make sense in any case - but what specifically comprises that core, and how the material is presented to students.

An interesting situation: American Society for Quality (ASQ), which in spite of its name is an international society, has for years sponsored supplementary reading programs in grade schools (including money to purchase books) here in the United States under the program title "Koality Kids," the logo being a koala.

Most programs are at non-public grade schools, because it is very difficult due to "politics" to introduce anything into public school systems.

So? Quality science is heavy on mathematics, in particular statistical mathematics. So WHY is this organization passionate about reading and writing skills? Because if children and adults can't read and comprehend what they read, and can't competently express ideas and information in writing, their math training will always be diminished in practice.

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