Thoughts on Common Core

Jan 01, 2013 | Posted by Janet Spitler

by Janet Spitler and Genevieve Priest

The Common Core State Standards Initiative® has caused quite a stir in the educational world. Most states made the decision to adopt the standards before they had seen them in writing, which automatically committed public and charter school administrators to hold their teachers to a new, unknown standard. The private school board members and administrators in those states experienced mixed reactions to adopting them, and the teachers waited to hear what they would be expected to do. Even some private schools in those states which did not accept the standards, chose to adopt the common standards. In all these situations, the teachers did not have a voice in the making of them or in the decision to adopt them, even though they will be the force that implements them.

In order to allow full-time schoolteachers continued access to our materials, we are able to demonstrate that the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW) approach meets or exceeds the standards. It is important to note, however, that we have not had to make any changes to our program or materials to do so, since our Structure and Style® method is based on more than seventy years of success in schools across the United States and Canada.

While the battle rages on about the efficacy of standards-based education, we know that students of any grade level who study composition through IEW's Structure and Style method for a few years (whenever they start) come out qualitatively and quantitatively ahead of their peers. Andrew Pudewa shares some thoughts on standards-based education in his article written for our 2014 School Magalog:

The idea of standards in education is not new. Since the first Nation’s Report Card in 1969, schools, districts, states, and publishers have been adopting criteria for what should be taught at various grade levels. Like good social planners, the curriculum experts have reverse-engineered their syllabi to determine what should be learned during each year of school in order to accomplish “college and career readiness.” With the apparent shortcomings of local and state standards, a new universal or “common” standards initiative has arisen, creating what may be both an opportunity and a burden for schools.

In some places, California for example, many teachers welcome the new standards as being less onerous than the extant state standards which seemed both voluminous and impractical. Conversely, we hear teachers elsewhere expressing great concern about changes in curricula that the new standards are precipitating. Additionally, there are many who categorically object to any increased centralized control of education because they perceive dangers in a “national” curriculum. The debate spans both practical and political concerns. However, the real challenge for teachers is much more fundamental.

In a Facebook response to concerns on the new standards, Andrew explains what is the only effective way to create a standards-based system:

There is really only one way to significantly improve institutional education, and that would be to eliminate grade levels, which could probably only happen with a return to mixed-age classrooms and standards that really mean something. Very few people would be willing to try this, but there is one team of innovative educators in Alaska who have done just that—in a public school district! They have actually eliminated grade levels and restored standards—ten achievement levels in each of nine content areas. Students only progress to the next level when they demonstrate proficiency at their current level. This is not only good common sense; the Chugach School District is getting superb results and is beginning to teach other schools and districts how to implement a real standards-based assessment model.

Our desire to empower teachers to empower students will not change. We know what remains the core issue and how to help teachers. Here are Andrew’s thoughts on the fundamental issue:

At its core, teaching is about students, not stuff. To the degree that standards and materials support teachers in meeting the immediate needs of students, they are a great blessing, providing guides and tools, but if the material that must be taught is inappropriate to the students being taught, frustration and failure will be the inevitable result. To assume that every group of fourth graders—simply by merit of being approximately the same age—should be taught the same thing in the same way at the same speed is a disaster in the making. Every good teacher knows this.

In his Paideia Proposal, Mortimer Adler noted that in education we are tasked with teaching in three interdependent but distinct areas—facts, concepts, and skills.

Because these three are learned differently, they must be taught differently. While facts can be memorized and regurgitated, concepts must be discussed and developed. Facts are finite; concepts are infinite. We tend to teach these by texts and by talking, with varied levels of success. Skills, however, require coached practice; they can be developed neither by memorization nor discussion. Learning a skill requires practice—doing—and learning along a pathway. A student cannot be expected to play a Bach minuet before learning a simple scale.

IEW's approach has always focused on helping each student achieve personal excellence, rather than trying to make students fit into categories along with others of similar age. Even when used within a single-grade classroom, this personalized approach is at the heart of IEW's success. So, while we have not altered our method to meet Common Core or other standards, we will continue to assist schoolteachers and administrators who wish to make use of our materials in their classrooms and schools. As educational fads come and go, we will offer teachers a time-tested approach based on careful modeling, incremental growth, and personalized learning so that they can nurture their students' hearts and minds towards a love for language.


© 2013, Institute for Excellence in Writing, L.L.C.
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