The Atlantic

Standards Can Help Fix Students' Broken Moral Compass

A recent piece in The Atlantic, Students' Broken Moral Compasses, describes a teacher’s attempt to help his students develop good character and learn morality and ethics. However, his arguments against the Common Core State Standards are unfounded. High academic standards free teachers and students from skill-and-drill sessions that deaden curiosity, and give students the opportunity to think independently, analyze reading and engage in mathematical thinking in ways they never have before. Standards open the door to meaningful discussion, peer collaboration, creativity and communication—skills that are key tenets of a strong and disciplined character. I agree with the author that teaching character education and morality is critical to the future of our country. However, for public school educators who serve an increasingly diverse group of students, that charge is complicated. How can we teach character education in public schools without standardizing morality? And how do we, as teachers, ensure that we are teaching appropriately and not “preaching” our own opinions and doctrines? The answer lies in the classroom and in the standards teachers set for their students. Teachers cultivate character in students through their lessons, and we use high standards to teach students to think. When Kentucky adopted the Common Core, it raised the bar for students, and gave me the opportunity to shift my instruction and my mindset. Instruction cannot be hemmed into pre-designed and generalized “character education curricula”—its power lies in the fact that it is organic, rigorous and authentic. It is responsive to current events, but also to specific needs of students. It is rooted in skills that empower students to be confident, curious, and stand up for what they believe in, resisting propaganda and manipulation. Unlike a rigid character education curriculum, these sorts of discussions adapt to any text, any issue and any student. The Common Core for reading inspired me to give my students complex texts such as “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury or “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell, and then I supported my students to analyze them on a deep and rigorous level. These rich texts provide a foundation for students’ exploration of issues like bullying, abuse and murder, and engage students in questions of ethics and empathy they can relate to their own lives. My students take ownership of the ideas we unpack, and together we reflect and make connections not only to our own experiences, but also to society as a whole. I have personally experienced the power of high standards. Before Kentucky adopted Common Core standards, I taught brilliant students to craft beautiful poetry, but I didn’t make sure they could clearly articulate their thoughts or defend positions with logical arguments. Previous standards told me to focus solely on the “process” of reading and writing, and assured me that progress would follow. Unfortunately, I am not sure my students made that leap on their own. The Common Core captures the wisdom of what great teachers already know, and helps to focus all teachers on what is essential for all students to know before they leave their classrooms. The standards do not dictate what and how we teach our students, but simply what all students should be able to do before they move on to the next grade. These standards allowed me to seamlessly incorporate character education into my instruction. Teaching all students to think on their own is the very ethos of the Common Core State Standards, and holding students to high standards will help them become strong, morally driven citizens. As educators in this ever complex world, it’s a complicated charge I am proud and honored to take on.
Sarah M. Yost teaches middle grades English Language Arts in Oldham County, Kentucky. She is a National Board Certified Teacher in her 12th year in education and a former Hope Street Group Kentucky and Teach Kentucky fellow.

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