Teacher Voice

When It Comes to Standards for Our Kids, What Choice Are You Making?

In an attempt to repeal the Common Core State Standards, Louisiana's governor Bobby Jindal and his supporters have been lambasting the standards using strong and misleading language. With words like “federal takeover,” “fuzzy math” and “unrepresentative government,” it’s important for the public to know exactly what choice teachers are being asked to make. Standards articulate what students should know at each grade level. But even that’s putting it too simply. Standards are the bones and soul of a curriculum. Teachers can’t teach everything they’d like to in one short year, so inclusions and exclusions are critical decisions. Trying to figure out what to teach and in what order takes ages. Good standards ensure that all students are held to high expectations while allowing teachers the freedom to design curricula that work in specific contexts.

Out With the Old, In With the New

Why is this so important in my state? Louisiana’s high school graduation rate is still low compared to other states, but the progress being made shows that new education initiatives in our state are working, including the adoption of the Common Core. Our graduation rate has been  steadily climbing over the past few years, reaching 75 percent last year. Of these new graduates, 59 percent went directly on to college. This represents an all-time record for the state; in 2006, the graduation rate in Louisiana was 10 percentage points lower than it is today. Our old system, the Louisiana Grade Level Expectations (which Jindal proposes to take us back to, until further standards can be drawn up), were well-intentioned but sliced so small and so specific that they lost their meaning. The English standards required me to teach students how to ask questions one day, to identify idioms the next and to understand sequencing on the third. In searching for passages that exemplified so thinly-sliced a skill, my colleagues and I tended to land on banal excerpts instead of spending time on the longer, more complex works that develop good readers and writers. For example, literature textbooks encouraged me to teach tone with a short passage from “A Raisin in the Sun” and then move on to a new objective, and a new passage, the next day. However, the new standards encourage teachers to teach the entire play as a work of value and pair it with related texts to form a cohesive unit. Similarly, the math standards gave me lists of processes and algorithms—encouraging shallow treatment of a vast territory of mathematics that elbowed out the time-consuming work of getting to the deep connections that make math beautiful and fresh. In choosing to include so much, the old standards left teachers with little room to make the content their own.

Finding a Balance

The Common Core strikes a balance. There are fewer Common Core standards than there were Grade Level Expectations and they state in clear terms what students should know. In English, the Common Core asks students to do things like cite evidence to make claims and to evaluate the effect of an author’s choices. The same skills are applied again and again to different, complex texts, building their reading comprehension while exposing children to a wide range of important works. In math, the standards ask teachers to go much deeper into a smaller amount of content so that students can understand what math is rather than navigating a thicket of formulas and tricks. The math standards push both conceptual understanding and accurate computation, preparing our children for a world in which the most in-demand jobs will require math and science.

Making A Choice

I choose to support Common Core because I am for a structure that allows teachers to use the full breadth of their creativity while ensuring all students are taught authentic literacy and logical math. I’m choosing to support the highest of expectations for Louisiana’s children—the same expectations that drive students within the best schools around the country. We can have very different views on the best way to structure a school and the usefulness of standardized testing, but still come together on all of those things. If you’re choosing to support attacks on Common Core standards, what choice are you making?  
M. Aidan Kelly is a high school teacher and curriculum director in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is an America Achieves Teacher Fellow.
M. Aidan Kelly is a high school teacher and curriculum director in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is an America Achieves Teacher Fellow.

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