Teachers, the Common Core, and the freedom to teach

Common Core watchers out there have probably heard this one before: All the teachers I know hate the Common Core.

There are undoubtedly some teachers who dislike the Common Core, but recent polls suggest that most teachers support the new standards. During my three years of teaching (completed a month ago), most of my colleagues and I liked the Common Core. One reason we supported the new standards was because they gave us more freedom. Detractors claim that standards tell teachers how to teach. But I taught Common Core after teaching Tennessee’s state standards, and while Common Core did give me expectations for what my students should know and be able to do by the end of the year (just like the previous standards did), it allowed me to decide what and how to teach.

Let’s consider, for example, the first literature standard for ninth graders (the grade I taught), which states, “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” Most would agree that using evidence to support the analysis of a text is crucial. Students ought to know how to cite evidence instead of simply writing about their opinions and feelings.

That’s all the standard says, though. Nothing more, nothing less.

The standard didn’t tell me when in the year I should teach the skill. I could spend as much or as little time as I wanted on it and make that determination using my knowledge of what my students needed. The standard didn’t tell me how to assess whether students had mastered the concept. I could require students to demonstrate mastery in writing, in oral presentations, on multiple-choice tests, or with project-based learning. The standard didn’t tell me that I could teach it only with fictional texts. In fact, the same standard showed up in the Informational Text, Writing, and Speaking and Listening sections of the English language arts standards. Since my students had to understand how to cite evidence in various ways (verbally, in writing, etc.), the Common Core allowed me to teach it in various ways.

Furthermore, although the Common Core recommended age-appropriate texts I could use, it said nothing about texts that I was required to use. I could use Romeo and Juliet, “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and “Letter From Birmingham Jail”—and I did. I could teach as broadly, narrowly, or deeply as I deemed necessary for my students. The possibilities were endless.

And that’s all for just one standard.

If teachers are feeling constrained by the Common Core, the fault surely lies at the feet of those choosing curricula and materials. If a district purchases textbooks that limit teachers to using the standards in prescribed ways, those restrictions could easily hamstring teachers, especially those who need maximum flexibility to properly engage and instruct diverse learners in a classroom. But the standards are not causing the limitation.

Districts would do well to consider training teachers on how to unpack the Common Core standards and then let those same teachers write the curriculum. Who better to interpret what students need than the people who teach them and are held accountable for their achievement? It puts control where it should be: in the hands of teachers. In fact, a recent Fordham publication reported that districts utilizing homegrown materials enjoy more buy in and ownership from teachers, and ownership is vital for effective implementation.

Don’t get me wrong—writing curriculum instead of using something off of the shelf (likely with a big “Common Core aligned” sticker) is a lot of work. Believe me, I’ve done it. But relying on curriculum written by someone else threatens the very classroom freedoms that Common Core provides. Premade materials tell teachers what texts to teach, what order to teach them, and even have ready-made assessments. It might make the job easier, but it requires a sacrifice of control and the risk of knowing that whoever wrote the curriculum didn’t do it specifically for your children.

The Common Core emphasizes what kids should learn (that’s the standards) and empowers teachers to focus on the “how.” School districts would be wise to properly train and trust their staff, those best suited to make judgments about how to implement the new standards. 

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