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One Cheer for Common Core

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I'm rooting for Common Core. Anything would be better than the humiliation of today's bubble-in testing. Common Core stands on one astute insight -- that more rigor can also increase engagement even for, or especially for, low-skilled students. On the other hand, experience makes me doubt whether one-legged stools can work in education.

Twenty years ago, teaching juvenile felons with academic skills ranging from 2nd grade to college levels, our kids learned for mastery about Malcolm X through Marshall Frady's New Yorker piece, "The Children of Malcolm." When I moved to regular classes in a troubled inner city classroom, I found the same variety of reading skills, but I also found the same moral and emotional consciousness that drove students to wrestle successfully with challenging (and relevant) material, as opposed to rote instruction.

Counter-intuitively, New Yorker articles, like Connie Bruck's "The Takedown of Tupac," worked for students who struggled in the classroom, but who had the background knowledge required to understand the story. To follow the essay, a reader had to, "Listen while I take you back and lay this rap ... About a snitch named Haitian Jack." If the author told the story of Tupac, Shug Knight, and Biggy Smalls so that middle aged whites could understand, then her account was comprehensible to kids with expertise in their stories.

I underlined the key passages in the articles, emphasizing the dialogue, marked out overly complex dependent clauses, and photocopied it so that each student had a copy of the text. Some followed along as I read, while others just listened, and a few read ahead, devouring every word, before doubling back to lead discussions. The lesson had to unfold at its own rate, as debates took off in various directions. My job was to guide the process so that the students ultimately understood Malcolm X and Tupac within the conflicting Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois traditions of African-American history. And sure enough, they did!

My students were equally successful with New York Times Magazine articles. They especially loved Michael Lewis, Jason DeParle, James Traub, and Malcolm Gladwell. The kids loved weird statistics that prompted counter-intuitive conclusions, and they loved stories that dealt with poverty and/or high school kids, such as the NYT Magazine's accounts of a young father, an ex-gang member supporting his family by delivering pizza, Sudanese refugees in North Dakota, a white woman working at Walmart, and Senator John Kerrey coming to grips with contradictory memories of his first battle. Unfortunately, class discussions of complex legal issues were particularly profound because my students had so much personal experience with the criminal justice system.

I periodically asked the students to visualize a television camera in the corner of the room. If viewers of the evening news were to watch Government classes of the top suburban schools, and our classes, what they would think? Were the top suburban students mastering material that was as challenging as we were?

One discussion extended after school until 6:00. Akili had been caught up in a New York Review of Books article on Herbert Gutman's theory on the black family. He said "you are the coolest white man I've known. Here we are having an intellectual discussion. You respect my brain."

I am afraid, however, that Common Core is ignoring the other two legs that a rigorous and relevant curriculum must stand on. Susan Headden's "Getting Complicated with Text," in The Quick & the Ed presents an especially disturbing view of professional development for teaching to rigorous standards. Headden's workshop warned against "text-to-self" questions, or linking subject matter to the students' life experiences. Supposedly, those questions "don't prove that students actually understood what they were reading." So, which is more important, the students' learning or the assessments?

The other Common Core rationale was even worse. Teachers were told that "the problem with questions based on experience is that they exclude students who haven't had those experiences. 'Text ... is the great equalizer.'" I'm sure my kids would get a laugh at the unfair advantage our methods gave them.

Secondly, the Common Core workshop was too preoccupied in telling teachers what they can't do. Fiction must be cut in order to study nonfiction with:

Structure that is unconventional rather than expected, ideas that are implicit rather than explicit, and language that is figurative rather than literal, archaic rather than contemporary, and vague rather than clear. Sentences in very complex texts tend to be complicated rather than straightforward, and vocabulary is academic rather than plain. Informational text that is defined as complex might require specialized knowledge, have multiple meanings, and an obscure purpose.

The assessment expert concluded the workshop with "the overarching message that mastering text complexity is the secret to reading success." That is dead wrong. The key to teaching anything for mastery is understanding the human complexity within our kids.

The idea behind Headden's Common Core workshops is to prepare all students for what some plan to do in real life -- read "business plans, legal briefs ... and other 'informational' texts." All kids can eventually excel with such challenges, as long as we patiently give them the emotional support they need. Common Core will collapse, however, if it takes the all-important decisions about the people side of instruction away from teachers, who know their students, and gives it to the assessment experts.