THE BLOG
03/03/2013 07:07 pm ET Updated May 03, 2013

Is the Common Core an Attack on Progressive Education?

As the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) come to a school near you, it is important to note that many see this as a movement away from progressive, personalized, child-centered learning promoted by places like the Coalition of Essential Schools.

This was brought to light at an event held last week by the Center for State and Local Leadership at the Manhattan Institute where Sol Stern moderated a panel that included the Florida DOE commissioner, the head of the Core Knowledge Foundation, the NYS Board of Regents Chancellor and a Policy Fellow from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Stern lead with opening remarks from his article The Curriculum Reformation. In it he explains that "new national standards will prod schools to return to content-based education." Stern explains that in essence the CCSS is "calling for a restoration of the content-based, grade-by-grade curriculum in K-12 education" proposed by E.D. Hirsh (see E. D. Hirsch's Curriculum for Democracy, Autumn 2009). Hirsh has developed the Core Knowledge Curriculum and created the Core Knowledge Foundation to help spread the word.

In the article, Stern points to a current problem with our nation's education system being that our teachers, "instead of learning about the evidence supporting content knowledge in the classroom, are force-fed a toxic diet of radical political tracts by 'education theorists' like Paulo Freire, William Ayers, and Jonathan Kozol."

Specifically under attack is Lucy Calkins's child-centered instructional workshop model which Stern says is "based on the Romantic philosophy that all children are natural readers and writers." He explains a child-centered approach to learning is the "antithesis of the explicit teaching of phonics and academic content required in Hirsch's early childhood reading curriculum." This is despite ever-growing evidence (see Sugata Mitra's latest TED Talk or Peter Gray's reading research and new book Free to Learn) that children learn effectively when internally motivated and not when they are force fed a curriculum of someone else's choosing.

Robert Pondiscio, Vice President at Hirsh's Core Knowledge Foundation, couldn't agree more about a distaste for the balanced literacy approach. He tweeted about the approach not being a part of the CCSS. Unlike my experience with balanced literacy, where students were enthusiastic about reading and writing and their test scores improved, Pondiscio found it damaged the children with whom he worked. He shared why earlier this year in The Atlantic. Hirsh and Pondiscio are not alone in this interpretation. Kathleen Porter-Magee, Senior Director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute is a Common Core Watch blogger who took on Lucy Calkins directly in this article.

Porter-Magee explains the workshop approach is designed to help match books to readers--the precise opposite of what the Common Core demands. She says the purpose of the workshop model is to give students "just right" texts (i.e. books at their reading level) rather than grade-appropriate texts (i.e. books that may be far above or below their reading level) --exactly the practice that the Common Core seeks to end.

This is frightening.

This back-to-basics approach champions grouping kids by date of manufacture and teaching them all the same thing at the same time regardless of their developmental or language differences. In other words, it sets them up for failure. And many do indeed believe the CCSS are setting them up for failure.

As teacher dropout Kris L. Nielsen uncovers in his recently released book, Children of the Core, the CCSS is the foundation of a movement that will not only cause students with special needs to fail, but also sets up all school-aged children to see their futures narrowed. This means they will be set up not only to fail in school, but they will also struggle to be successful in an increasingly complex world.

This point was made during the Curriculum Counts event, where several of the aforementioned individuals were in attendance or sitting on the panel. One attendee, Peter Goodman who writes Ed in the Apple posed a question. He explained he was at an education event with about one hundred parents, teachers, and elected officials of color. He said that one elected official said tests are culturally biased and the purpose is to drive our kids through the prison pipeline. He shared that the comment got huge applause. Goodman asked, "How will you connect with those who are suspicious?"

Merryl Tisch, The Chancellor of the New York Board of Regents answered by sharing a story about inspiring parents to want something more for their children (watch here at about 1:15). I liked Merryl's story of inspiration, but as was recently reported in Education Week, even as the Common Core State Standards are being put into practice across most of the country, more than two-thirds of teachers said they were not well enough prepared to teach the standards to English-language learners (ELLs) or students with disabilities. More than half said they were not yet ready to teach them to low-income students or those considered at risk of academic failure.

This is not surprising.

When we insist on measuring the performance of students with cognitive disabilities or ELLs by giving them a curriculum that is beyond their reach and assessments we know that developmentally they will be unable to read, we are setting everyone up for failure. And, when they fail (which they will when they are forced to read texts that are not developmentally appropriate) not only will the children suffer, but teachers will be blamed, then fired, and schools serving large populations of ELLs and those with special needs will be shut down.

Is it really any wonder why they can't "connect with the suspicious?"

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