10/16/2012 09:47 am ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

High School Students Weigh in on Common Core Debate

I received a series of emails from a high school Participation in Government class who found one of my older columns about common core online and were disappointed because they could no longer post replies. They are seniors at John Adams High School in Queens, New York, a "large" high school that the Bloomberg administration and the New York City Department of Education are threatening to either reorganize or close for poor performance. I want to share some of their emails because the clarity of their ideas and their level of literacy suggest to me that it is the Bloomberg administration, not the large high schools or their teachers and students, that is failing the people of New York.

In the original blog, I wrote, "Students need reasons to invest in learning. It is hard work and they have to care. In most cases skills are not learned independently of content and purpose. Students master skills best when they are using skills to discover things they really want to know. Meaningful learning is about problem solving, thinking, analyzing, organizing, and explaining, not rote memorization."

I continue to research, write, and speak with teachers about common core. One of my newest concerns is the way companies, organizations, and academics are busy marketing themselves as experts on common core so they can get paid by school districts for staff development workshops and products. Pearson is marketing new common core editions of its textbooks. It is also selling staff development workshops to districts.

ASCD, formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, is working with Grant Wiggins and Joseph McTighe, who developed a program for teaching called Understanding By Design, to promote the Common Core. They believe it is a mistake to view Common Core as the same old thing re-packaged with new ribbons. They argue that a close examination of the standards provides deeper insights into effective teacher.

I am suspicious of their endorsement and those of many publishers and educational organizations because their glowing endorsement of Common Core is coupled with an effort to sell instructional videos, workshops for teachers, and printed material for use by students. To complete the marketing circle, Wiggins was also featured on a Pearson common core webinar.

The John Adams students do not all agree with me about the promise and problems with common core standards. I promised them I would reply to their emails, but I think the best reply is to reprint some of the things they wrote. I am identifying the authors by initials so they know I am including them.

SD: Oscar Wilde once said "Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught." Individuals, especially children, need reasons to be devoted to learning. Unfortunately we live in a world where the test means everything. While I do not believe memorization is the best way to learn, it is a fast way to move up in life. Something may take you months to truly understand and master, memorizing poses a solution that just takes days. The average student, in balancing extracurricular activities, work, and many classes at a time, do not have enough time for the better option. Entrance to a prestigious college is based on whether you were able to pass a test with flying colors. They do not care that skills were not mastered as long as they were memorized for the time being. In life, where time is of the essence, we are not always given "things we really want to know."

MS: Your argument is that students need a reason to learn. They need a reason to care about the subject they are being taught. You argue that understanding the concept, thinking, analyzing, and explaining rather than memorization is true learning. I agree with you. If a student is not engaged in the lesson, it is not possible that the student will learn properly. They will not understand the depth of the concept and won't be able to analyze it completely. The student will only remember it for the sake of the assignment instead of because it grabs their attention. When a specific topic or idea grabs your mind, that is when the real fun in education begins. You are actually able to concentrate more because you want to satisfy your curiosity. This is why trying to engage the students' in their class work instead of forcing them is a better idea.

TI: It is good to know as much as we can in high school, because the more we explore different subjects and knowledge, it is more likely to find our subjects of interests. Dr. Singer said that we better understand through problems and analysis and using our skills on the things we really want to know. I agree with his argument. Because if we have an interest or passion in the work we do or things we want to know, then learning becomes fun and understandable, and is more likely to stay in our heads. The community is also likely to benefit from productive work. Yes, I agree with his points at the end of the article. Understanding is important and the points that Mr.Singer talked about, I believe, are necessary for understanding, that tend to make concepts clear, fun and easier to learn.

XZ: Students do need reasons to study. Most students are learning for jobs, money, power, or fame. Less and less people are learning for interest. I think some students master skills best because the skills help them get good test scores and class grades and because learning skills is easier for them. That is what happened to me. I am not interested in solving the problems first.

JB: I feel that students do need motivating reasons to learn, especially in this day and age. I even have my own motivational reason to try to maintain high grades. I also agree that every person has a talent. Everyone should have the opportunity to discover their own hidden talents. Since people spend majority of their childhood in school, they should have a school class to help them discover their talents.

CG: I had an experience where I was not interested in a subject and it didn't make any sense to me about how it applied to my life. When I started finding the subject interesting it was easier for me to keep working hard.

AH: We improve in our skills best when we are using skills to discover things we really want to know. Meaningful learning is about problem solving, thinking, analyzing, organizing, and explaining.

YK: For a child to acquire knowledge willingly, he or she must be entranced by learning. Teaching skills to students is easy, however, for them to truly understand they should practice skills on topics that they are interested in. In today's society, teachers aren't teaching meaningful learning. In New York, some teachers are solely concerned with allowing kids to acquire good grades through memorization. Personally, after taking an exam I forget some concepts because I was taught to memorize formulas and facts. That isn't beneficial for us in the long run. I agree with Dr. Singer, "meaningful learning is about problem solving, thinking, analyzing, organizing, and explaining, not rote memorization."