Thinking Critically about the Common Core


Charles Blow writes in a recent article about the Common Core standards,

Our educational system is not keeping up with that of many other industrialized countries, even as the job market becomes more global and international competition for jobs becomes steeper.

We have gone from the leader to a laggard.

The latest attempt to solve this problem is the Common Core standards, a group of national educational standards that is supposed to encourage the teaching of critical thinking and problem solving. The standards I use are available here.

Yet they’re not universally accepted. Conservatives tend to bristle at anything they see as Federal mandates from above for national standards of just about anything. Liberals, in support with unions, don’t like the idea of using testing as a measure of teacher effectiveness. (The New York Times also had an article on growing opposition to the standards.)

Yet I wonder about what it says now that we must go to great lengths to teach critical thinking in school. I don’t recall many activities in high school that seemed geared to practicing critical thinking, and I don’t remember any direct instruction in critical thinking, yet somehow I became a critical thinker. Take for example the skill of inferring. I go to great lengths to teach my students what inferring is and what it isn’t, to differentiate between merely observing and inferring, and to apply the skill to texts. Yet I don’t remember anyone teaching me that. It just seemed like something I picked up along the way as I read increasingly complex texts.

Another new feature of the Common Core standards is an increased emphasis on what the Common Core Consortium calls “informational texts.” We just called it non-fiction. The Consortium points out that in the traditional educational progression, students spend all of high school reading literature and then they’re suddenly required to read informational texts in college. It’s as if reading the one has no influence on reading the other. I don’t really recall having to read or to analyze much more than literature in high school, yet I somehow didn’t have any problem making the switch to the “informational texts” of my college career. In the meantime, this push for greater emphasis on “informational texts” means that an entire generation will be underexposed to literature, one of the prime makes of society and social consciousness. (Of course, that’s really only true to any significant degree in in the pre-Internet world, I suppose.)

The big question of course is whether this whole enterprise will work. With states that originally adopted the Common Core standards increasingly backing out, it seems like it might just turn out to be yet another educational fad.

2 thoughts on “Thinking Critically about the Common Core

  1. Super interesting to read this from your teaching perspective. Do you think that the difference for this new generation of American students is that so many come from homes that do not passionately value education? For example, I went to school at a time when there was this widely accepted belief that school was a ticket to life’s success. If you cared about success in life, you worked hard to get ahead through learning. But so many kids don’t buy into that anymore, probably because their parents don’t buy into it either. At least that’s the way it felt to me when I saw school from my daughters’ perspective (and I saw it from the inside as well, as I was PTA pres for four years in all the time they were in school). The poor teacher (you, for example) had the task of doing it all — inspiring, deconstructing learning, teaching the greats, on and on.
    For my girls it was a simple correlation: good teachers in middle school and high school meant that they enjoyed the subject and learned a lot. Bad teachers were the ones who really didn’t care anymore about their work and just plodded through the day handing out busy work exercises (they were, for example, still coloring in maps in high school in one notable social studies class were they learned absolutely nothing at all).
    Anyway, I’ve always thought that what’s wrong with education is how we teach kids at home. Schools in other countries have the same mix of good and bad teachers. But they sift and sort early on and if you want to make it in life, you best not let up the fight for a good education. At least that’s the way it appears to me, looking in from the outside now.

    1. There is definitely a correlation between the home values and the dedication a student has to learning. In my on-level class, which is comprised every year of a mix of students with varying reading and writing abilities, varying levels of self-control, and varying degrees of interest in school, I joked one time that one of the assignments they were working on now would result in a paragraph longer than most of the whole assignments they’d written in the past. “You can take this to your folks and brag, saying, ‘Look, I wrote that!’” I laughed. One boy, half under his breath, said, “My mom would take the time to read that!” as if I’d suggested she read the entire Summa Theologica or some other multi-volume dense treatise. Another example: a colleague down the hall related the story of a young man who, in utmost seriousness, asked, “I’m going to be a dealer — what do I need school for?” These kids scrape by with low D’s if they’re lucky or semi-motivated; often they’re just “socially passed,” which means they failed all their classes (usually) but they’re placed in the next grade because they’ve already been held back once. These kids see no value in education, and from what I can tell about their home lives, they have no stability in their daily existence, let alone someone who values education pushing them. At the other end of the spectrum, the “advanced” classes, we have groups of kids whose parents are doctors, lawyers, professors, managers, engineers. There’s very little difference in the intelligence of the students in these two groups; there’s enormous difference in their environments.

      You’re right about the teacher multi-tasking though. We’re told, point blank, it’s our job to motivate as well as educate. With some students, we’re sales/motivational speakers first, teachers second.

      Finally, I think the notion that one “best not let up the fight for a good education” is totally foreign in American culture now. The Chinese have it; the Indians have it; with the university admission/major system set as it is in Poland, the Poles have it. We no longer do.

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