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Common Core, interrupted

A tea party-fueled push to pull Indiana out of the Common Core State Standards moved ahead today with a 7-4 vote in the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.

The amended bill "suspends" the state's implementation of the standards pending a series of statewide public hearings conducted by the Indiana State Board of Education. It was the State Board that initially adopted the Common Core standards, in August of 2010.

Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, unsuccessfully pushed legislation to pull out of Common Core last year. What began as a protest by a handful of parochial school mothers in Carmel picked up steam this past year as tea party groups took aim at what they claim is an Obama administration initiative.

The U.S. Department of Education, in its odd and unsettling partnership with corporate education reformers, has essentially endorsed Common Core by tying it to states' efforts to win additional federal funding. But the standards were not a federal initiative – they originated with the National Governors Association and have been eagerly pushed by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which is how Indiana became an enthusiastic participant under former Superintendent Tony Bennett.

Are the Common Core standards a good thing? I've long believed it makes great sense to have strong and consistent standards at schools nationwide.

Are these the right ones? I'm bothered by the fact that they have not been piloted and they seem to have attracted so much support from for-profit companies. I'm also troubled by the very convincing arguments made by Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon.

But I always place the greatest stock in opinions from actual practioners. Patrick McAlister, an Indianapolis teacher (and graduate of Fort Wayne's Carroll High School) offered a very encouraging perspective from the front lines, published recently in the Indianapolis Star. It's worth reading:

By Patrick McAlister

My ninth-grade students just started Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," standard fare for high school English students since my parents were in high school. With its complicated setting (pre-civil rights movement, Depression-era South), rich characters and difficult questions, it will certainly be a difficult journey for many in my class. I'm excited to see where they go.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" will probably be my students' first experience with the canon, or that nebulous list of books that every educated individual ought to read. Many, including state Sen. Scott Schneider are fearful that if we embrace Common Core we will have to eliminate "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Shakespeare. They are, quite simply, wrong.

Common Core will require my students to focus their attention on the more difficult aspects of the book. Instead of spending time recognizing and understanding the significance of literary devices, as the current standards require, my students will be required to focus their literary analysis on bigger issues such as character development and theme, all the while ensuring that they're always citing details when they make assertions. Literary devices have their place in Common Core, but only in how they support more important aspects of the story.

As I re-read "To Kill a Mockingbird," I was struck by how much more I enjoyed the book than the first time I read it in high school. That pleasure did not come from the plot but from my deeper understanding of the historical context. I was never asked to think about segregation, justice and the importance of tradition in Southern culture and the crossover effects of the Great Depression. We did not read primary source documents, look at striking images of the Jim Crow South, or listen to the blues.

For me, cross-curricular education like that happened only later in high school.

Common Core places making connections between various texts (which, in addition to written texts, include music, film and other art) at the center of their standards. When my students read "To Kill a Mockingbird," they'll have to see the connection between the grotesque treatment of Tom Robinson, Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," and period images of terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Common Core requires more of ninth-graders than was required of me and that's a great thing.

A lot has also been made of Common Core's sharp move toward using nonfiction texts in the classroom. While it will mean more nonfiction in English class, it also means a lighter burden for English teachers. Critical reading and writing well will become the responsibility of every core teacher. Students will be required to analyze and synthesize in math, social studies and science. Critical reading and quality writing require a collective effort and Common Core codifies that effort.

Instead of wasting time rescinding good policy, state government should be concerned with supporting teachers in Common Core professional development. How do we augment old approaches to fit new standards? What is being done to help integrate various classic texts into Common Core structured standards? Where can teachers find age- and grade-level appropriate nonfiction? The Indiana Department of Education would make the transition much easier if they would spend their time and resources helping schools transition smoothly to Common Core.

I am thrilled my ninth-graders are reading "To Kill a Mockingbird." I am also thrilled that, going forward, ninth-graders will be asked to read deeper than I was at their age. The sooner they transition to reading critically and writing well the readier they are to tackle college and the real world. Common Core Standards provides a framework to build those skills, and it would be a genuine disservice to students if they were rescinded.

McAlister is an English teacher at Indiana Math and Science Academy-North.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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