As a new English teacher approaching the middle of my first year, I have the privilege of teaching under Louisiana’s newly-adopted curriculum referred to as “The Common Core State Standards” (CCSS), or just “Common Core”, as it is commonly called. Knowing I was getting into education at such a monumental transition period as this, I made sure to research this topic as thoroughly as I could before my first day at work, so that I would know exactly what would be expected of me, as a classroom teacher. At first I was overwhelmed by the amount of information available online concerning the CCSS; however, I knew that, in order to be the best teacher I could be, I needed to read as much as I could. Over a period of about two months I poured through every article, review, lesson guide, and resource manual that I could locate that covered Common Core. I watched YouTube videos published by the CCSS authors, I read first-hand accounts from teachers in New York and other states that had found positive classroom growth through Common Core, and I sat down with other educators to see what they considered of the proposed changes. What I found greatly impressed me. I felt fairly confident that Louisiana was moving in the right direction with Common Core, and that this would bring our state closer to addressing key educational reform issues that have long been neglected. My excitement over this program, however, was short-lived.
It is almost impossible to watch a local news station or read a local newspaper or go to any social network site without seeing Common Core being bashed from every angle, many times from across both sides of the political aisle. There are those out there who are against every part of the CCSS, and they have made it clear that they will fight with whatever power they can muster to see that this curriculum is removed from our school systems. What I have seen in my close observations is that, most often, these arguments are based on common misconceptions and misunderstandings about what Common Core really is. Many individuals are simply uninformed about how Common Core affects the classroom, and are only made aware of certain negative media that has been made available about teachers abusing or misusing Common Core in a way that hurts students. I feel that, as an educator directly affected by Common Core, I might be able to help clear up some of these issues and, in turn, help others see the CCSS in the same positive light that I still do.
The first issue that needs to be addressed is that Common Core is not necessarily Louisiana’s choice. The federal government mandated that states adopt a curriculum that has their students graduate from high school at a level that is considered to be “college-ready”. Louisiana has, unfortunately, failed at that in the past. Though our state had its own Grade-Level-Expectations (GLEs) in place for many years, these educational goals did not meet the level that had students truly prepared for college. Granted, some teachers went above and beyond and shaped their lessons in a way that would ensure a student’s college readiness, but this extra work fell on each educator, and at their choosing. Under these new federal mandates, Louisiana sought expert helping in revising their educational curriculum, and rather than to reinvent the wheel, they looked at programs that other states had found success with. That is where the CCSS came into play.
After seeing the achievements of states like New York, California, Tennessee, and many others, Governor Jindal, along with a number of other state governors, decided to adopt the same curriculum that these states had used to boost their school success: The Common Core State Standards. At its heart, the CCSS addresses one issue that is pivotal in Louisiana’s educational reform: poor reading ability. It took me one week in a classroom to realize just how far behind Louisiana students are in their reading skills. I know firsthand that this is a skill that needs to be addressed immediately, and Common Core does just that. It can easily be argued that reading is the foundation that all other subjects must build upon. How can a student that cannot read ever hope to follow the directions on their science projects? How can a poor reader ever comprehend The Constitution or Declaration of Independence, and hope to gain a better understanding of their country’s history? How can we expect students to ever learn to type when they can barely spell? The Common Core State Standards recognize and respond to these issues.
Being an English teacher, I can only speak on a personal level about how Common Core affects my subject; however, seeing that English is the subject affected most powerfully by Common Core, I believe that this is acceptable. The CCSS seek to push more reading on students, and this push no longer comes from just one course. Common Core requires that teachers of all subjects accompany their lessons with additional reading and writing activities that are geared to reinforce and add additional understanding to the topics being covered. I fail to see the problem here. A commonly-cited issue is that Louisiana has yet to adopt textbooks that align with Common Core, thereby leaving teachers with no clue how to proceed. I would encourage those teachers to seek outside sources. Magazines, journals, and online articles are all around us, and finding subject-appropriate material has never been easier than it is today.
As far as English as a subject, Common Core blows the doors of content wide open. Previous Louisiana GLEs required certain texts to be read at each grade level, regardless of student reading levels or cultural backgrounds. These previous guidelines gave no consideration to students, and required that every teacher in every classroom teach all students mostly the same material, without consideration of any extenuating circumstances. The CSSS, however, does not do this. Under Common Core, English teachers now have the world of literature at their disposal. No longer are we required to take a classroom full of students and force them to enjoy a book that they cannot relate to. Now we have the freedom of taking any book of our choosing and adapting it to fit the students in our classroom. The main theme in Common Core English is simply “close reading” of a text, followed by “text-dependent” questions. These two issues can be addressed with nearly every piece of literature in the world, from the longest novel to the shortest poem. Louisiana’s old GLEs sought to take a classroom full of students and bend them to fit within a predefined curriculum. Common Core, however, does just the opposite. It allows teachers to take an open-ended curriculum and mold it into a way that fits individual students on a level that they can actually learn at. This freedom in the classroom is welcomed by many. Now, though, is the time when I am reminded of that famous line from Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
One major issue that has been hounded upon by critics of Common Core is the subject matter that is being discussed in English classes within our own state. Books that cover topics ranging from drugs to murder to sex seem to taking the forefront now, as a few parents are finding them being introduced to their students at school. To those who support ending Common Core due to this, let me make one issue abundantly clear: THIS IS NOT COMMON CORE. This is simply a case of a very poor teacher choosing a very inappropriate book to teach in their classroom. Common Core does not call for these controversial books to be read, nor does it necessarily encourage teachers to use those exact texts. The CCSS give teachers the freedom to choose what texts their students read, all in order to teach the fundamental process of close reading. My argument would be that Common Core in a classroom is only successful if you have a teacher with common sense in the classroom. Perhaps we should just rename the program to “Common Sense”. I’ll see what I can do.
Before critics get too fired up about text content, it would do them well to remember that, for well over ten years now, Louisiana has required that texts such as Romeo & Juliet, The Crucible, and The Scarlet Letter be read in our schools. While those literary classics found on every library shelf seem innocent enough, we must be sure not to forget that they include the following topics: drug use, adultery, revenge, murder, teen sex, adult sex, witchcraft, blackmail, and, of course, teen suicide, among others. While arguing about the appropriateness of these topics is another issue altogether, we must remember that such subjects are not new to schools, but that they have, in fact, been mandated to be taught by our state’s old curriculum. I would encourage opponents of Common Core to avoid abusing a curriculum strictly based on those who abuse it, and would in fact encourage them to promote it based on those who use it wisely. To consider the other end of the spectrum, we must consider that the freedom that goes along with Common Core now allows teachers to use almost whatever texts they deem worthy in their lessons, including such books as The Holy Bible. Food for thought.
While I do not have the experience necessary to compare transitioning from GLEs to Common Core, I do feel that my experience under Common Core so far has been a good one. I look forward to the changes that the CCSS can make, and I feel that our state is well on its way to making great strides in educational reform by making these steps. I applaud Governor Jindal and State Superintendent John White on the changes that they have made, and I would encourage them to keep Common Core long enough to actually give it a chance to work. We are a little past our first year in the program, and I believe that the positive results will be coming very soon. To concerned parents and community members, I simply ask that you focus on the good that Common Core can do for your students, and try to see farther along down the road towards the results that I know are on their way. While every program has the power to fail, I have felt, and still feel, that The Common Core State Standards has a strong chance of succeeding in Louisiana. I am proud to be teaching under this program, and to have a child of my own currently learning under this curriculum. My name is Dusty Hampton, and I support Common Core. To learn more about Common Core for yourself, visit http://www.corestandards.org, http://www.achievethecore.org, or visit the Louisiana Department of Education’s website at http://www.louisianabelieves.com.