In an article slugged “Tools for Teachers” on its website, the American Federation of Teachers presents what it says are “10 Myths About the Common Core State Standards.” I had a hard time getting beyond its rebuttal to the first “myth”:
1. “The standards tell us what to teach.”
FACT: The Common Core State Standards define what students need to know.
On that basis alone, I’m willing to reject the CCSS.
Who can possibly be so arrogant as to feel that they can define what students need to know? Who can possibly believe that they can predict the future well enough to tell young people what knowledge to focus on? Who believes that bodies of knowledge are themselves small enough and classifiable enough to be defined for effective student use once they have left school?
Certainly not a teacher.
We teachers use course content, that which the CCSS defines as what students need to know, not as goals but as tools for learning, for teaching students to learn once they have left the classroom and the world changes. The content, of course, provides a platform for that learning, but the most important thing we can give students is ability to continue to learn on their own.
There are plenty with the arrogance to believe they know, and that their knowledge is indisputable. They are the ones building things like CCSS. They aren’t helping either learning or teaching, however… and they certainly aren’t helping students prepare for the future. At best, they are providing blinders allowing students to focus only on what has been placed before them on a constructed road. Unfortunately, the road to the future has yet to be built and we are not able to construct it, its signposts or its obstructions. The best we can do is guess… so why define as true what is only speculation?
Wouldn’t it be better to prepare students to observe, analyze and decide based on what they find? Why do we simply teach them to memorize (that’s what happens, at least, when we assess standards like those of the CCSS through multiple-choice exams) what has already been decided for them? What good is that going to do?
Yes, bodies of knowledge need to be studied, but which bodies in a world where knowledge doubles with increasing frequency? Once there were few enough books in English so that the task of creating a ‘great books’ list was at least imaginable. Today, it would be possible to create dozens of such lists, each defensible and each without overlap with any of the others. So, instead of defining what books (or what types of books, as CCSS does: CCSS wants 70% of texts to be “informational,” whatever that means) should be studied, focus should be on the skills or reading and reacting, both verbally and in writing–on student activities and not solely on bodies of knowledge (which is what CCSS, though its advocates protest otherwise, leads to).
If students are being prepared to be lifelong learners, it doesn’t really even matter what bodies of knowledge are at the center of their required learning. As they go along, and start to take control of their education, students will focus on the bodies of knowledge that they need–and will continue to refine their focus as their knowledge grows and, with the passage of time, needs become clear. We educators need to recognize that (most of us do) and to resist the impulse to define what they need to know for the student as much as we possibly can.
Yes, we have to start with definition, providing the base for the students’ own exploration, but we shouldn’t be limiting it by deciding what will be important next year or the year after.
We know as little about that as our students.