Common Core just another top-down, test-focused reform

Fourth-graders at Rosa Parks Elementary School in Lexington raised their hands to get their teacher’s attention last September.
Fourth-graders at Rosa Parks Elementary School in Lexington raised their hands to get their teacher’s attention last September. Herald-Leader file photo

What does one need to know in order to be educated? Who decides?

In her op-ed column, “Common Core: If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” Kimberly Kennedy says that “education experts” should decide, and she defends a current education-reform fad, the Common Core.

Like many of her ilk, she is impressed by the buzzwords of reformthink: experts, achievement, standards, rigorous and such.

Kennedy, a former educator, is selling more of the snake oil which has poisoned the schools over the last 25 years: ideas which purport to be cure-alls, but which really have attacked the system, making it sicker.

Parents, and anyone else interested in public schools, should not buy.

Think about it. So-called experts prepare a checklist, based on “international benchmarks.” Politicians then give the OK, and this becomes education. Who gets left out?

Teachers (the real experts) and students get left out. The result, so far, is a whole generation of children lost to testing regimes. After all, “student achievement” is just code for test results.

Students who are drilled for years in a narrow, test-oriented curriculum might do a bit better on those tests, but they’re not any better educated, in a real sense.

Tests are mechanical. Students and teachers are not. However, tests are easy to measure. Giving a lot of them, based on checklists, makes it look as though politicians and administrators are doing something.

The poobahs of education reform have undercut teachers in a self-serving effort to convince the public that schooling is rocket science, made possible only by bureaucrats micro-managing from central office or Frankfort or Washington, D.C.

These folks insist that standards are higher. This contrasts with my teacher friends, who are dismayed — damned near despondent — over the erosion of standards in the schools. “We don’t have any standards anymore,” is a common complaint.

An insistence on “rigor” is particularly phony. How can schools be more rigorous if graduation rates are on the rise? If school is made tougher more students should fail. This is not true in education-reform-world, which is akin to Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average.”

So why are graduation rates rising? School is being made easier, through policies that come from the top, not from teachers. New grading systems, an emphasis on testing, and a skills-based approach to curricula, as represented in the common core, have made it easier to pass students along.

Take the English curriculum. Can a student be educated without ever having read “Julius Caesar” or “The Scarlet Letter?” Yet, American literature and British literature are hardly taught under the new scheme, which emphasizes skills.

In fact, Common Core mandates that 70 percent of reading in English classes should be non-fiction, leaving only 30 percent for fiction, poetry and drama. That’s absurd. The percentage should be the reverse. Just ask an English teacher.

Or, consider the graduation credit in humanities, one of the few good academic ideas to come out of the 1990s reforms in Kentucky. This requirement has been watered down by allowing students who take music and art classes to earn their humanities credits that way.

The Common Core is not the whole problem, it’s just a symptom. But it’s definitely not the panacea which supporters, like Kennedy, would have you believe. As a recent letter to the editor said, “Be wary when you hear or read about ‘education reform.’”

Getting rid of Common Core is a first step toward returning control of classrooms to teachers, and one worth taking. There will still be much to do.

Jim Hanna, retired from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, now teaches at Georgetown College.