Common Core Fears: Short Atlantic Reflections

From the article Suburbia and Its Common Core Conspiracy Theories:

Many parents view the Common Core and the accompanying tests as a threat to their ability to keep their kids safe in a hostile world. Suburban parents, who are known for being particularly involved in their kids’ education and traditionally enjoy a good deal of influence on district policymaking, are frustrated by not being able to convince their local school boards to alter the standards or testing requirements. They worry that they won’t be able to help kids with homework, because the new learning materials rely on teaching methods foreign to them. They worry that, ultimately, their kids will be unemployed and living in the basement in their 20s.

A few thoughts on this key paragraph.

Traditionally enjoy a good deal of influence on district policy making.

Very true. A cynical part of me wants to say welcome to the world of inner-city urban education, where policy making is frequently dictated by state legislators. We can debate whether this is good or bad. And it may be a bit of a chicken or the egg issue. If lower performing , inner city districts had parents who were more involved (and to be clear, there’s a whole HUGE list of why they’re not involved) would said districts be lower performing? But that particular privilege of influence is weakening as education policy makers pivot towards various global and large scale boogymen (China! Lack of jobs! Generation of slackers! Economic stagnation, etc). Big problems require big (and centralized) solutions apparently.

They worry about not being able to help kids with homework.

Confession: I can’t help my 3rd and 4th grade daughters with their math homework. I keep “doing it wrong”. As an educator, I get the shift. The newer ways of doing math are there to help kids develop a better number sense. And, for certain, number sense is important. I really want my kids to have good number sense. It will help them immensely in the complicated world they’re about to inherit.

But I can’t do it. Not without googling the techniques, spending a good amount of time figuring out a new way to get the same answer, and then probably messing it up when trying to explain things to my perplexed daughters. It’s just a whole lot simpler to show them how I would do it (the old way). And I don’t feel stupid. I suspect that’s why a lot of parents are torqued. No one wants to feel stupid with 3rd grade math.

They worry their kids will be unemployed and living in the basement in their 20s.

This, I think, is the root fear (I can certainly identify with it). In America, the past 3 decades has not been great for the middle class (on the plus side, it’s been great for the rest of the world!). We’ve seen a more opportunities to fall out of the middle class rather than fall into  the middle class. There are a CONSIDERABLE amount of reasons for this (and these reasons take on their own colors given your political persuasion), but the fear is very real to parents who want the best for their children.

Unfortunately, the Common Core has become a symbol of that fear.

Keep an Open Mind

I value – be it in leadership, teaching, or simple day-to-day interactions – sympathy and empathy. Understanding others is a cornerstone of compassion. And, I believe, how we move our society forward bit by slow bit.

This break carried quite a few conversations about race, society, and the police. I attend a church where blacks and whites worship together. I’ve a friend who is a police officer. We all carry opinions, views, and perspectives. But at least we’re having conversations and trying.

Nashville police chief Steve Anderson wrote a Christmas message worth quoting in part. Along with many cities in the US, Nashville has had its fair share of peaceful protests during the past few weeks. Anderson, in response to the “5%” of folk angry at the “thoughts expressed by the demonstrators” wrote a response letter. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but the key paragraphs are here:

While I don’t doubt that you sincerely believe that your thoughts represent the majority of citizens, I would ask you to consider the following before you chisel those thoughts in stone.

As imperfect humans, we have a tendency to limit our association with other persons to those persons who are most like us.  Unfortunately, there is even more of a human tendency to stay within our comfort zone by further narrowing those associations to those persons who share our thoughts and opinions.  By doing this we can avoid giving consideration to thoughts and ideas different than our own.  This would make us uncomfortable.  By considering only the thoughts and ideas we are in agreement with, we stay in our comfort zone.  Our own biases get reinforced and reflected back at us leaving no room for any opinion but our own.  By doing this, we often convince ourselves that the majority of the world shares opinion and that anyone with another opinion is, obviously, wrong.

It is only when we go outside that comfort zone, and subject ourselves to the discomfort of considering thoughts we don’t agree with, that we can make an informed judgment on any matter.  We can still disagree and maintain our opinions, but we can now do so knowing that the issue has been given consideration from all four sides.  Or, if we truly give fair consideration to all points of view, we may need to swallow our pride and amend our original thoughts.

And, it is only by giving consideration to the thoughts of all persons, even those that disagree with us, that we can have an understanding as to what constitutes a majority.

Always consider, there are other shoes to walk.

Hold on, laptops may NOT be bad for learning

Around a month ago, a corner of my Twitterverse erupted with a study that indicated that laptops in the classroom discourage learning. Titled “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard“, one could easily conclude it best to have students close their screens and pick up a pencil if you wanted more retention in your sit and get.

One key conclusion from the authors:

Although more notes are beneficial, at least to a point, ‘if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a laptop’ than when notes are taken longhand, the benefit disappears. Indeed, synthesizing and summarizing content rather than verbatim transcription can serve as a desirable difficulty toward improved educational outcomes (e.g., Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer, & Vaughan, 2011; Richland, Bjork, Finley, & Linn, 2005). For that reason, laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, ‘laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.’ (p. 1166)

Cue the fun debates and collective wig outs in social science magazines and education blogs!

Also cue existential crisis for technology directors (if there is no need for technology in education, do I really exist?).

Hold On a Second

Smarter minds than mine are finding solid flaws in the conclusion. One of the best takedowns comes from Darren Kuropatwa. He quite rightly points out:


In the same way learning to ride a bike and learning to drive a car require different learning experiences using different learning tools also requires different learning experiences. Students don’t automatically know how to take notes; it’s a learned skill, one we have to teach.

Not to mention the questions we should ask about how much of an impact does note taking (pen, keyboard, or otherwise) actually have on learning.

I think we too often forget that technology is a tool, not the actual learning. Tools help cognitive growth, but they are not the growth.