The Community is the Curriculum

Welcome to 2014! It’s an election year. While most educators strive toward being apolitical, I don’t think many will find themselves able to stay above the political fray this year. The battle lines are being drawn, and it looks as though the Common Core State Standards will be this year’s political football. Regardless of what you may think you know about Common Core, that’s bad news for America’s students. When political points matter more than grade points, bad policy results.

On a national level, and also in my home district in Colorado, the following talking point is emerging from the Right: Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are to Education as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is to Healthcare. While there’s no catchy name for CCSS yet to equal the ACA’s “Obamacare” tag, given that polls are showing the American public generally think that government is the problem, making the link between CCSS and the Federal government is sure to be a winner for Republicans running at all levels in 2014, from School Boards to Governor’s mansions. It’s succeeding at the local level in school board races around the country, and that’s an indicator that it will track well nationally.

As a case in point, Colorado’s Democrats fared poorly with education issues in 2013, and may do worse in 2014. A well-coordinated Republican campaign claimed key school boards in the state, and a poorly-coordinated Democratic campaign failed to pass a one billion dollar “revenue enhancement” measure to support Colorado’s woefully underfunded public schools (variously in the 40s, depending on the metrics). While Republicans decoded this measure, rightly, as a not insubstantial tax increase and stood against it, Democrats bickered about whether the measure would save and enhance our public schools, or simply sell-out to “corporatization.” Colorado is a so-called “purple state” because it’s demographics quite nearly mimic those of the entire country. The fate of Colorado’s divided Left will not be lost on Republicans at a national level, and it should not be lost on educators, either.

While the Right appears primed to draw clear lines against CCSS as “Federal overreach” in 2014, it seems quite evident that the Left will continue to fight over whether the CCSS is good for America’s public schools, or a covert attempt to sell those schools off to educational mega-corporations. If last fall in Colorado is any indication, such divisions on the Left at the national level could mean a Republican controlled House and Senate, supported by Governor’s mansions similarly suspicious enough of CCSS to opt out, or significantly reduce funding for the initiative. Given that it’s hard for me to imagine a lame duck Obama administration vetoing a radically different Elementary and Secondary Education Authorization Act (ESEA) in the face of such opposition, I don’t think it’s extreme to say that the political fate of CCSS hangs in the balance in 2014.

There is, however, another perspective to consider before we allow the pundits to drag us into an all-out political fight over CCSS. If we actually look at the way CCSS is being implemented by districts, schools and teachers around the country—if we look at those who are professionally interested in helping their students do better—we get a very different picture.

As someone who works with teachers in roughly 1/3 of the states in our Union, I’ve seen a wide variety of state and local initiatives attempting to implement CCSS. Implementation strategies for CCSS in Albuquerque, New Mexico or Columbus, Ohio look very different from those in early adopters like Nashville, Tennessee and Danville, Kentucky. This is not because some of these states are ahead or behind in the Federal “Race to the Top,” but because those states and districts have each taken their own approach to implementation in order to secure the funds necessary to support it. Such a Federalist (not Federal) approach was an essential part of the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top” program; “a competitive grant program designed to encourage and reward States that are creating the conditions for education innovation.”

While there may be “Core” Standards,” for most of the fifty states, there is not, in fact, a core curriculum. A lot of teachers complain about this because innovation is a lot harder to grasp when you’re staring 35 young people in the face while knowing your “outcomes” will be measured by a test. From my experience, and that of many others in my line of work, it’s hard enough for local governments to coordinate curriculum across a mid-sized rural district, let a lone a major metropolitan district, a state, or an entire country. In those states where Common Core has been adopted, there are, indeed, now common standards, but the standards are not the curriculum.

Common Core can be pumped up to be a bogey-man by the Left or the Right, but whatever hegemonic fears politicians on either side may attempt to exploit, the Common Core curriculum is growing, organically, state by state and, in many cases, community by community. Indeed, instead of choosing sides in a debate made for the political theater of 24/7 news, , let’s admit the fact that it is our local communities, more than the Feds or Corporations, who are left holding the bag when it comes to implementing CCSS. In that situation, local communities are doing what they have always done throughout American history: they’re working together to try to make sense of something new, and to try to package that into a set of learning experiences that will make sense to their students.

Some, perhaps for lack of vision, are simply teaching the standards as the curriculum, but this will fail for two reasons. One, while the CCSS may be higher and clearer than any standards before, 21st century children are not likely to march willingly through them with much enthusiasm or success. Some will drudge on learning little, some will drop out, and schools won’t really improve as a result. Secondly, and I’ve seen this in many districts, teachers facing a future where there professional skills are devalued for a rote approach to teaching are spending more time polishing their resumes to look for work elsewhere than they are mastering the new standards. The teachers left behind won’t likely be what students need, and districts pursuing this approach won’t find it easy to hire replacements for those who fled.

CCSS is likely to succeed in those districts, or schools (public, charter, or private) where teachers are engaged in well-designed professional learning around CCSS; trying to make sense of it for their communities, and for their students. There are many bright spots like this around the country. Where it’s happening, I would expect the national political rhetoric to have less of an effect.

Working together, those on the Left concerned about corporate takeovers of their public schools have the means to resist the computer driven elements of the standardized assessments. Such options are not only limited to “opting out” of those tests, but to thinking about how teachers can design a curriculum to support mastery of those standards in ways that don’t require a computer, as a network of educators in New Mexico is choosing to do.

Those on the Right have similar options when it comes to concerns about an overreaching Federal government. The Standards are full of examples of what students should know and be able to do, but they are not limited to only that knowledge, and only those skills. Homeschooling parents have long understood this, but the Right needn’t “opt out” either. In Joplin, Missouri, community members from all sides, including the faith community, have come together to help their students succeed in a community dealt a mighty blow by a merciless act of nature a few years ago. Even in some of Colorado’s most highly politicized districts, schools and education leaders are looking for ways to offer a more personalized learning experience, crafted in reference to the CCSS, but in project-based partnerships with teachers and community mentors designed to meet the individual learning arcs of different students.

A few years back, my friend David Ross at Buck Institute for Education wrote a blog entitled, “The Common Core is the What. PBL is the How”. That one blog has led to an exponential increase of interest in what is known as project-based learning (PBL) across the country. Many schools are now asking how they can go “wall-to-wall” PBL, but I don’t think that solves the political problem caused by CCSS because to many, that still feels like we’re leaving our children’s education up to institutions we trust less, and less. To solve that problem, I’d add a corollary to David’s article and suggest that where “Common Core is the What, PBL is the How and The Community is the Curriculum.” After all, neither CCSS, nor PBL, are curriculum in their own right. The former is a set of learning targets, the latter a design philosophy about how to reach those targets. But that learning doesn’t become relevant or authentic until students see how it connects in their communities. It takes us, the adults and mentors in the community, to help them see that. Like life in a democratic society, if we abdicate our responsibility to educate our children and leave it to either of the scary alternatives from which we are told we must choose, our children will get the education that we deserve, not the education that they deserve.

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