My potential allies at South Dakotans Against Common Core post this video by Chicago North Shore elementary school teacher Ellie Rubenstein. Amend that: former elementary school teacher Ellie Rubenstein.
Mrs. Rubenstein posted her resignation to the Intertubes last week. She doesn't mention Common Core, but her indictment of her school administration shows the degradation of education and the art of teaching to which Common Core, with its focus on standardized testing, can lead our schools:
But over the past 15 years, I’ve experienced the depressing, gradual downfall and misdirection of education that has slowly eaten away at my love of teaching. The emphasis in education has shifted from fostering academic and personal growth, in both students and teachers, to demanding uniformity and conformity. Raising students’ test scores on standardized tests is now the only goal, and in order to achieve it, the creativity, flexibility, and spontaneity that create authentic learning environments have been eliminated.
Spearfish's kids are done, but we teachers will be back in the building for one more day of in-service to discuss the implications of Common Core. Spearfish's teaching culture is far from the disastrous state Rubenstein describes in North Shore. (Worth noting: Rubenstein's superintendent describes her assessment of her own school as "inaccurate, misleading and, in many cases, factually wrong.") But I may forward this video to my fellow staff members as my contribution to the discussion of what Common Core could do to our school if we are not very, very careful.
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Now don't get me wrong: I love tests. I loved taking tests when I was a student (yes, I am every current student's worst nightmare). I love writing tests, trying to come up with questions and challenges that will accurately measure what my students have learned.
But my tests are the antithesis of the quick, easily scored bubble tests on which Common Core and the industrial assembly-line model of education depend. Take a look at my final exam for French students. Sure, they get a thick on-paper test on vocabulary, grammar and translation. But there is no multiple choice. I call it "infinite choice": students could write any number of responses in the blanks. Instead of trying to convert the test into some computer-scored assessment with one correct response for each item, I eyeball each blank, assigning partial credit for spelling, accent marks, synonyms, and creative circumlocutions that show the kids were paying attention in our specific classroom.
For example, one of the vocab words I asked was never. Answer: jamais. It would be pretty easy to plunk that word into a computer test, have students type in the answer, and give them one point if their entry matches the response text string and zero points if it doesn't. But one of my students who struggled with spelling wrote in the margin to that item "I've never been to Jamaica." We used that mnemonic in class multiple times. That student gave me extra information that shows that student paid attention and remembers useful information that a standard bubble-test vocab item would not capture. I gave that student a couple extra points to balance the misspelling that the computer would have counted flat wrong.
Over the last couple weeks I spent five hours composing my French finals (each year, the tests change somewhat, because each year we cover some different things in different orders) and fifteen hours evaluating over 20,000 individual final exam data points. And that was just the written final, which is only worth 40% of the final exam.
I spent another 21 hours holding individual appointments with students to conduct the French oral final, which constitutes 60% of their final exam grade. Each student comes for a fifteen-minute one-on-one interview with me, in which I ask a series of questions in random order. Students must offer responses in French. The students get the list of questions and a practice video a couple weeks before the test, but in French 2 and French 3, they must be prepared for logical but unlisted follow-up questions. Then each student must ask me five questions in French and show they understand my French response.
I can't standardize or computerize that oral final. Consider one glorious moment from one oral exam: a French 1 student asked me what actor I'd like to have play me. A humorous conversation broke out in which we discussed having David Bowie and John Leguizamo play the two of us and break into a duet version of "Heroes" in the French classroom.
The student started it. The student got it. The student laughed. All in French. At that point, I don't need anyone's French bubble test or standardized curriculum to tell me that French 1 student deserves an A.
If the corporate standardizers and privatizers really wanted to make education better, they would not sell us bubble tests. If they really wanted to know if I am teaching my students good French, they would hire a French speaker to come spend forty hours with my students. They'd have to hire thousands of such expert speakers and listeners for each of the foreign languages taught at thousands of American high schools. Each of those listening testers would have to spend an additional couple hours at each high school prior to the tests studying each teacher's materials and vocabulary lists, since each teacher chooses different nouns and verbs and conversational expressions and grammar points to practice.
(Oh, but wait: we already have that corps of expert foreign language evaluators. They are called your local foreign language teachers.)
And that's why you'll never hear about Common Core standards for foreign language. Common Core may barely get past English and math, into science and social studies, before it gets cast aside like No Child Left Behind after a decade or so for the next big education reform wave. Common Core will never get at whether students are really learning and whether teachers are really practicing their art well, because evaluating those questions is too complicated and too costly for anyone trying to make a living peddling multiple-choice tests.
Common Core will push more schools toward fact-heavy, concept-light testing and curricula. It will ignore the subjects that don't boil neatly down to flawed but mass-produceable, mass-sellable, mass-gradable tests. It will drive conscientious teachers like Ellie Rubenstein out of the business... or into teaching French, where Common Core can't claw at them as much as it does their colleagues in other subjects and grades.