Chicago Public Schools teacher disagrees with Chicago Teachers Union decision against Common Core Standards

This morning, I learned through the media that the Chicago Teachers Union voted against the Common Core Standards (CCSS).  Because of my experience as a successful veteran National Board Certified teacher in alternative, neighborhood, and selective-enrollment high schools, I disagree with the CTU’s decision.

We Do Have Too Much Testing

These weeks, my junior students experienced two mornings of ACT testing, at least one morning of Advanced Placement testing, and, shortly, will experience a couple of days of REACH testing, the test that’s part of the new teacher evaluation system.

Testing takes up teaching and learning time.  Testing remains overused and in unnecessary abundance inside our schools.  But this doesn’t stop me from merging Common Core Standards with real-world issues to develop my students’ confidence and competence as critical thinkers.

In a WBEZ story, the CPS teacher and CTU member who heads the education committee said, “We believe that we want our students to become critical thinkers, people who are capable of making decisions on their own and people who can lead good and purpose-filled lives."  This teacher and union leader went on to say, "We believe our students are more than just cogs in the wheel of the machinery of our work force."

I AGREE with both of those statements.  So what we should fight is the unnecessary testing.  Saucedo teachers, as we know, fought against the useless ISAT testing in March.  They had my support.

Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) organized / are organizing an event against unnecessary testing.  I saw it on Facebook about a week ago.  (A quick look at their Web site today didn’t produce any information--if I missed it, please let me know and post below).

Yesterday’s CTU decision unfortunately encourages the polarized education conversation dominating our city.  The parties on both sides stand farther apart in their respective corners while those of who would like to analyze, weigh out options, present reasonable alternatives to this test-dominated culture stand silently in between.  (Well, maybe not so silently.)

What’s This Opposition REALLY About?

I sent a tweet to the CTU this morning at 8:32 a.m. asking them to clarify: Is the anti-CCSS stance about the standards, the implementation, or the testing?  As of the posting of this commentary, I have not heard back.

I did get a tweet from some anonymous anti-CCSS person somewhere in California that said, “It’s about local control.”  I agree.

I believe the CTU stand against Common Core is really about the lack of control teachers experience more and more on a regular basis.  CPS leaders and our mayor closed fifty schools.  They decided to open a brand-new selective-enrollment high school in an affluent part of Chicago—in a zip code that only had about 869 10-14 year olds in 2010, according to U.S. Census data.

The zip code I live and teach in, however, had over 10,200 10-14 year olds in 2010.

We need another high school on the Southwest side.  We need a new building on the Southwest side.  We need a selective-enrollment high school on the Southwest side.  The Southwest side—for too long—remained ignored by politicians and educational advocates.  The inequality must end.

Voting against Common Core perpetuates the social inequalities many activists claim to be fighting against.

The fight against Common Core Standards is mainly sparked by the poor implementation of CCSS.  In Chicago, for example, district leaders designed a calendar with exceptionally few professional development days--days we need to understand the shifts in instruction.  Other critics cite the technological demands and lack of awareness about the PARCC exam, the new test that will assess students' mastery of the Common Core Standards on computers.  These results, in many cases, will influence determinations about a teachers' effectiveness.  Again, teachers lose local control.

The battle, then, should focus on the implementation and the over-dependence on these standardized tests--not on the standards themselves.

How I Use Common Core Standards

From an English-teacher perspective, here’s a brief summary of what Common Core helps students know and do:

Narrative Writing:

Students must write engaging stories and personal experiences, theirs or others, that focus on making more meaning for the audience than for the writer.  In my high-school narrative writing unit, I focus on teaching students to communicate the significance of the experience to others after they understand the significance of the experience for themselves.

Expository Writing:

Creating these informational texts in the forms of balanced news articles, abstracts of longer works, or engaging biographies provides students access to the background information too many teachers complain our students lack.  If students have the opportunity to sort out and write out information--instead of having it recited in a teacher's lecture--students develop skills that will help them sort out the questionable information they access on social media every day.

Argumentative Writing:

Students have to stop writing five-paragraph essays.  Argument is an audience-centered experience.  We should enter an ongoing conversation with reasoned evidence or examples grounded in academic, historical, social, or personal research.  My anti-five-paragraph post explains ways to avoid unengaging, rudimentary approaches.

Writing at the Sentence and Paragraph Level:

Students need to learn the guidelines for a using a semicolon, for example, and they need to know its rhetorical effect: a semicolon creates a cause and effect relationship where the shorter sentence after the semicolon is emphasized.  My post about how I teach to the test in the Chicago Public Schools outlines these strategies.

I do not foresee a reasonable educator pointing to any of the individual Common Core Standards and saying, “Students should NOT learn how to do this.”

What I DO envision reasonable educators thinking is, “I’m not sure how to teach this.”  Or, “I have to reflect and re-adjust my professional practice to do this.”  Or, “I need help learning something new.”

A few years ago, I struggled when I began teaching AP English.  I needed to learn new ways of teaching writing—new ways of engaging students.  I struggled the first few years.  But through reflection, instructional risks, conversations with good teachers, and self-selected professional development, I learned how to adopt the AP standards in all my classes.  These standards align with the Common Core.

So, in my writing classes, we examine the relationship between music and culture.  My students didn’t know about American Bandstand or Soul Train.  Now they know—and they are aware of the cultural impact of these shows.

We also examined the role of satire in our lives.  We saw Margaret Cho’s “Persimmon Diet” clip and learned about the prevalence of eating disorders with information from National Public Radio.  Students, then, uncovered the subtext of Cho’s humor.  One student wrote: “Many people don’t talk about their experience with embarrassment; in contrast, Cho tells her experience in a funny way to move past the embarrassment.”

We watched scenes from John Leguizamo’s Freak and viewed the preview of a documentary about male identity, so students could unbury the satirist’s social commentary on father-son relationships.  One student wrote: “According to society, men are supposed to learn the hard way, reminding us that society puts unnecessary hardships on men.”

Last year, I collaborated with a colleague so students could organize a sexual-assault awareness campaign before prom.  To ground our instruction, we used Common Core Standards.

My students learn to synthesize, analyze, and present information in engaging ways.  They develop their confidence and competence as writers.  Last year, my junior students’ average  ACT English score—at a neighborhood high school—was 20.  Their average reading score was 21.  We met the national average because I and other colleagues accepted standards and merged them with real-world conversations.

In multiple contexts, in multiple schools, I have—and so have many other teachers--accepted standards that will help students’ present their experiences as one universal wisdom among many so others, too, can feel, can think, can speak up, and ask, ‘What do I believe?’”

Many, many other good teachers move beyond the polarized conversations in their classrooms, in their disciplines every day.

Because of my personal experience, I know that learning the standards opposed by many activists will help my Southwest side low-income students get into college—and succeed.  I fight against the test-obsessed culture without sacrificing academic opportunities for my students.

This CTU decision, unfortunately, misconstrues professional adult disagreements as student needs.

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