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Charlie Mitchell: 'Common Core,' another name for a tired (and ineffective) solution


Charlie Mitchell



OXFORD -- Why doesn't little Johnny in Mississippi score as high on achievement tests as his counterparts in other states? 


Why, it's George Bush's fault. 


Listen to the speechifying these days and "No Child Left Behind," the moniker for federal efforts to "help schools do better" under the previous president, was, in reality, a Republican conspiracy to kill public education. Never mind that the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D.-Mass., co-wrote the "No Child" legislation. Bush pushed it early in his first term as a pathway to better relations with Democrats. (Didn't happen, if you recall.) 


But that goes to the nut of the issue: Each revolutionary revision to how America's youth will be taught is 99.9 percent politics and .1 percent practicality. 


Today, the same is true for Common Core, which has some folks upset and running around in rhetorical circles this fall. 


"The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy." 


That's the official mission statement. In words from the old TV sitcom "Seinfeld," "Yadda, yadda, yadda." 


How many times do we have to listen to politicians and "education leaders" spout, "The children are our future." No kidding? Really? Had no idea. 


The only thing different about Common Core from previous verses in the "make schools better" song is its marketing plan. 


In essence, backers sell the "teaching and learning strategies" on the premise that the package arose from the people as opposed to being dictated by folks safely ensconced in the U.S. Department of Education and the hallowed halls of Congress. 


And that's true, at least in part. 


Common Core does not involve legislation, not directly anyway. The package was adopted by the National Governors Association back when Haley Barbour, who endorsed the approach, was governor. To date, 44 more states have adopted Common Core. Only Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia are on the sidelines. Why? Who knows? 


The roots of Common Core go all the way back to 1989. The Mississippi Department of Education adopted the approach in 2010 with plans to roll it out this fall. 


In addition to the overall strategy, there are many "pitch points" by which Common Core has been sold as a solution. Its English and language arts as well as its math provisions are said to be broader, but with sufficient instructional time allowed. There's more testing, which most see as a negative, but the material is, overall, more challenging, which some see as a plus and others see as a minus. 


One aspect is an increased level of homework. This is tactical. A problem education experts repeatedly cite is that not enough parents are involved with their children's schoolwork. The remedy is to send more of that schoolwork home with little Johnny on the chance more parents will choose to "engage," a euphemism for "care" whether little Johnny passes or fails. 


It's easy to sit back and toss rocks at each and every "innovation" in the field of education. That's not the point. The point is that teaching and learning are processes that do not lend themselves to political solutions. Few elected folk are willing or able to admit that. 


We all know what works: Taxpayers provide a building, buses, books and a living wage for teachers. School board members with a stake (a child or children) in the district. Superintendents who select principals carefully and empower the principals to select and retain teachers who are effective in classrooms. Teachers who give their best shot every day (as about 95 percent do). Parents who point out problems, but otherwise offer supportive encouragement both to their children and to those who work in public schools. 


Not one ingredient in that recipe requires any action by Congress, by the National Governors Association or any highly trained or overpaid consultants whose passions are gimmickry and wordplay. 


Teaching requires able teachers. Learning requires willing students. The process can be supported, but it can't be legislated. 


If we can admit that, maybe generation upon generation of all the frou-frou will come to an end.



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