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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Common Core in Mississippi: A Response to the Baptist Record

The Common Core Standards that are being rolled out in the states over the next year are receiving a lot of attention these days. The New York State Superintendent cancelled a series of town hall-style forums after the strongly antagonistic response he received at the first meeting.[1] Other states have experienced popular protest against the implementation of the Common Core standards, too:  North Carolina, Illinois, Florida, Wisconsin, Washington, Michigan, and more have “Stop Common Core” organizations that are making noise in their respective state legislatures.

I have tended to avoid issues of education policy because of my strange position as both a public school teacher and a Baptist pastor. I am privileged to teach in the second-highest-rated district in the state of Mississippi. There are inherent conflicts of interest (and obvious risks) in speaking out about policies and legislation that affect public schools. However, The Baptist Record, the official newspaper of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, has published an article that has driven me over the edge.

Mr. Rob Chambers wrote a major piece for the Record on September 26th.[2] Mr. Chambers is cited as a “consultant for the Mississippi Baptist Christian Action Commission.” Mr. Chambers is not a public school teacher or administrator, but his M.Div. from Southern Seminary gives him some clout on the ethics of the Common Core Standards.

I object, though, to Mr. Chambers’ analysis, conclusions, and rhetoric.

First, a note about the Common Core Standards. Common Core is not a plot by the Obama administration to take over state public education. Yes, Common Core is a product of a hybrid public/private initiative that had as its goal the elevation of our performance in education across the nation. However, this partnership is not a sinister cabal bent on taking away local freedom or authority when it comes to curriculum or instruction. The Common Core Standards are an attempt to set specific, meaningful goals for states (and therefore for districts) in mathematics and English skills. THERE ARE NO SPECIFIC CURRICULA INCLUDED IN THE COMMON CORE STANDARDS. What IS included is a list of objectives that look very similar to what we’re already teaching. However, Common Core has at its heart a motivation to make relevant connections between academic disciplines and to relate those disciplines to real-world experiences that will propel our students toward success in college and career.

The Common Core Standards do not tell teachers what to teach, nor do they provide some nation-wide standardized test for students to take (you know, like the ACT or SAT that we already use as the be-all and end-all nationwide standardized tests). Further, even though I agree with Mr. Chambers’ objection to Toni Morrison’s book The Bluest Eye being “recommended” by the Common Core English Standards, it must be pointed out that NO ONE is mandating the teaching of that or any other specific work in your child’s classroom. What is covered in a specific classroom is still up to the teacher, their department, their school, their district, and their state department of education. We must keep in mind that even with Common Core Standards being implemented perfectly and wholly, it’s still up to teachers to chose, execute, evaluate, and revise lessons.

Secondly, Mr. Chambers is emphasizing scientific language in an inappropriate way in making judgments about the Common Core Standards. In reference to a statement by Dr. Lynn House of the Mississippi Department of Education Mr. Chambers says, “This statement is a “statement of hypothesis.” Notice the phrase, “will do” and “will ensure.” Since these standards have never been tested, a casual reading of this would lead one to believe this statement is a tested, proven and factual statement. It is not.”[3] What Mr. Chambers is objecting to is the language of certainty in Dr. House’s description of Mississippi’s Common Core standards: “That’s exactly what Common Core State Standards Will do…They will ensure that Mississippi’s children are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to thrive…”[4] Dr. House is not declaring that she or anyone else has discovered the formula to make great students or citizens. Instead, Dr. House is stating what is perfectly in line with natural reason: if we achieve certain universal goals through our educational practice then we will have formed students into people ready for the next step, whether that is college or career.

Mr. Chambers seems to rely on the “scientific method” too much in his analysis. He says, “The primary problem is that the standards actually represent a hypothesis only. This means these standards have not been tested, there is no empirical data, and the outcome of the standards is at best an educated guess. Furthermore, in keeping with the “scientific method” that requires the testing of the hypothesis, there have been none in any US public school. Therefore, the standards is not a scientific theory, and there is no valid basis for any claim that these standards will work. Pure reason dictates otherwise. Neither are the standards scientifically valid because the standards have not been proven to be just as effective in one state as they are in another. The one shoe fits all approach will not work.”[5]

He is exactly right in saying that the Standards are not a scientific theory that is testable in a lab. Education policy is in a different category than scientific theory and testability. We cannot treat the goals of education as hypotheses to be tested. Instead, education policymakers examine the culture around them, assess the needs of students, compare those needs with the philosophical goals of education, and finally act in accordance with that complicated mixture of information.

The Common Core Standards are attempting to break the “assembly line” mentality that Mr. Chambers himself reflects in his analysis. Common Core aims to unify knowledge and demonstrate that the things we teach are not isolated, context-less units of useless knowledge. Rather, what we teach is essential for the pedagogical goal of helping shape young people into full-realized adults who are knowledgeable and (more importantly) capable in society. Mr. Chambers sounds like so many on the periphery of education that do not understand the complicated work of reacting to the needs of students as well as the demands of society.[6] Dr. House probably complicated the issue by using a metaphor (raising the bar on a high jump) to illustrate the intended outcomes of the Common Core Standards. Mr. Chambers needs to move beyond the metaphor and actually show what Common Core is: a set of un-scientific yet highly relevant guidelines to begin moving our schools toward excellence.

Further complicating the issue is the Christian perspective to education, specifically, that education should be about humanizing the students as much as it is about helping them understand God’s creation and their role in it. The Common Core Standards are certainly not designed with a specifically Christian perspective, but they do encourage outcomes that a Christian educator should be able to support, that is, that the idea that there is a universality to truth, and that all things “fit together.”

I wish that Mr. Chambers had used his article to demonstrate a Christian analysis of the Common Core Standards; it was an article in The Baptist Record, after all.  There is certainly a Christian perspective on the issue, and there is even more specifically a Baptist perspective on the Standards’ implementation. Instead, Mr. Chambers laments the secular political process and resorts to scare tactics intended to stir up the “parents and grandparents” of the children who will be affected by the new Common Core Standards.

Finally, to Mississippi.  Common Core is not the great savior of public education in our state, but it is also not the great doom of our schools either. As one recently retired Mississippi teacher told me, “there will be something new in five years, just watch.” I am neither excited that Common Core is being implemented in Mississippi, nor am I frightened that it’s coming. I will be required to learn a new way to show that I am teaching up to the standards that Mississippi requires, and I will teach every student the mathematics they need to understand the world as I have done every year.

Mississippi has an awful record when it comes to public education when compared to the rest of the nation. We are 48th in major metrics (the ones that are scientifically demonstrable).[7] There is no plausible spin on the rankings that makes our public education system look good as a state.  The Common Core Standards are an attempt to address our poor performance. Common Core is not a set of lessons plans dropped out of the sky; it is an attempt to bring Mississippi education into the better-performing landscape of American Public Education.

Race is certainly an issue in Mississippi public education, but Mr. Chambers is suggesting that the MDE’s plan to help lower-performing race-based subgroups reach the level of the highest subgroup is cause to throw out Common Core Standards. Again, at no point will the Common Core Standards, let alone the MDE Annual Measurement Objective determine what is in a teacher’s lesson plan. The MDE tries to make statistical measurements to predict testing outcomes for reasons far beyond the actual teaching events in classrooms across the state. Students of every race are taught the same lessons plans and given the same assessments. If racially motivated instruction or grading is occurring, then the school or district should correct it. Do not blame Common Core for the something completely unrelated to it.

To conclude, Mr. Chambers achieved little more than to frighten the readership of The Baptist Record. He concludes by suggesting that the Mississippi legislature delay implementation of the Common Core Standards and that the Standards represent a violation of the 10th Amendment. This is pure folly. The States have entered into an agreement with the Federal Government who, in turn, had entered into an agreement with private organizations and businesses to develop the Common Core Standards. Besides, we weren’t doing all that well on our own. He also comments that, “A starting point could be that government officials work together in delaying further implementation of the standards and related components. Then, work together in full disclosure with the citizens and develop a solution that is just, fair and equitable.”[8] The development of the Common Core Standards have not been a hidden, secretive thing; they have been in process for years and only now that they’re about to be implemented are people being encouraged to participate in the political process of their development and launch.

Mr. Chambers means well, I’m sure, but his article produces more heat than light, I fear. Stirring up Mississippi Baptists over issues they shouldn’t be afraid of is shameful. There is no sinister plot to take over Mississippi education. What should concern Baptists in Mississippi is that it takes quality teachers (that is, men and women who seek the humanization of their students based on the fact that their students are made in the image of God) to make quality schools. No standards or curricula can make up for what faithful men and women can do in the classrooms. That is what should concern Mr. Chambers: the ethics of being a teacher in a poorly educated state.

Let’s not get too excited about Common Core in Mississippi. The good news is that our test scores from the 2012-2013 school year will be frozen for three years while the Common Core Framework is set up, tested, and revised. We don’t have to begin a grassroots political campaign to repeal Obamacare Common Core. We don’t need to take an absolutist position; we need to understand that the power to teach is still in the hands of the teachers and that Common Core Standards put into words and goals those things that we, as teachers, have wanted all along - student success.

[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid, non-cited comment by Dr. Lynn House in Chambers’ article.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Tony Johnson comments of some education departments at the university level, “Educational philosophers and the field of educational philosophy has suffered for failing to embrace this [improving educational practice at all levels and in all places] role. By considering themselves engaged in the premier educational discipline, educational philosophers stand above and apart from others investigating educational practice. In attempting to become as academic as possible, educational philosophers alienated their natural colleagues and never gained full acceptance by academic or “real” philosophers. In hitching their wagon to the academic, professionalized vision of philosophy, educational philosophers not only denied their reason to be, but ensured for themselves a lonely, inconsequential professional or academic life.” This professionalization has trickled down to the level of policy-makers and certainly to political pseudo-experts. They want machines that drive the industry of education when no such machination exists. See Johnson, Tony, Discipleship or Pilgrimage? The Educator’s Quest for Philosophy. New York: SUNY Press, 1995, 75.
[8] Chambers, “Common Core Education in Mississippi.”

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this response. I don't understand why some people are attempting to frame Common Core as a religious debate rather than a public policy discussion. The extreme rhetoric (e.g. Common Core is going to steal the souls of our children and expose them to pornography, communist ideology and biometric data accumulation) seems to me to be politically motivated and cynical, designed to inspire hysteria not an honest and thoughtful discussion of the strengths or weaknesses of the actual standards. Mr. Chambers' essay is more measured and he avoids the outright conspiracy theories, but he still attempts to stir those same fears, uncertainties and doubts by questioning the intentions of those promoting the standards. Unfortunately, I think many Baptists will take the words of Mr. Chambers as the official policy of Mississippi Baptist Convention (maybe it is... I don't know) and not bother to flip through the pages of the standards themselves. In my opinion, the out-of-proportion response to CCSS by certain Christian organizations undermines their credibility to those people who, like me, are interested in truth, not spin. And that is truly unfortunate.