David Cohen just wrote a great piece about a session he was in yesterday at the ASCD conference here in San Francisco. He writes about his fears that the new Common Core standards will be left a reeking hulk after the textbook companies politicians and consultants are through with them. While I am not as leery as he is, I have to agree that he is exactly right that the devil is in the details and poor implementation of these new standards can be a disaster!
Three years ago, our social studies department at Skyline High School, in Oakland California, realized that our sophomore history class had an enormous fail-rate. After collecting and analyzing data, we concluded that the primary reason for this was the lack of a relevant and rigorous class at the 9th grade level. In response to our conclusions, I wrote a new curriculum for 9th grade social studies, focusing on the goals of primary-document research, thesis development, and historical essay writing. Two years ago, I piloted the class for 120 9th graders. Last year, all of our 9th grade history teachers had adopted the curriculum. Today, not only vastly more sophomores maintaing at least a “C” in their world history class, but the AP World History class has expanded by 50% and is “the most diverse group of AP students I have ever seen,” according to our AP teacher.
Our department knew that doing the authentic work of a historian would be not only more rigorous, not only a better support for our children’s writing skills, not only more closely tied with the skills our children would need in college and career, but also more fun. When our six 9th grade social studies teachers read the drafts of the new Common Core Standards last year, especial the set about “Teaching Writing in History/Social Studies,” one of us said, “It looks like the policy wonks have caught up to us.”
As excited as I am about the ELA and Math standards, I must admit, I am a little fearful about the soon-to-be-written History/Social Studies standards. Traditionally, history standards are far more politicized as stakeholders ask the question, “Whose history will we teacher the children?” As a part of my work with the Center for Teaching Quality and the California Teacher Association, I plan to be right in the middle of that debate. My concern is that the new History/Social Studies standards are not a laundry list of names, dates and battles like many of the state standards it will be replacing.
I am also leery about the next generation of student assessments. A teacher might argue that the current version of her/his state standards is far more relevant and rigorous that the set of sub-skills and facts that are on the high-stakes test. S/he may go on to say that the high stakes attached to the assessment have overblown the import attached to those sub-skills and facts to the detriment of higher-order (and more difficult to assess) thinking and reasoning. Finally, that teacher may critique our current system by saying the primary merit for using the particular questions that we currently do on our student assessment is not because these are the skills and facts we most value, but rather because they lend themselves to easily scored tests. I would agree with that teacher and advocate that the next generation of student assessments must serve our goals and objectives in regards to what we want to see a well-educated young person able to do and know. Our vision of a well-educated child, or an effective teacher can no longer be the servant of inexpensively administered exams.