In recent years, educational policy has moved toward increasingly common curricula in an attempt to ensure high-quality standards for all students. The Common Core State Standards caused many states and districts that wanted to compete for federal funding — “Race to the Top” grants under President Obama’s administration — to entirely revamp their current practices. Almost all of the states that rushed to meet the deadline did not win the funding … so was the redesign worth it?
The sudden and high-stakes changes came with a tidal wave of new educational acronyms for programs meant to assist in standardization — CFAs and SLOs among them. Common Formative Assessments are intended to be in-progress checks of student learning that help teachers see which skills and content have been mastered and which need to be retaught. In practice, they sometimes become assignments that are administered solely for the purpose of data collection and reporting to school and district administrators. Student Learning Objectives are intended to be teacher-selected goals for improvement in a given school year. In practice, they are used as criteria for teacher evaluations, building pressure for teachers to meet a numerical student learning goal in order to earn a positive evaluation.
• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of essays from Manchester High School English and Social Studies teachers who participated in this summer’s Connecticut Writing Project-Storrs at the University of Connecticut, part of the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writers Program. The program’s goal is to learn how to better prepare students for the writing demands they will encounter beyond high school.
Don’t get me wrong: standardization has its benefits. I would hate being a teacher in a system where my colleagues were allowed to teach whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, and where students were not expected to meet standards of excellence in order to earn a diploma. But the standardization movement reveals its shortcomings when curricula become so lockstep that they are touted as “teacher-proof.”
Approximately half of all new teachers leave the field before their fifth year, resulting in high staff turnover in many districts (to the detriment of student success). In an attempt to counteract teacher shortages, recruitment alternatives such as Teach For America and legislation such as Arizona’s SB 1042 bring under-qualified teachers into our schools. But the few weeks of student teaching TFA provides is not sufficient preparation for the demands of a classroom, and the subject area expertise SB 1042 values is only one piece of the teaching puzzle. These “solutions” prove there is no such thing as “teacher-proof.”
Students learn best when their teachers are knowledgeable and passionate about the subject material, and when they are able to clearly articulate the relevance and importance of the learning to the students. Before being hired as full-time teacher two years ago, I was a year-long and semester-long substitute for teachers on leave in three districts over two years. My best-designed, most effective lessons — which I know resonated with my students — came from the year that I was the students’ only grade-level teacher, with minimal requirements and maximum freedom. I had a mentor teacher who helped me employ effective methods, but I made my own choices day-to-day about how to implement each curricular unit.
Every class is different, and each student is motivated by different interests and tasks. Struggling students, exceptionally-gifted students, and all those in-between succeed at a higher rate when they are intrinsically motivated by an interest in what they are learning. If given the opportunity to do so, teachers can maintain high academic standards for the skills being assessed while allowing for more student choice and agency in the content being covered.
I have taught within rigid curricula with almost-scripted lessons, and student outcomes were minimal. Each teacher has a unique personality and set of strengths. Lock-step curricula force teachers into approaches that may feel foreign to them, and might not meet the needs of their students. When I have tried to implement lessons designed by colleagues without being able to make those lessons my own, I have felt like an imposter, and, as a result, I inadvertently communicated less passion for the material to my students. When I am able to meld my background with research-supported practices and the interests of my students, I am a passionate, confident, and effective educator.
The academy system at Manchester High School has afforded me this opportunity, with the majority of my students grouped into class sections by future career interest, which allows me to adapt the curriculum to their (and my) passions and talents. It is only with the freedom to try new approaches that I can design lessons that students will be talking about days or months later, and assessments that I know will provide an accurate picture of each student’s abilities.
So what are the solutions to the pitfalls of standardization? We must recognize that skills matter more than content when it comes to graduating students who are truly ready for college and career. We should use the Common Core State Standards as a guide for the skill outcomes that should be expected at each grade level, but we must let teachers decide how to achieve those results. And we must acknowledge teachers who have completed advanced degree programs in education and their subject fields as the experts they are, and allow them more freedom to make informed decisions that will benefit their students.
Nikki Milewski teaches at Manchester High School in the English department and Performing Arts & Communication Academy.
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