Common Core supports great teaching

Massachusetts should reject effort to repeal new standards

AS A TEACHER passionate about the subject of civics, I am dedicated to the idea that every student leaves my classroom with the tools to succeed as a citizen of the world.  Every September since I began teaching eight years ago, the speech I give to all of my classes goes like this:  It’s less important to me that you remember what year the Civil War started or how many presidents we’ve had.  The most important thing is that I have helped you become a better reader, writer, and thinker.  I want my students to understand right away that the purpose of history is to make sense of their world in a way that values evidence and considers multiple perspectives.

That is why I support the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks incorporating the Common Core State Standards – and oppose the initiative being considered by the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education on March 7 to repeal the Common Core standards and replace them with a costly and complicated system for writing new ones.  I plan to testify and share with lawmakers what I find valuable about the Common Core.

The Legislature is considering this proposal because a group of Common Core opponents collected sufficient signatures to put the issue to the voters.  Under state law, if the legislature doesn’t adopt the proposal, it will appear on the ballot in November as a voter initiative.  This makes it all the more important that the public understands the impact of Common Core in real Massachusetts classrooms.

I understand that the Common Core has become a popular whipping boy in this election season.  I’m sure you’ll hear some people say they don’t want Washington dictating what is taught in classrooms.  You may have seen the online posts of parents who sarcastically “thank the Common Core” for being stumped by their kid’s math homework at the kitchen table.  Change is hard, and the rollout of the standards has been far from perfect.  But after I read the standards for myself and discussed them at length with colleagues, one message that clearly resonated with me was that Common Core supports the practice of great teaching.

As a civics teacher, I’ve been impressed with Common Core’s literacy standards.  They strongly emphasize answering questions with evidence, evaluating different types of evidence, assessing an author’s point of view, and considering multiple perspectives on a particular topic.  In my opinion, Common Core reflects the best practices of my profession because it is focused on the skill development of my students.  I am constantly tinkering with my lesson plans and curriculum to teach my subject in a way that is challenging yet accessible.

Common Core takes on many forms in my classroom – and I assure you none of these methods come as a mandate from Washington.  You may see students learn about Obamacare by writing a fictional narrative demonstrating how the law impacts a character they create.  I respect the time-honored tradition of showing the School of Rock video “I’m Just a Bill,” but I also prioritize my students actually experiencing the lawmaking process.  For two weeks, I turn my classroom into a session of Congress.  They consider bills in committees and vote on whether to advance legislation.  They write conference committee reports explaining their vote and craft a floor speech combining their personal views of the issue with supporting evidence they gather from research.  Last December, my students had the opportunity to practice all of these skills at the recently opened Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate.  At the Institute, they spend the day in a replica of the Senate chamber debating and voting on legislation.  Nothing made me prouder than my students exchanging knowing glances while Institute staff explained the concept of a filibuster.

We do not shy away from controversial subjects in my classroom.  My students deal with emotionally charged issues like stop-and-frisk by considering the issue from the point of view of the police, the politicians, the Constitution, and communities of color.  We put stop-and-frisk on trial in a moot court format. Teams of student lawyers present a legal case on why stop-and-frisk is unconstitutional, while another team of police lawyers defends its constitutionality.  None of these activities were ever “mandated” by Common Core.  I’ve heard quite a few people claim that Common Core handcuffs curriculum choice and teacher creativity.  My experience has been the exact opposite.  Common Core has empowered me to take creative risks in my teaching, to guide my students through more complex tasks, and to push myself to find unique and innovative approaches to student learning.

As our Commonwealth debates the fate of Common Core, my hope is that we can tune out the “hype” over standardized testing and federal takeovers of the classroom and focus on what the standards are actually saying. We have a proud tradition of leadership and innovation in public education.  Let’s not walk away from rigorous standards that encourage teachers to take innovative approaches to skills we know our students need to be successful.  Let’s take the opportunity to proudly embrace standards that emphasize the development of complex academic skills and take the right path towards educating successful, productive members of society.

Justin Norton is an 8th grade history teacher at Boston Latin Academy.

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