What about Christian Schools and the Common Core?

What about Christian Schools and the Common Core?

Guest post by G. Boyd Chitwood, Ed.D.

common core One could take a Luddite/Troglodyte position and oppose the common core simply because it’s the government (federal or state) coming to help or because it’s trying to bring school systems which are sub-standard on average up to a reasonable standard above which many Christian and independent schools work all the time. We could use fightin’ words and obscurantist/elitist vernacular.

But let’s not, and not even say we did. Also, let’s focus. For a start, set aside the macro arguments of bringing public school systems up and consider that one another time. Also, for now, set aside the question of what part the common core might play in the practical future for Christian and independent schools (because no school will remain untouched by the core). Consider only the question of what part common core standards may or should have in the ideal future of Christian and independent schools.

Some burrow in on one area or another of the standards; for example, whether they forsake too much classic literature in favor of technically challenging but questionably valuable white paper writing. If we dig into the real challenges of understanding, contextualizing, communicating about, and creating arguments using truly difficult technical writing, we can’t so easily brush off the common core as a dumbing down of the curriculum. We can disagree from now ‘til Sunday with some choices made, but it’s not so simple just to call it simplified. Look, for example, at a 7th grade, criterion-referenced, end-of-course exam in the common core arsenal which calls the student to answer text-based questions from topically connected selections in history, persuasive argument and technical background. Challenging well the student’s analytical abilities, the test then turns to a synthetic challenge of weaving together multiple threads from the varied selections into a coherent whole as a position or argument or accessible portrait of an idea. That sort of assessment and expectation doesn’t lay so very far below the highest ideals in Christian and independent school curricula. Of course, a tough test question does not a consistently rigorous curriculum make. But let’s not dismiss it out of hand as “below us.”

Rhetorically, this curricular excursion might seem so far to set the stage for support of the common core standards as somehow useful for Christian and independent school education. I would say we should not remain ignorant of them, even as we should commit to know the best of action and fundamental research across the educational landscape while also including a savvy reconnaissance of what will affect that landscape, for our schools and all others.

BUT….yes, there it is….But, I would offer a challenge to the “standards” part more than the “common core” part. This is admittedly a glancing coverage of a deep and wide educational subject, but I offer a thought as perhaps a start at a more thorough consideration. There’s an instructive philosophical history to study on the pragmatism of Dewey and its effect on educational ideology. Perhaps even more light shines on the subject from review of the realist turn in fear of Sputnik advances. From this turn issued standards-based curricula and high stakes testing. So many are so used to dishing out so much invective against high stakes testing that little attention is paid to what standards themselves do.

Perhaps that sounds silly. Aren’t standards just another way of saying that we have high expectations for our students’ learning, and even more fundamentally, aren’t standards just a definition of goal-directed behavior in our teaching? This is not a monolithic subject but, fairly broadly, I would say “no”.

Standards are where so much of today’s curricular creation starts. Lessons are built from or around or correlated with standards. And the standards being used are relatively low-level, highly analytic sub-sub categories of broader strands describing student behaviors and abilities. Standards which birth instructional lessons and units are analytically derived component parts taken as necessarily constitutive of the ‘whole’ of strands behaviors. The synthetically perceived “educated student” is seen as an almost necessary byproduct of the student trained in skill after skill and content nugget after content nugget.

Even more, when we start with standards we work our way back through a series of lessons which almost always make a constant velocity assumption about students and their learning. Program my pacing to cover my standards through the given instructional time on task. I’m jumping quickly here, but consider whether the learning done by real children isn’t more a problem or opportunity in acceleration, to speak from the descriptions of physics. We gain traction with student learning early-on and then build momentum. As engaged learners, students – well taught and lead – seek out much of the learning for themselves as we guide them in activities which call for greater learning to reach personally affirmed goals of understanding and communicating, of doing and creating.

Don’t we in the Christian and independent school seek to start with the student, directing our attention to the lofty goals of higher learning, and equipping the student along the way to continue pursuing that higher ground. All so much vacuity and vain imaginings?

Look with a colder eye on the process of connecting standards with classroom activities. I find the process missing students rather than connecting with them when executed by all but the most masterful of teachers. And those teachers can connect all the more completely and effectively if they have a synthetically understood picture of a student well-trained, relationally engage the student they have today in class, and pursue rich and real teaching and learning with the student along that growth path.

Does any of it ring true to you? Does it speak to what we treasure in the Christian and independent school above most all else? Does it touch upon the fundamentals of teaching as such rather than just in a particular school setting? Teachers and students as the heart and soul of every day and every action. Teachers and standards left in great measure to the textbook researchers, the curriculum committees and the test creators. Standards most certainly have their role, but is it as daily guide to the teacher?

5 Responses to “What about Christian Schools and the Common Core?”

  1. Joel Satterly October 21, 2013 at 8:02 am #

    Thanks for the thoughtful commentary on Common Core. It is certainly one of the more pressing matters before us. I appreciate your departure from the common diatribe and rhetoric (I’d expect no less from your fertile mind, friend). You are right that we will all be impacted by the Core in one form or fashion and it is worth our dialogue to consider. Your argument, it seems to me, isn’t limited to the Common Core.

    The link between teacher and student is, of course, the critical element regardless of which standards are guiding the broader curriculum development narrative. While this is true in the broader educational context, it is particularly true in an educational setting that begins with questions such as: What is the nature of the learner? What is truth? and other key worldview questions that distinguish Christian education.

    Time and attention are key to student success as is the opportunity for the student to invest in his or her own learning. If the point is that pacing and the standardized driven march to cover material without much regard for time, attention, ownership, and relationship building, then I agree that macro-standards erode those force multipliers.

    Yet, I wonder with the independent nature of Christian schools, especially with regard to measuring achievement et al, does the Common Core suggests something else? While a liberal arts based education still offers the best foundation for higher learning, it may be that the shift to include more technical writing and applications is helpful as we prepare students for future endeavors as has happened in other seasons. Also, the Common Core question also affords an opportunity to consider how we assess, and not just on the building or system level, but more significantly in the classroom.

    If we are interested in students learning, perhaps we need to revisit how we know to what extent that occurs and how we can know in a meaningful and timely way to do something about it. I wonder if that is a boon of the conversation. Not to change the subject, but that may be one of the lessons of the Cardus report.

    • Boyd Chitwood October 21, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Joel. I think you are very much on target. The targets for Christian schools can easily become ‘the heart’ and ‘solid’ or ‘acceptable’ materials or anecdotal evidence or even ‘happy’ kids. We can shrink back from measurement and assessment and credible and challenging benchmarks. We should seek such in our witness to the Giver of all good gifts, including the intellect.

      I do think discernments can be made between appropriately analytic standards based elements of curriculum and other appropriately synthetic — to use the terms of the genre — strands based elements which describe mature and well-formed student competencies which can be properly assessed through demonstration.

      Thanks for the prod and the encouragement.

  2. Jerome F Bowen January 15, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

    Boyd,
    Nicely stated. I found your comments on velocity and student-centric instruction to be the hammer on the nail, particularly the “learning done by real children isn’t more a problem or opportunity in acceleration” concept. I wonder if our vision is not obscured by the prevalence of a persistent behavioral / industrial approach to classroom instruction. A good opener to a necessary conversation.

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