Why Are Parents Revolting Against the Common Core? Start With the English Curriculum

Jelani Guzman, a fifth-grader at Silver Lake Elementary School in Middletown, Del., works on an English language arts lesson
Jelani Guzman, a fifth-grader at Silver Lake Elementary School in Middletown, Del., works on an English language arts lesson at school Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. Silver Lake has begun implementing the national Common Core State Standards for academics. Remembering the plot of a short story is no longer good enough. Now, students are being asked to think more critically -- what, for example, might a character say in an email to a friend. Welcome to a classroom using the Common Core State Standards, one of the most politicized and misunderstood changes in education for students and their teachers in grades kindergarten through high school. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

My wife and I recently attended a coffee klatch to discuss the Common Core with our state senator. A teacher stood up and said, with a tremble in her voice and a tear in her eye:

"If parents knew what the Common Core is doing to the classroom, there would be a revolt."

What is happening to the classroom as a result of the Common Core? If you would like an answer to this question, spend some time with the English Language Arts (ELA) materials on the New York State Education Department (NYSED) website.

On the engageNY homepage, click on the words "Common Core Curriculum & Assessments." Follow the links until you get to Grade 5 ELA Module 1. Download the 589-page document.

The module is on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This is a fine topic to discuss in school, though the module does confirm worries that the Common Core could be used to promote a political ideology. My critique here is that this module -- despite a disclaimer on the website -- is a script, and scripts suck the oxygen out of a classroom.

Here are a few minutes of the script:

Minutes 0-10: The teacher reads the first learning target aloud: "I can follow our class norms when I participate in a conversation." Then, the teacher asks students to provide synonyms of the words follow and participate. Next, the teacher tells a student to read the learning target: "I can define human rights." For the remainder of the time, students discuss the meaning of the words human and rights in small groups.

Minutes 11-15:
The teacher checks in with students using the Fist to Five protocol. The teacher is told: "Ask students to indicate with their fist if they did not attend to the class norms at all, or five fingers if they attended to all class norms consistently. They can choose to show one to four fingers to indicate that their attention to norms was somewhere in between."

Minutes 16-20: The teacher distributes copies of the UDHR to each student and says: "This is a really cool primary source called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, sometimes called the UDHR. We will learn more about this document in the next few days. Look it over. What do you notice about the way this document is structured or laid out on this page?" Furthermore, the teacher is instructed: "Do NOT explain the content of the text; simply give students a moment to get oriented and notice how the document is structured.

The script continues with this kind of detail for the rest of the year in a sequence of lessons, units, modules, and assessments. Teachers are not allowed to use their own methods to introduce the material, manage the classroom, or share their own wisdom. Students are not encouraged to connect the material to their own lives, events in the world, or things that may interest them. The script tell the teachers and students, at all times, what to say and do.

The Common Core ELA curriculum does not treat teachers or students with dignity.

Lest you think that teachers can afford to ignore the modules, consider this fact. The Race to the Top program requires states to use value added modeling in teacher evaluations. In other words, states rank teachers and school districts on how students do on the Common Core tests (PARCC, SBAC). That is why many school districts in New York make teachers use these modules designed to prepare students for these tests. It is also why school districts around the country -- including in Connecticut, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Arizona -- are using these modules.

The Common Core is creating a national ELA curriculum, one that dedicates more time to subjects such as learning targets and the Fist to Five protocol than classical literature or creative writing. The teacher at the coffee klatch was right. People are revolting against the Common Core as they learn what it does to the classroom.