Robert Shepherd: Common Core Requires Teaching Abstract Skills, Not Content

Diane Ravitch’s blog Robert Shepherd: Common Core Requires Teaching Abstract Skills, Not Content

Robert Shepherd, experienced writer, textbook developer, curriculum designer, and loyal reader posted some interesting critiques of the way a Common Core will affect teaching and teaching materials:

He writes:

The fact that the “standards” are entirely highly abstract descriptions of skills to be demonstrated, that they are content free, will be ENORMOUSLY distorting in their effects on curriculum development. Instead of presenting a coherent, progressive body of knowledge having to do with some subject like the short story, literary archetypes, Romanticism, the oral tradition, Greek history and thought, etc., we shall see curricula that present materials pretty much at random to teach x set of abstract skills. Even those Common Core standards that are process related are at such a high level of abstraction that they do not encourage the operationalization of those processes, and when one attempts to create a lesson that does operationalize them, that, for example, steps students through the process of, say, writing a press release, one will find that the necessary specific processes that students must learn are nowhere even suggested by the “standards.” Educational publishers will reject manuscripts with this extraneous material and insist that every lesson “cover” some number (six or seven, for example) of standards, whether it makes sense to deal with these together or not. That’s because, over the course of the year, all the standards will have to be “covered.” So, the abstract standards will drive the curriculum development. It’s the tail wagging the dog, and it is entirely predictable that this will be the case because that is what has largely happened with materials developed to meet state standards.

Think of it this way: What is the difference between sitting down and saying, I want to develop a unit that teaches kids about the Civil War or mythology or whatever and saying, I want to develop a unit that teaches kids standards L.3.1 through L.3.6. The curriculum designer starts making decisions based on whether the standard is covered rather than on whether the subject being studied is.

And the point about learning something so that one then has something to write about is KEY. Content must drive instruction. The CCSS have this exactly backward.”

In another comment, Shepherd adds:

“One can already see how distorting this stuff is. Look at an American lit book from one of the big basal publishers. Turn to the units on, say, the Puritans or the Transcendentalists. Ask yourself, how much does the student actually learn from this unit about what happened during that time and what those people actually thought? The answer is, precious little. The emphasis is not on learning about the thoughts and behaviors of the Puritans and Transcendentalists but on learning some abstract set of skills. The content is WAY down the list of concerns in each lesson. The result: These units are, in current texts, incredibly dumbed down. The student who does the unit on the Puritans does not come away knowing about original sin, election, predestination, salvation through Grace, local governance, individual responsibility, the Protestant work ethic, the direct relation without intermediaries between people and God, the significance of the Word as a direct pipeline between people and the divine. But all of these were incredibly important to the development of American thought. Much in our current culture is a direct consequence of this stream that has run through our history, and if people don’t understand it, they won’t understand a lot of why things are as they are today. If one goes back to textbooks written twenty years ago, all of this stuff is dealt with in the unit on the Puritans. Now, that stuff is considered too difficult, and besides, the emphasis is supposed to be on this or that set of abstract skills described by this or that subset of the CCSS in ELA. That’s what will be one the only test that matters–the high-stakes test. It will be a test of isolated “skills.”

And he concludes:

“The Common Core will be the final nail in the coffin of coherent curriculum development in the English language arts.”

http://dianeravitch.net/2013/07/05/robert-shepherd-common-core-requires-teaching-abstract-skills-not-content

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