Home > Educational Reform, Miscellaneous > Common Core State Standards for Social Justice?

Common Core State Standards for Social Justice?


I have mentioned the CCSS before in my first post as being yet another version of standards for education. I first heard about them in one of my last staff meetings as a teacher at a K-8 charter school in Indianapolis. We were all sitting together in the gymnasium/lunchroom and shown a video released by the Indiana Department of Education introducing the Common Core State Standards. As I remember it, it seemed like an advertisement for a new and improved set of standards. The video also stated that teachers would still be accountable for teaching the old, Indiana state standards as we transitioned into the era of CCSS. You could almost hear a collective groan from my colleagues. More standards?

When I first started this project I thought it would be interesting to develop a curriculum that utilized new technology for the purpose of motivating and engaging students.  When I presented my idea to my professor, I stated that it would be aligned to existing standards because I believed such things were necessary for teaching and I also wanted to make my design marketable for today’s educational market. I also believed that the standards did not prevent me from teaching in an innovative way. For example, I can teach students about photosynthesis (an ever popular topic in eighth grade science) through a traditional, textbook based lesson or I can let them explore the topic on their own in a more open process involving computer supported collaborative learning. I suppose I accepted that there must be standards in education and I was willing to work with them instead of against them. What a convenient position to take.

But what happens when you start questioning the motivation for having standards in education? For me, I have found that I cannot find a satisfactory answer. I have also discovered that people become really uncomfortable and unwilling to have a conversation with you when you broach the subject, especially when they work in education. I do not have an answer yet, but I was surprised to learn that Phil Daro, co-lead author of the CCSS for mathematics, sees the standards as a vehicle for social justice. To paraphrase Dr. Daro, we have to make sure that every kid gets enough math to have decent opportunities in life.

Is that why we should adopt the common core? To achieve social justice? Can a set of educational standards deliver such a promise? Should it?

I hear this rhetoric often in my work. We are teaching students X because we want them to have a “real future.” We want them to have a “decent opportunity.” We believe that teaching them mathematics, science, English, and social studies will help us accomplish this mission. I want to know, have we considered other alternatives? Have we critically examined if the processes we engage in truly match our goals? Why are we so focused on the future, instead of working in the present?

It is hard for me to believe that my students learned about photosynthesis because they too wanted to have a “decent opportunity” for a “good” life. I would imagine some of them learned about it because they were truly interested in understanding the world around them, some maybe felt parental pressure to earn a good grade, or maybe they did buy into the “just in case” ideology of school. Will any of them sacrifice their opportunity for a good life if they do not understand photosynthesis? I could say yes but that is because I know it is covered again in high school biology and I do not want them to fail that course and have it show up on their transcripts.

The common thread here is that these are things we, as adults, want for our students. What about what students want? What about discussing what really motivates them to learn this material? We are so focused on the future that we lose sight of the joy and curiosity students bring with them to the classroom. What about learning just to learn and letting the rest be a byproduct of that process?

Just a thought.

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  1. Ariana
    May 10, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    I think this is interesting. I also think common standards are a step in the right direction, but not the answer completely. I think what we really need is solid curriculum as well. This reminds me of a talk from a visiting scholar, Grover (Russ) Whitehurst from the Brown Center on Education Policy Brookings. He mentioned all the policy plans in place to turn around the educational deficit. He also talked about the role that the federal government should play in education. He had some interesting insight. You might want to check out the website: http://www.brookings.edu/brown/About-Us.aspx

  2. Nattie
    May 11, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    Response to thoughts

    Let’s begin with the fact that children / youth live in the moment; their reality is immediate, emotional and egocentric. This lasts well into the teens. But while children do not imagine or plan for a future, they nevertheless have one. It could be as a slave, a third wife, an “untouchable” in India, or a Compton gang member, kids don’t care or think about it when they are young, but we should! Historically, the denial of education to particular individuals has served to oppress millions; we would be insane to deny that knowledge is power and power is necessary in the struggle for social justice. Beginning with the publication of the first Encyclopedia (Diderot, Enlightenment period) the major objective of adult literacy and education was to sow the seeds of social justice in a world owned and dominated by the aristrocracy/Church. Unlike Germany or the US, the call for public education in Great Britain by the 19th Century Utilitarian philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill was based on an ethical commitment to social justice and individual liberty (the diversity of opinion and pursuits, a broad education liberates the mind). This is the view that I adopt and believe that you do.

    The question remains how to ensure that all children have the basic skills needed to navigate through the future rather than be trapped in it, and they will be trapped in it! Presumably the Common Core State Standards were designed with the lower socio-economic school districts in mind, to ensure that those students would not be short changed on basic skills. I agree that there must be some standard level of competency in “reading, writing, and arithmetic” but I also agree with you that the purpose of the standards should be distinct from (1) the focus of teaching, (2) the content of the material, (3) the method of assessment and (4) the method(s) of teaching. When all four functions are thrown together and scripted for every year of school, it’s a classic case of micromanagement. Micromanagement does not work for the simple reason that no environment or actor (least of all a child) is closed and stable.

    Yes, there should be skill level benchmarks and methods of assessment, but not the CCSS and ISTEP way. If we want children to someday manage their finances, a student managed class bank (start in 3rd grade) would be far more effective than repetitive drills on subtraction and percentages. If it’s their money to invest, borrow, and spend, they’ll pay attention. But you know this…it’s a matter of getting others on board.

    • May 11, 2011 at 3:49 pm

      I do believe that one’s education can be liberating and that some form of standards are necessary in a system of formal education. I have watched several videos with Phil Daro and I really like his philosophy behind the standards. For example, I have heard him mention that other countries teach division of fractions at a higher grade level than the US because it is easier for the children to comprehend when they are older. Why not wait to teach something until kids are ready? That sounds like a step in the right direction. I have not studied the standards in major depth, but I do work with them quite a bit. The main emphasis of the CCSS is to promote focus and coherence in student learning (avoiding the mile wide inch deep problem caused by current standards). There are also standards of mathematical practice included which promote reasoning, critical thinking, modeling, etc. The assessments will change as well to reflect more “authentic” learning. I agree with all of this…

      But, I know that implementing the true vision of the CCSS will be difficult for a variety of reasons. I guess I am just wondering if there is a better way to accomplish the mission of social justice via education than by writing new standards.

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