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Common Instruction is Uncommonly Bad for Our Students

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The year was 2014, and everybody was finally equal.

I’ve been a teacher for fourteen years, thirteen in the Helena School District, and I’ve never been more nervous about my future as an educator. In the time I’ve spent as a teacher, I’ve endured some principals with dubious qualifications, a vacuum where a curriculum should have been, and more changes in District focus than dollars spent improving the furniture in my classroom. None of those obstacles to teaching, though, has struck at the core of my profession (and mission) as profoundly as the latest philosophy endorsed by the district, which holds that students are best served by having teachers stop individualizing their lessons based on their experience and knowledge and instead teaching common lessons to a series of common tests.

As the district puts it, “no longer do you have the opportunity as a teacher to be way out there.” Instead, the district “want[s] everybody on the same page.”

Having everyone “on the same page” is a recipe for classroom instruction that is as lifeless as it is useless. Despite assurances that it will improve student achievement, the plan to mandate prescribed units of instruction will do the opposite, replacing individualized instruction with a cookie cutter approach suitable for all students and deliverable by all teachers.

There’s a certain simplistic logic behind believing that common instruction and common assessment will lead to improved results. It will free administrators from evaluating the quality of the work being done in the classroom, eliminate the need for creative thinking that responds to changes in the environment, and ensure that no student is accidentally exposed to something more interesting, challenging, or controversial than the banal, shared units demand.

It will eliminate the need for that most dangerous of elements in the public school system: creative thought.

Paolo Freire, in his Pedagogy of Freedom, makes clear why this belief is so appealing to some:

“To think correctly and to know that to teach is not merely to transfer knowledge is a demanding and difficult discipline, at times a burden that we have to carry with others, for others, and for ourselves. . . . It is difficult because it demands constant vigilance over ourselves so as to avoid being simplistic, facile, and incoherent. It is difficult because we are not always sufficiently balanced to prevent legitimate anger from degenerating into the kind of rage that breeds false and erroneous thinking.”

The district’s implementation of this program is as misguided as the ideology driving it. We’ve been charged with writing common assessments without instruction about what they should look like. We’ve been told to write tests without existing curricula in place in many academic areas. We haven’t been given instruction about how to ensure that these tests measure the high-level skills we demand from our students and we haven’t been given adequate time to make the tests a reality. We’ve been charged with writing “common unit tests” without a definition of what makes a “unit” ever having been coherently explained or defined.

The result? A hodgepodge of “common assessments” that are less common measurements of our students’ success than least common denominators assessments, assessments that don’t measure student achievement as much as they measure teacher compliance with unclear, purposeless directives.

Don’t misunderstand me. I do believe that we not only need to have common expectations for what our students learn, but common measurements of what they learn. I think the Common Core is an excellent move in the right direction, with its increased demands for teachers and students. That being said, the developers of the Common Core State Standards also made it clear that individual teachers should be in the driver’s seat when it comes to their implementation. They write, in their “myths” about the Common Core:

Local teachers, principals, superintendents, and others will decide how the standards are to be met. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms.

The point of the Common Core State Standards is to ensure that students and teachers are held to high standards, not to mandate conformity in instruction.

I’ve often remarked that the best thing about teaching in the Helena School District is that I have the freedom to do what I want in my class. The worst? That everyone else does, too. I do understand that we need to expect more from our educational system and the people working it. I’m not opposed to the idea of more rigorous standards and shared expectations for our students. We can do better, but doing better has to rest on an educational philosophy that celebrates individuality and personal responsibility. You don’t lift the sinking boats in the harbor by draining the water, and that seems to be the approach we’re taking.

What we’ve chosen to do, however, entails sacrificing the work and abilities of our best teachers to enforce a mediocrity that will either drive the best out of the classroom or make their passion a thing of the past. Telling a high-achieving teacher whose students are excelling that she needs to teach to a low-level, common assessment is telling that teacher to do less for her students and to hold them back from their potential. It’s asking her to betray why she chose the profession of teaching in the first place, to do her level best to help students grow and learn to love learning.

We’re told repeatedly that “research” argues that this must be the approach we take, as if the research on any educational topic is ever this monolithic. Those who criticize the approach the district is taking are chided for their complacency or unwillingness to embrace changes, and even told in public meetings that their positions are mere “opinion.”  RAND Education, however, says that the research proves something else, that the most important factor in determing student success is the teacher in the classroom. They write:

But research suggests that, among school-related factors, teachers matter most. When it comes to student performance on reading and math tests, a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor, including services, facilities, and even leadership.

The District may want to ensure that teachers are no longer “way out there,” but I’d wager that the teachers most remembered by students for their lifetime impact were the ones who taught out on the limb, taking risks, and pushing students to see the world in ways they’ve never imagined possible. To reduce that individualized instruction, that human connection, those occasionally transcendent heights, all for the sake of mandated conformity will be a tragedy for people who have committed their lives to being educators, and, far worse, even more tragic for the students who will lose so much.

It’s tragic, all right, but it seems no one wants us to think about it very hard at all.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

9 Comments

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  • Dear Don, Great article! As a parent, a person who values excellence in education, and as a member of a family of educators–several of whom were English teachers–I am appalled at the actions currently being taken by the district to suppress teachers’ ability to do their very best by our students. I have always championed public education, but today I am thinking seriously about pulling my kids from the Helena schools and teaching them myself! This is very distressing! I find the administrators’ comments and “reasons” very high-handed and their approach tyrannical. Clearly they lack understanding of what it takes to be a great teacher, and wish all teachers to be mediocre instructors. That just doesn’t fly with me. I have two very bright kids, and they deserve–as all kids do–to have the 12 years they spend in public schools be 12 years spent well, engaged in meaningful learning, expanding their minds and abilities, and being mentored by teachers who want them to be critical thinkers, excellent writers and informed citizens. Parents and teachers shouldn’t have to fight, fight, fight to make that happen, but apparently, we do. I intend to keep at it.

  • There may be hope for Don yet. Sometimes you take the partisan blinders off and write a compelling and well formulated article.

  • Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. It’s nothing new. The less-educated our masses our the easier it is to control them. If they don’t question we can get them to spend more money on things they don’t need.

    Students in China studied all the time for tests, and they didn’t think freely. This is what we want here, to move up in that testing bracket, so the Chinese aren’t beating us in education.

    Funny though, I always told my students that they could study all they wanted, but it was America that came up with the idea for the iPhone, but China that has to make them all (China actually only makes a very small percentage).

    I think America will be the one making things once again, so long as we’ve got other countries coming up with the ideas.

  • Don:
    Halleluiah! We finally agree on a topic. As you may recall, I too was once a high school teacher (Social studies). I too was “out there”, creative, effective and well liked. Though it was the 80’s, I chaffed, as you are now, under the movements to gradually socialize education to the lowest common denominator.
    You describe well the demoralizing impact on teachers and expect that you would agree that the effect of Common Core, if fully implemented, will be a multiple of detriment to your students as well.
    But, as an avowed liberal and progressive you must be very careful thinking and making statements (no matter how wise and truthful) such as this:
    “We can do better, but doing better has to rest on an educational philosophy that celebrates individuality and personal responsibility. You don’t lift the sinking boats in the harbor by draining the water, and that seems to be the approach we’re taking.”
    Caution my liberal friend, you cry out in angst because the federal socialist agenda has dared to come home to roost in your personal domain. But, if you continue another step down your path of resistance, truth and logic and venture to substitute out the single word “educational” in your fine statement above, with a word such as “economic”, “social”, “healthcare”, “regulatory”, the sands of your progressive world view will shift and the blocks of your liberal beliefs will crumble. You will have become a conservative.
    Granted it happens sooner or later to progressives as they age and add their experience to their capacity to think critically, but that does not make the transition any easier to endure.
    I wish you well.
    Bill

  • We were working on this standardized “alignment” in the district from which I recently escaped. On the departmental level it worked just fine (for the most part). We collaborated on goals, skills, and rubrics for each of our classrooms, but left instruction, assessments, choice up to the teacher.
    When the process was universalized for the whole district, which consists of about 15 high schools in widely varying socioeconomic strati, it became useless.
    We had district mandated tests that were administered to each student in each core area each quarter. Yet our poor school didn’t have computer labs for that as well as instruction. The tests were biased toward the wealthy in our districts. They were ridiculously difficult–they assumed students had gone through 12 years of the Common Core–while at the same time being horribly written.
    These tests also included three essays per test and the tests were graded individually by each teacher in a subjective way. Nonsense.

    Then the district began to judge teachers based on their student’s performance on the tests.

    While, I applaud the idea of winnowing out the crazy or just plain under-skilled teachers, universalizing the curriculum just doesn’t work. Students are not templates. Teachers are not robots.

    Fortunately, I’ve found my way to an Early College charter school with a board and administration who believes in the individual worth of each teacher and student. It’s so much better!

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