Since the Common Core has been implemented, I have seen an incredible uptick in students diagnosed with and hospitalized by severe anxiety disorders.
Almost a decade ago, as a 22-year-old high school teacher, I found myself in front of a classroom of 17-year-olds who all were either trying to be my friend or daring me to teach them something they didn’t already know.
Before the school year started, my department chair gave me a list of books that were used in the various levels of English. She then took me into the book room and said, “Don’t teach something someone else has claimed already, but other than that, teach whatever you want.” When I responded with a quizzical look, she continued: “Just get them to read something. Anything. We know just reading will increase test scores, so the more they read and the more they want to read, the better their scores will be. So just teach whatever you want, as long as they’re reading.”
And by reading, I mean sustained, silent reading of a substantial text like a novel or nonfiction book. Reading as an activity was so important at that time that the district implemented a silent reading program during which all students started the first 10 minutes of every day reading whatever book they wanted. The only stipulation was that it had to be a book — no magazines, no comic books. The idea was that if our students had 10 minutes a day to focus on nothing but reading, they would get hooked and read more on their own. And guess what? It worked. My students were reading voraciously.
This was back in 2006, when George W. Bush was still president, and when No Child Left Behind was starting to gain traction. Test scores were important, but it was largely accepted by administrators, community members, and the students themselves that teachers were to be trusted, respected, and were capable of designing an engaging and educational experience in their classrooms tailored to meet the needs of their students.
The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 brought with it much anticipation, especially among teachers. We all expected he would make sure No Child Left Behind was repealed. We’d then see a resurgence of creativity in the classroom, a halt to the proliferation of charter schools, and a reduction in the amount of time students had to spend on standardized tests each year.
But the exact opposite happened. The Obama administration helped develop new national standards – the Common Core – behind closed doors and rolled it out to educators, who had no say in the matter until the third phase of planning. The president also supported the opening of many new charter schools, merit pay for teachers based on standardized test scores, and an actual increase in the amount of time students spend testing. And, while the standards aren’t in and of themselves prescriptive as far as curriculum goes, the data-driven nature of our educational system has lent itself to data-driven curricula in which all teachers at any given level teach exactly the same thing.
Not many issues in our society are bipartisan, but one thing many Democrats and Republicans can agree on is that the Common Core has many flaws. On the right side of the aisle, the Common Core has been framed as an invasion of government; on the left, where many teachers find their political home, it has been criticized for opening the door for merit pay for teachers and for killing creativity in the classroom. This is an issue that has been in the national spotlight for some time, and this is especially the case now that it’s testing season for public schools. Students all over the nation – but especially in New York State – are opting out of taking the new high-stakes tests drawing quite a bit of attention to this issue.
On a more personal level, since the Common Core has been implemented, I have seen an incredible uptick in students diagnosed with and hospitalized by severe anxiety disorders. What a teacher should do in the case of a panicked student vomiting during testing is, in fact, now written in the test instructions, which gives you a sense as to how common this is. On top of that, where I used to stand in front of the classroom, ask a question, and receive 20 different analytical answers, I now ask the questions and am often met with blank stares from my students. Sometimes students even ask me, because of what they’re expected to know for the standardized tests, to just tell them what I want them to know and move on. How’s that for a lack of creativity in the classroom?
The reasons for wanting education reform might not match up across the political aisle, but one thing is for sure: Hillary Clinton, as the presumptive Democratic nominee, is going to have to be very careful when she talks about education policy on the campaign trail. If she aligns herself with teachers and speaks out against President Obama’s support for the Common Core, merit pay, and the proliferation of charter schools, she risks siding with some conservatives who would also like to see these things disappear. If she tows the Democratic party line and speaks out for these educational policies that President Obama has embraced, she risks alienating teachers’ unions which she cannot afford to do if she wants teachers’ votes.
Some, like the American Federation of Teachers’ president Randi Weingarten are speculating that Hillary’s approach to education will differ significantly from President Obama’s. However, in Iowa recently, she was quoted saying: “Now I think part of the reason why Iowa may be more understanding of this is you’ve had the Iowa Core for years, you’ve had a system, plus the Iowa Assessment tests…. You understand why that helps you organize your whole education system. And a lot of states, unfortunately, haven’t had that, and so don’t understand the value of a core in this sense.” This is radically different than her stance in 2008, when she very clearly worried about national standards causing the loss of creativity in the classroom.
As a teacher, I’m anxious to see where Hillary goes with her education policy. Her issues on standards and charter schools aside, I want to see Hillary continue to embrace her idea that “it takes a village,” acknowledging the professionalism and hard work of teachers in this country and also realizing that what happens inside school walls is such a small piece of what makes a child a successful adult. In any education reform, I want to see a culture in which education is valued and in which teachers are treated as the educated professionals we are. I want to see teachers have a seat at the table when it comes to standards planning and implementation, unlike the roll-out of the Common Core.
I also want her to expand the village and create reforms that impact education but don’t necessarily involve schools, starting with an expansion of entitlement programs; how are teachers supposed to help students learn if they do not have food in their bellies, quality medical care, and a roof over their heads? I want to see her take on the NRA over the issue of guns and violence in school, because students cannot learn if they are constantly afraid of the next lock-down. I want to see her make good prenatal care affordable to start taking care of kids before they are even born. I want to see her expand public and subsidized pre-K education and daycare, especially for low-income families, and to offer students an affordable option for post-secondary education to help them prepare for a career after high school.
If she can bring the village together to tackle even half of these issues, high-stakes testing and national standards become irrelevant because students will naturally improve if these things are in place, just as we used to believe (and I still do) that getting a student interested in reading will naturally improve their reading scores. Personally, I know she can do it, but whether or not she will remains to be seen.
Ashley Lauren Samsa is a high school English teacher, freelance writer, and amateur knitter. She lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband, who is also a high school English teacher, their baby daughter, and their two dogs. She blogs at Small Strokes and tweets @samsanator.