My school system is abuzz with the Common Core: is this a good thing?

I decided to see what the elite are saying about the Common Core. After all, when it comes to education, the wealthy usually manage to get the best for their children. Do they like the Common Core? Are they choosing schools that reflect an embrace of the standards-based movement?

I looked at the mission statements and statements of philosophy of a dozen well-reputed private schools on the east coast with the following question in mind:

Q: What are elite private schools in Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia saying about the Common Core? 

Here is what I found:

A: Nothing. Nothing at all.

I found no mention whatsoever of the current administration’s baby, the Common Core. This makes me suspicious. I don’t like it when wealthy children are treated to one kind of education and the rest are treated to something different. It makes me suspect the children of the lower and middle classes are probably getting a rotten deal.

Here’s how three of these private schools introduce their schools to prospective parents. Note that while these extracts are admittedly brief, when I browsed the websites I found no mention at all of either standards-based education or the Common Core.

St. Alban’s, Washington, D.C. : We believe that classes should be small enough to promote vigorous inquiry, critical thinking, and spirited discourse; that our core curriculum of arts, sciences, and humanities, along with our extracurricular offerings and opportunities for international experience, develops an aesthetic appreciation for and understanding of the world …

Buckingham Browne & Nichols, Boston: We value a learning environment distinguished by a broad, deep, and challenging program of study that inspires thorough, sustained engagement among our students …We value a well-rounded education that offers our students ample opportunity to explore, evolve, and excel in academics, arts, athletics, and all phases of school life.

Germantown Friends School, Philadelphia: As GFS students move through the K-12 program, they learn to read actively, to write clearly and persuasively, to listen thoughtfully, to think critically and compassionately, and to act responsibly in a changing world. Students and teachers learn with and from one another, growing from a willingness to venture beyond what they comfortably know. Together, they create a vibrant intellectual community …

As a teacher I read the descriptions of these schools in light of the massive effort to implement the Common Core in Maine’s public schools.  I fear that in the name of improving education, the Common Core will lead many great teachers to flee the public schools for greener pastures. Who wants to teach with the elaborate, confining, controlling standards of the Common Core swallowing so much professional energy? If the standards-based movement was really the best way to provide a fine education wouldn’t the richest children enjoy schools based on it?

I believe that the roots of the standards-based movement are in the well-intentioned soil of a desire to equalize the playing field, to give all children a deeper education than is currently available to many. The trouble comes from misunderstanding what middle class and lower class children are like. I think the belief is that wealthy children learn differently from their less-advantaged peers.

In my experience all children are unique, but their differences are not based on income. Their differences are based on what kind of learner the child is – a visual learner, a learner who needs a lot of physical activity, a child who learns from books, a child who needs extra time, a child who needs quiet, a child who learns best in groups. These differences certainly do impact classroom life, but one finds these differences at all levels of the socio-economic ladder. Why then should the standards-based movement be imposed on only one segment of society?

Teachers at elite institutions work within the philosophies and mission statements of their schools, but they usually have enormous freedom to spread their intellectual wings with their students. This works because teachers who work in these schools are dreamers and thinkers who have a deep interest of their own in what they teach and want passionately to awaken that same interest in their students.

If we want to equalize the playing field we need to refrain from burdening our teachers with ever-increasing rules and regulations. Our focus should be on attracting and training top students to the teaching profession, candidates who find fulfillment in exploring their intellectual and artistic passions with young minds. To attract these students we need to give teachers conditions in which they will thrive: abundant time for thinking, planning and collaborating with their colleagues; salaries that compete with those of pharmacists, lawyers, and engineers; respect from administrators and the public; freedom to do the best work of which they are capable.

The Common Core is not the answer. If it were, the schools for training the future elite would be embracing it, and they are not. Instead they are heavily promoting  intellectually and artistically rich communities. All students deserve schools like these.

Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.