Schools’ effort to shift to Common Core faces a difficult test
The passage for the seventh-grade lesson was blatantly offensive — an excerpt from a 1938 anti-Semitic children’s book.
But that was the point: to provide students in the Santa Ana school district with a perfect illustration of insidious propaganda.
In the book, a mother and her son gather mushrooms in the forest, and she explains that, as with mushrooms, there also are poisonous people. Slapping his chest in pride, the boy says, “Of course I know, mother! They are the Jews!”
When teachers expressed misgivings about the material, which also included an excerpt from a speech by Hitler, officials struck the passages from the curriculum.
But their inclusion — and even their removal — underscores the challenges embodied in an ongoing nationwide attempt to overhaul teaching and testing. This would-be revolution, called the Common Core, is aimed at teaching students to be analytical and to gauge this learning with tests that do more than drill students with multiple-choice questions.
Nearly every state has adopted the Common Core, which is a set of learning standards laid out by grade and subject, in math and English. States and individual school districts are developing, adapting or adopting curriculum to help students meet the mark.
Supporters see the effort as raising the quality of teaching and closing the achievement gap that separates white and Asian students from their low-income black and Latino peers. They also hope to end standardized testing based on rote memorization. They see the new math standards, for example, as helping students understand the subject in a more meaningful way. And backers see the approach in English, with its emphasis on writing, persuasion and nonfiction, as long overdue.
The Common Core would replace state standards that vary widely in content and quality. Under a previous federal mandate to bring all students to grade level, many states kept standards lower so they could define more students as successful. California had standards that were comparatively rigorous, but it, too, opted to switch to the Common Core for the fall of 2014.
“A big part of what excites so many people — positively — about it is that one is able to project their own desires onto it,” said Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “I’m looking at the opportunities to teach critical and evaluative reading and to compare sources. ... I don’t think we have done enough of that with kids.”
Educators developed the standards, the Obama administration pushed states to adopt them, and they enjoyed bipartisan support.
But a bipartisan backlash also has emerged.
Critics worry that too much classic literature and fiction are being edged out and that too few concepts are covered in math.
Supporter Randi Weingarten, who heads the American Federation of Teachers, is among those urging a delay, especially if results of the new tests will be used to evaluate teachers.
California school districts remain worried about being ready, even with $1 billion that Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed for the transition. Districts would have wide latitude in spending the money for such needs as teacher training and computers.
In some states, opposition, especially from Tea Party groups is making headway. Conservatives speak of an erosion of state and parental rights and potential intrusions on student privacy through data collection. Under pressure, some Republican state leaders have pulled back funding or delayed the changeover.
Districts, meanwhile, are struggling to put the technology in place for computerized testing as well as lessons and the teacher training associated with them.
And there are wildly ranging, even conflicting, interpretations of what makes for a good Common Core lesson, spurring local qualms. In New York City, critics accuse the city of taking all the fun out of kindergarten in favor of topic sentences, informational texts and the rating of student work as “novice,” “apprentice,” “practitioner” or “expert.” In Arkansas, a teacher complained of dumbed-down practices at his son’s school that wouldn’t allow students to jump ahead to more advanced concepts.
Santa Ana Unified is vying to be ahead of the curve. The lesson that incorporated Nazi propaganda was part of a 71-page draft on the theme “Language has the power to influence others.” The idea was to reinforce textbook materials on bias and stereotypes that already are part of the seventh-grade curriculum. The Nazi materials were adapted from model lessons put together by Holocaust museums.
“This was built off of materials that already existed,” said Santa Ana Unified Supt. Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana. Moreover, she noted, “teachers are creating these units.”
Some of the resistance arises from discomfort with change, she said.
In Santa Ana, 44 highly regarded teachers have a two-year assignment to help prepare the school system for Common Core. They’re working with the district’s curriculum specialists and other teachers to develop interconnected lessons on a “big idea” that last one to three weeks.
Critics said the Nazi material is too mature for seventh-graders and was handled too superficially.
“I can’t imagine one would teach pornography to teach against it,” said seventh-grade Santa Ana teacher Greg Czaja. “Using a speech by Hitler to introduce a group of students to the Holocaust? I can’t imagine a worse way.”
The Santa Ana teachers union agreed. “It’s not presented in context, and it can also be very insulting to teachers who have to teach it,” said Susan Mercer, president of the Santa Ana Educators Assn. “It presents Hitler in a positive way because he’s giving a speech, and the book is a children’s book, which is something that children don’t relate to as negative.”
The district, one of the state’s largest, has 56,000 students. They are 95% Latino and 87% low-income, and more than 80% enter the school system without speaking fluent English.
In the two-day lesson, “there is no context for students in Santa Ana to understand the impact of the Holocaust,” Mercer said.
By contrast, the eighth-grade curriculum has long included a lengthy unit on the Holocaust that includes reading Anne Frank — an approach widely supported.
Even fifth- and sixth-graders can handle some Holocaust-related material if properly presented, said Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. She deferred to Santa Ana educators to choose their own preferred approach.
The district replaced the anti-Semitic materials with handbills opposing voting rights for women, circa 1910, and a negative campaign ad of modern vintage.
Teachers last week began using the revised unit. The lessons include video, including an inspirational speech to demonstrate the positive power of words.
The Common Core also stresses deep text analysis, which in this unit includes an Emily Dickinson poem. Students justify their analysis by citing excerpts.
In Vivian Hanson’s seventh-grade class at Santiago Elementary, students worked together in groups of four — a main component of Common Core is to encourage group work and develop speaking skills.
One activity was analyzing advertisements — one for a hair-straightening product touted by a model. Students explained their analysis to a partner, then the partner relayed this information to the four-member group.
“Women look better without frizzy hair,” said Tommy Tapia, explaining what his study partner, Elijah Menera, had said to him.
“All of these advertisements are saying something to you even without the words,” Tommy, 12, told the class.
“The students are talking more but in a structured way,” Hanson said. “With anything new, we’re going to need to try things out and tweak them as they go.”
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