Common Instruction is Uncommonly Bad for Our Students

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.