I do a lot of work out of a coffee house in the Mission here in San Francisco. It’s on a main thoroughfare in the neighborhood and gets a lot of foot traffic. This means that on any given day, you get a homeless guy or someone who has been drinking a little too much walk by and yell something. What do you do when someone starts screaming obscenities? In most cities, the usual response is to ignore him. But the other day, a guy walks in and he starts screaming that we, the people in the shop sipping on our overpriced coffees, are just a bunch of “a##holes” because in his view, we were taking the neighborhood over and making it something it isn’t. The guy was drunk. I can’t say he was homeless. He smelled, which made him hard to ignore, but long after the smell dissipated, I couldn’t shake what he had said.
Here in SF, there’s a lot of talk about hyper-gentrification and displacement of old traditions. (If you want to read an a good summary of the issue, check out Rebecca Solnit’s article, here.) Before, you might have called it hipster-hate, but now the hate is pointed towards techies, who sometimes are one and the same thing.
The day after I saw the homeless guy, I met a co-worker at the same coffee-spot. He’s an educator, as well, but he grew up in the neighborhood, and he’s seen all the changes that have happened. I could tell, as we watched a lot of the hipster/Google employees around us, that he was torn. He didn’t like all the changes they were bringing, but he could see value in having new blood in the community. The problem he was most concerned with was the poorest people. Where would they go?
I think there’s a parallel here to the current debates surrounding Common Core standards. My colleague was voicing concerns that parallel the torn view I have about the new standards. Drastic changes are disrupting old ways of doing things in the classroom, and depending on who you ask, these changes are either about progress or about making the divide between haves and have-nots even wider. My fear is that the truth lies somewhere in between, but this is not the fault of the new system.
As a GED teacher, I have a unique vantage point of the debate. The changes directly affect my students since the GED 2014 is compliant with Common Core standards, but at the same time, I do not work within a school district. I work for a CBO, and though I view myself as an educator first and foremost, my mandate is to do more than just educate. A lot of what I do is community organizing and advocacy. It’s just part of the job, and I think it allows me to have a sense of who my students are in a way that a regular classroom teacher might not. That said, I, like so many other teachers, have to work within the standards I am given, and I am judged by how well my students learn.
The staff who I work with are not in love with these changes. Partly, this is because they see them as being corporate-sponsored and poorly rolled out–that’s a common view put out by Common Core detractors. I’m sympathetic to this view, especially towards the roll-out, but I am also realistic. I do not think something is bad just because large companies have bankrolled it. I also do not see a lot of alternatives being put forth by CC detractors. As for the roll-out, I think any large change will have its problems, initially. We only have to look at Obama Care to see a good case in point. What does bother me more about the new system is that I am not sure if it adequately addresses under-served students who were already struggling with the old system.
I get the idea that standards should be the same across the country; I think that’s fair. I also think that Common Core standards’ push for more STEM is a necessity in this day and age. I will admit, probably to the chagrin of some of my teacher-friends, that the new standards will help some of my students, because if they can pass the new GED, they will be much better prepared for college than students who passed the old test. For the right students, Common Core will push them to be better, which means we teachers will need to raise our game, as well. But on the side of the argument, many students are not planning to go to college. For some of them, it is not a choice. They either cannot get the money to do so, or they have to support their families. Or, they just have never had anyone teach them the value of education. This may seem like common sense to many of us, but we are not born with this value out of the womb; it seems obvious to many of us because someone along the way, instilled that value into us. I worry that raising the standards that we expect of our students without also raising the support we give them creates a problem that should not be ignored. This is an aspect of the debate that I think does not get enough air time.
For the most part, the students I serve come from under-privileged homes. They attended schools that are overcrowded and under-staffed. Many have learning differences that are not diagnosed, and even when they are, they are not addressed in an effective way. I don’t blame the schools, necessarily. But I cannot blame the students who fall through the cracks, either. Yes, there are some who make choices–bad choices–but it’s not easy to make the right choices all the time, especially when they are not getting the attention they need. Who among us can say they always made the right choices when they were teenagers?
To make extra money, I tutor privately, which means I work with students who attend the most elite private schools in the Bay Area. If one of these students has a learning difference or is going off the path somehow, the school swoops in and addresses the problem immediately. Can you see where I’m going with this? Imagine this scenario, which I see all the time: on one hand, you have an economically disadvantaged young person who has a lot of support at home, and on the other hand, you have a wealthy student whose parents are working 80-hour weeks and not very informed about what is going on in their child’s life. The wealthy student will still do better more times than not. Why? Because the wealthy student’s family is paying to have their student guided. Because the wealthy student lives in a system that supports her no matter what.
I think much of the conversation regarding the Common Core focuses on the average student, who is neither rich nor poor, neither straight-A nor straight-F. For that student, the new standards will push him to be better. But average is increasingly becoming an abstraction in urban centers where we see growing economic disparity–yes, that same disparity that the homeless guy was yelling about. Think of average in school as being like middle class. We know there is a shrinking middle class. We accept that unfortunate truth, but we try and do things to mitigate the trend. In education, I’m not so sure.
What worries me about the Common Core is that it might shrink the middle class of students, because there is no social support built into it. Let me be clear: this is not the fault of the new system. The solution is not to fight the standards because the requirements our students will be facing are real, and as an educator who has been at it for a long time, I think the standards will better prepare our students. That said, the real solution does not solely lie in these new standards. Along with the new system, we need to have a new system of support for students who were already failing. If not, then the Common Core is like that clueless “a**hole” who comes into a community, unaware of the harm he is bringing about. Let’s put our swords down. Let’s accept the need for change that Common Core standards emphasize, but let’s be sensitive to the disruption caused by these changes, as well.