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Common Core threatens good teaching

Updated: November 23, 2014 6:08PM



I teach Financial Literacy as a semester-long social studies course in a Chicago public high school. This quarter we focused on professional skills. My students must find living arrangements on a fixed salary, then explain their plan to the class.

Students must calculate their biweekly net pay (based on last quarter’s grades, e.g. an “A” earns you $42,000 a year), and living expenses and search for a place to live on websites such as Craigslist. They quickly realize that students who earn a higher income have an easier time finding a good place to live, while those who didn’t fare as well had better find a roommate. Some might even have to live in their parents’ attic — and explain that in their presentation!

This is one of the most popular lessons I teach each year. They will (hopefully) be moving out of their parents’ homes soon, and this lesson is usually the first time they have considered how well they might, or might not, fare. They love comparing who got the “better deal” on the “coolest” apartment.

Students must use core math skills; computer literacy and community mapping to find a place to live; and communication skills in their presentation and negotiations of “what’s fair” between roommates. Some students argue that since their partners/roommates might be contributing unequal amounts of money, then that person’s bedroom should be the size of a walk-in closet. We all get a good laugh and move on to Real World Budgeting.

It’s a tremendous shame, then, that this style of teaching is quickly going out of style.

I’m teaching an inherently valuable lesson, but the new Common Core learning standards and the related College and Career Readiness standards — which tell teachers what topics should be covered each year in reading and math and are being implemented in schools across America — are threatening my ability to teach this unit and others like it, including resume-writing, civics education and budgeting.

The English standards, the ones I am supposed to cover, do not encourage teaching in this way — a way that is developed with student input — and some of the skills imparted are not emphasized on the all-important standardized tests. The consequence? As they say, what’s tested gets taught.

Most of my lessons prioritize what is relevant to the content and valuable to my students. But this is changing across the country, with pressure either to align current curricula to the standards, or to design different activities that justify the high-stakes standardized assessments. When I choose as a lesson-planner to consider what “the standards say I should teach” I risk compromising my students’ voices in the learning process, which sets students on a path toward disengagement in activities, then classes, and finally school in general.

What happens to valuable lessons like the one I’ve described? They’re relegated to “extra credit” instead of everyday learning.

This is not an appeal for help implementing the standards. I could ask my union or my principal. I could attend any number of professional development sessions, or sign on for webinars in my pajamas any night of the week.

I don’t want support for Common Core. I believe we must actively resist it because it does not prioritize the needs of students and teachers. Instead educators need autonomy and support to design engaging lessons for and with students.

Adam Heenan is a social studies teacher at Curie Metropolitan High School in Chicago. The Illinois Writing Project is the Sun-Times partner for the Summer School teacher essay series. The essays reflect the views of the individual writers only.



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