On April 29, I attended a District 97/Advance Illinois presentation at which Sandra Alberti and Lisa Schwarz spoke about the curricular changes that will be enacted under the new Common Core standards beginning next year. I was interested in the presentation as both a parent (I have two children who are graduates of District 97 and District 200, and two who are currently enrolled at OPRF High School) and as an educator (I am a former second/third grade teacher and current administrator at the Children’s School in Berwyn).

From the background of my progressive educational philosophy, I appreciate that the Common Core standards are more process-oriented than the previous state standards, that they focus on going deeper into curricular topics, and that they place more emphasis on research and application of knowledge.

However, when I step back and take a broader view, I find the entire notion of “standards” problematic. The current educational landscape is dominated by rhetoric around “standards,” “success,” “international comparisons,” and “college and career readiness.” But this rhetoric seems to me to be profoundly disconnected from the realities of children’s (and teachers’) lives.

One problem with standards is that they foster a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching. In my experience, curricular questions — and in particular questions about how to best nurture an individual child’s academic and social-emotional growth — are much more nuanced than that. It is rare, if not impossible, for a teacher to find one approach, one technique, one concept that is absolutely right for each student at a given grade level. Instead, teachers are asked to make in-the-moment as well as longer-range decisions about what concepts each child is ready to tackle and how to best support their learning in each subject area.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t have expectations for children at a given grade level, that “anything goes” when it comes to what children learn each year in school? Of course not. But the emphasis should be on skills and concepts appropriate to each developmental range, with understanding that children (like all people) have many strengths, talents, and interests and also have areas of challenge. To expect every single student who is 8 years old to have “mastered” the exact same laundry list of skills and concepts is naïve at best and damaging at worst. It turns school into drudgery, for both teachers and students, and promotes a deficit model of learning in which each student is evaluated through the lens of what he or she cannot do and does not know.

Ultimately, the rigid adherence to “standards”— %u200Ahowever well-articulated or well-researched those standards may be — is not helpful for children; it is harmful. The deficit model of learning fosters competition, threatens children’s innate curiosity and intrinsic motivation to learn, and reduces the wide range of talents and gifts children possess to a very narrow focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic tasks.

So as D97 and other districts around the country work to implement the Common Core standards, my plea is that administrators recognize the nuanced and extremely complex art that is teaching. By all means, work with teachers to set grade level expectations and to articulate a vision for teaching and learning — but also give teachers the freedom to enact curriculum in the way that is most effective and appropriate for the individual children in front of them at any given moment. Instead of talking about “college readiness” for kindergarteners, talk about developmental appropriateness, nurturing students’ social-emotional growth, fostering curiosity and joy in learning, and helping each child discover his or her unique interest and talents. If these things are attended to, “college and career readiness” will take care of itself.

Christina Martin is director of curriculum and instruction at the Children’s School in Berwyn.

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