Editor's note: This column was originally published at SFPPR News & Analysis.
Right around this time of the fall semester, after I’d returned the first batch of papers, I’d hear the complaint from my college freshmen: “But I got all A’s in high school English!” My colleagues heard it too, but our response was, “But you’re in college now.”
Because of the latest developments under Common Core, we can now expect the student to challenge the professor and say, “But that’s not what I learned in high school!”
And he will have the full weight of the college administration, the state college authorities, and the federal government on his side to rule over the professor.
This is because a number of colleges, university systems, and education organizations have joined the Orwellian named group, Higher Ed for Higher Standards, who describe themselves as “a growing coalition of college and university leaders from across the country who believe that college-and-career-ready standards, including the Common Core State Standards, are critical to improving student success in K-12 and beyond.
“Education leaders,” as far as I can determine by reading missives from the Department of Education, are those who follow bureaucratic dictates.
These educational leaders are usurping the independent role of college faculty. According to the Hechinger Report, a number of these colleges have required faculty members to attend workshops this summer to revise their introductory courses to “synch up” with Common Core standards.
Proponents have insisted that Common Core would simply provide consistent standards (determined by Common Core tests, so far in math and English Language Arts) that would ensure that students across the country were “college-and-career-ready.” Now that the deal has been done, with Common Core law in over 40 states, outlets, like the Hechinger Report, are admitting that Common Core is a “massive overhaul of U.S. primary and secondary education.” It is also turning out to be an overhaul of higher education, or as it is now commonly called, K-16.
That includes the decision-making ability of colleges to place students in certain classes, including non-credit-bearing remedial classes.
This massive shift in the relationship between K-12 and higher education sent a shock through the system of this Ph.D. in English, who for twenty years, until very recently, taught classes as a part-time instructor.
Common Core will spell the doom of higher education in the true sense of the term, in what motivated those like me to scurry between campuses to teach as many as five labor-intensive introductory courses for ridiculously low wages instead of gaining decent and steady remuneration by teaching high school, as some of my fellow graduate students did in the 1990s.
Of course, I would have preferred a tenure-track position. But that was not to be. Like many of my fellow conservatives I took what I could get as a part-time instructor.
It’s difficult to explain to those more pragmatically minded what compels us to do this.
Much of it has to do with the pursuit of learning for its own sake and having the freedom to determine how we teach. I was entrusted with grading papers and making assignments. Even when I was assigned a textbook, I could choose the plays, essays, and poems I wanted to teach, and I could add supplemental material. Other than the occasional classroom visit from the department chair or a review of a batch of papers, I was on my own. Were I a full-time faculty member I would have had a role in proposing and approving new courses, hiring and promoting faculty, and determining admissions standards.
Even though some of my students did not know the basics of grammar, I felt free to try to inspire them to higher levels. I was setting the bar for them. We would read Shakespeare and Donne. Students would write college-level essays and research papers, I insisted.
As I prepared for class by reading and making lecture notes, I would think how lucky to have to reread Hamlet, a Flannery O’Connor short story, or Washington’s “Farewell Address,” discover new revelations to share in class, and perhaps in a piece of my own writing. One thing was for sure: I had no bureaucrat breathing down my neck, telling me to cross every t, ensure every “outcome,” and make sure that the students had met standards written by people who had more experience in education theory and acquiring grants than real education.
This was in contrast to the regimented routine of high school, where “standards” were set by the state (and now federal government), where one had to fill out reams of paperwork to keep up with increasing regulations, where one had to read the dreadfully dull literature put out by committees on discipline, achievement goals, and cooked-up pedagogical theories. And there is the fact that one is dealing with children who need basic instruction, including in behavior. Those who teach K-12 have an essentially different set of motivations and goals. It’s important work, but it’s not higher education.
But now those who teach college will have to “synch up” to Common Core. A more accurate term would be “synch down”; for example, one of the strategies taught to professors this summer was to include interdisciplinary reading and writing. This really means incorporating “informational texts” like many that have replaced literature in high school English classes under Common Core. Good-bye, Shakespeare. Hello, HVAC (Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning) specs and polemics on the minimum wage.
For freshman composition, once a subject intended to ensure that students could write academic papers, we can expect the short writing assignments, video presentations, and group demonstrations of “listening and speaking skills” of Common Core. The focus on “close reading” and “scaffolding” will mean that college students will read short passages in groups, instead of longer reading assignments on their own.
It will be like teaching grade 13, and it will be the final stake in higher education.