HM - Oct. 2013 - Cameron

History Education


The Common Core from 30,000 Feet
by James K. Cameron
Saline High School, Saline, MI
Past NCHE Interim Director

As Social Studies Consultant for the Michigan Department of Education I am concerned about all we are expecting of our teachers. As a retired history teacher of forty years I am curious about the implications of Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts Literacy for history/social studies on the teaching and learning of history and social studies in the classroom. As a presenter at over fifty Teaching American History colloquia in twenty different states I’ve spent a lot of time in the air. What do the Common Core State Standards English Language Arts for literacy in history/social studies look like from 30,000 feet? From 30,000 feet we won’t rehash all the political arguments: costs too much, federal takeover of education, liberal or conservative bias, too rigorous/not rigorous enough, wasn’t properly vetted, etc. What does the document itself actually say about teaching and learning? To focus our conversation let’s ask the following question: “Is CCSS ELA for history/social studies quality teaching and learning?”

The introduction to the CCSS ELA for history social studies includes a section called Key Design Consideration, which states:
“The Standards use individual grade levels in kindergarten through grade 8 to provide useful specificity; the Standards use two-year bands in grades 9–12 to allow schools, districts, and states flexibility in high school course design.By emphasizing required achievements, the Standards leave room for teachers, curriculum developers, and states to determine how those goals should be reached and what additional topics should be addressed.”
CCSS ELA Standards provide “useful specificity” and emphasize “required achievement.” Teachers, curriculum specialists and schools still have flexibility in creating their own unique curriculum and control over how that curriculum accomplishes local goals. Is this good teaching and learning for social studies? The Standards provide specificity and achievement while allowing creativity in curriculum and lesson design at the local level.  Good teachers with good administrators will create quality lessons for their own classrooms using guidance from the Standards. 

A second section is An integrated model of literacy which states:
“Although the Standards are divided into Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language strands for conceptual clarity, the processes of communication are closely connected, as reflected throughout this document.”
Teaching reading, writing, speaking and listening aren’t exactly new skills in social studies. Even my old football coach taught listening skills. “Take a knee and listen up!” We did, but the motivation for not taking a knee and listening would probably be unacceptable today. Teaching these literacy skills in social studies has always been good teaching and will continue to be. Encouraging students to make connections among these skills will improve their proficiency in all of them.

A third section of the Introduction is titled Research and media skills:
“To be ready for college, workforce training, and life in a technological society, students need the ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, and report on information and ideas, to conduct original research in order to answer questions or solve problems, and to analyze and create a high volume and extensive range of print and non-print texts in media forms old and new.”
The skills listed here are excellent in preparing students for career and college. Whether a person is designing a road system, preparing the materials to build the road, or on site actually building the road, gathering, comprehending, evaluating, synthesizing, and reporting on information and ideas will help in building that road successfully. Helping students with all these skills in an organized format is good teaching and learning.

The final section of the introduction is what is not covered by the standards and includes three examples:
The Standards should be recognized for what they are not as well as what they are. The most important intentional design limitations are as follows:
1.The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.
2. While the Standards focus on what is most essential, they do not describe all that can or should be taught.
6. While the ELA and content area literacy components described herein are critical to college and career readiness, they do not define the whole of such readiness.
Defining what students are expected to know and be able to do and focusing on what is most essential while leaving the specific control of curriculum and lesson planning to the teacher provides a framework for consistency with local teachers and curriculum directors determining specific content.

As the Common Core argument continues 30,000 feet below I wonder what can be done to help come up with an answer. What is the compelling question here? What supporting questions could I ask to help frame the argument? Perhaps I could suggest gathering and examining a variety of resources. The argument has several dimensions that should be considered. Money is a main concern. What will the various options cost? We already have laws on the books. How will this impact previous legislation? What supporting laws may be required? Does Common Core impact the whole country or just various states? What has been done before? How does this new initiative fit in the timeline of educational reforms?

To answer these questions I encourage both sides to gather evidence to support their claims, making sure they evaluate their sources, whether textual or graphic, and use evidence from multiple sources. Once this process is completed they will be much better prepared to share their opinions in a public forum, whether spoken or written. Arguments properly prepared will focus the debate and lead to a consensus on the issue.

No, we will need more than that. We may need to identify some key ideas in the debate. What sources could provide insights for specific details leading to an understanding of the source? We need to establish accurate summaries of these sources to help us understand the relationships among the key details of our sources. This will be no easy task. Which of our various explanations will provide appropriate evidence and what will remain uncertain?

Those who control the vocabulary control the argument. In the healthcare debate the Affordable Healthcare Act is sometimes called “Obamacare.” Mitt Romney and Bill Clinton had similar proposals during their respective terms. Determining the meaning of words and phrases, including how an author uses and refines the meaning, is important to understanding the sources we examine. We need to interpret how the key sentences, paragraphs and larger portions of the resource as a whole contribute to the discussion. The different authors of our sources have different points of view, requiring us to evaluate their claims, reasoning and evidence.

Will those arguing for and against Common Core evaluate the multiple sources of information and integrate them into a proposed solution to the problem? Will our debaters examine the various authors’ premises, claims, and evidence by challenging them? And will both sides integrate information from these diverse sources while noting discrepancies among them? If both sides prepare their arguments based on reliable sources, examined on the criteria listed above, we may then come to some understanding about accepting or rejecting the Common Core.  Once we have applied these concepts we can then decide whether Common Core is good teaching and learning.

Jim Cameron taught U.S. and Michigan history at Saline High School for 37 years.  He has presented at over 50 Teaching American History colloquia and has served the National Council for History Education in the past as a State Liaison, Interim Director, and Board Trustee.