This year, 45 states, including Vermont, have adopted new academic standards for language arts and math called the “Common Core.”
Around the country, it’s been controversial, but in Vermont, teachers seem willing to at least give it a try. And in some schools, it’s not that radical a change, especially in language arts.
Newton School looks like a big white New England farm house perched on a hill in Strafford, a rural community of about 1000 people.
Inside, about 120 students, pre-Kindergarten through eighth grade, scurry to classes. By the time they move to high school, their teachers want them to know how to read and write complicated texts—a goal at the heart of the Common Core in Vermont.
Education consultant Joanna Hawkins is giving a teaching demonstration today. She likes the Core because it pushes students to use factual evidence to support their ideas — a practice she’s promoted for years in Vermont schools through the Vermont Writing Collaborative.
A pencil sharpener whirs in Newton's eighth grade history class, as Hawkins passes out copies of a scholarly article. It’s about the way German scientists distorted Darwinism, helping Hitler rise to power.
“The idea of evolution, the survival of the fittest, seems to confirm a view of German nationalism and German power that was ascending in that society,” Hawkins reads aloud to the class as students follow along on their own photocopies.
“Let’s underline that whole sentence,” she suggests.
Over the next 90 minutes, Hawkins structures a sequence of one-minute discussions about what she calls “scientific habits of mind” — another plank in the Common Core platform. Then she takes a quick comic turn. She and classroom teacher Diane White perform a comical skit about two blind sages who can’t figure out what an elephant looks like because they each touch a different part of the body and assume that’s the whole animal.
“Let me just reach out, see if I can tell what it is,” Hawkins says melodramatically, pretending to reach for the beast as students giggle.
Hawkins sends that script and the scholarly article about Social Darwinism home with the students, asking them to read each text more closely and find connections between them.
About a week later, she returns to their classroom.
“So let me explain to you what we are going to do today,” she begins as they get out their binders.
What they do is discuss the difference between good and bad science. The students decide that, like those blind sages who falsely described an elephant, the German Social Darwinists distorted natural science to advance personal political agendas.
“Yeah,” volunteers Iva Wick from the front row. “So instead of science controlling what people think, what people think is controlling science.”
Her classmates dive into the article for quotes to support her idea. More ideas crop up. More quotes back them up. The students jot all this down in columns and grids on pieces of paper. So at home, they’ll have a blueprint for an essay about Darwinism and Hitler.
Some critics worry that teaching writing in such a strictly controlled way will produce cookie-cutter thinkers. But eighth grader Emma Bauer says no.
“We are given, like, a good scaffold to put the evidence that we need but the way that we put together and meld all those words together is up to us,” she explains.
That’s exactly the kind of critical thinking Common Core teachers are trying to foster.
But will that same ability will show up on new standardized exams being field tested this month?
“I’m nervous about that,” admits Newton Principal Greg Bagnato. He notes that some districts may not have enough bandwidth to administer the tests online. But he’s keeping an open mind about the assessment.
And open-mindedness is another intellectual trait the Common Core aims to instill.