Commentary

Bob Wilson: Common Core makes sure today’s students can cut it

January 31, 2014 

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So far as I know, the much cussed and discussed Common Core Curriculum settling into Durham Public Schools doesn’t subject third-graders to probability theory, but just wait.

Lurking in Common Core is a lesson in probability theory for two-thirds of DPS’ 2,500 third-graders who could find themselves in a six-week reading camp this summer.

Years ago – OK, many years ago – a summer reading camp for my generation consisted mainly of Classics comic books. Surely the teachers didn’t think their young charges were fudging with comic books!

With Common Core, fudging of any stripe doesn’t cut it. The program will divert 1,600 third-graders to the summer reading program if test scores don’t rise. Attending the enrichment program is the gateway to fourth grade for many of these students.

Like other summer enrichment programs, and there have been plenty of them in North Carolina’s schools over the past 50 years, Common Core comes with the baggage that kids love to hate: testing.

It’s heavy baggage for students not accustomed to demanding standards. The first year of Common Core in Durham Public Schools, 2012-2013, saw third-grade reading proficiency fall from 58.5 percent to 33.4 percent.

Ouch! The good news is that Common Core scores likely are much closer to reality than the state’s old testing regime. Common Core covers only English reading and mathematics so far, but other subjects will share the basket with them before long.

Third grade is a vital juncture for testing because it is the line of departure for reading comprehension. Instruction in earlier grades is directed toward mastering the hows and whats of reading itself.

Reading for comprehension is the touchstone of critical thinking, an individual’s facility for using reason to evaluate and make sense of the world.

Now, explain that to a DPS third-grader who fails to win a free summer.

But that same third-grader likely comprehends that he or she has some neat wormholes available for getting that coveted fourth-grade promotion no matter what.

These are “good cause exemptions” for cutting out of summer reading camp, and one of them – no joke – is having failed promotion twice.

Or, as the bromide goes, all good things come to those who wait.

For some North Carolina teachers who’ve waited five long years for a pay raise, the good works promised by Common Core may be a case of too much, too little, too late.

Common Core adds more instruction and accountability on top of previous classroom-intensive reforms. Thus some teachers can legitimately say they are being burdened with too much work, too little pay and remedies for both coming too late.

And where are parents in all this? For all too many, missing in action.

Parents who read and talk about reading with their kids set a splendid example as teachers’ helpmeets on the home front. I’ll never forget talking to my folks about Robinson Crusoe’s chilling discovery of those mysterious footprints – he wasn’t alone on that island.

Only years later did I understand that Daniel Defoe’s tale was a two-fer. First, it was a thrilling story for a young reader. Second, I learned how Defoe made imagination visible.

I’d say those third-graders who fail their reading tests will come out winners. They just need a little boost at the starting line. Who among us will beggar them that?

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.

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