Friday, May 18, 2012

Money, Wedges, and Literacy: What the Common Core Missed

"The Common Core" distracts educators away from a pressing need: training in digital literacy.  Access to technology is access to power.  Without training and resources education continues to drive a larger wedge between the haves and have-nots.  With, at best, a casual mention of digital literacy, the Common Core ensures only one thing—as the Digital Renaissance evolves we are all at risk of being left behind.

What the Common Core Missed
As Digital Literacy provides access to information—and access to power—this Digital Renaissance exposes the haves and the have-nots in our country.   While education must always remain pedagogy-driven, society’s immersion in technology can not be ignored by educators.  Without the correct training and focus on a Common Core built on the needs of this society, teachers will no longer be able to help students unlock their futures.

Teachers need immersion and training in technology in order that students may have immersion and training in technology.  Technology passes books as the access point to information and power.  In a 2008 PEW study, researchers learned that the primary source for research done at or for school is the internet: 94% of teens use the internet at least occasionally to do research for school and nearly half (48%) report doing so once a week or more often.  Without a revised Common Core, we are in danger of contributing to an even greater divide of haves and have nots—and it isn’t all about having the money to supply the technology.  Permitting a culture of teachers of haves and have-nots is my greater fear—those who have the comfort, experience, and training to immerse themselves and their classes in digital literacy and those who simply have not.

Technology is largely taught in isolation.  Computer rooms grow in our schools while other classrooms are lucky to house one or two computers.  This Sex Edification of technology contributes to an educator’s fear or resistance.  Rather than synthesize digital tools with real-world applications and core curriculum, the digital tools sit on tables like $1,000 encyclopedias or typewriters.  Just like Sex Ed, we tend to believe "someone else will teach it" and do so in isolation.

The fact is, we are online.  We are digital readers.  We are digital writers. All roads intersect and we have redefined Digital Reality with people.  Within the last decade Digital Reality shifted from a game played on an LED battlefield to a way of life.  In many ways, we live every moment of our lives in a digital reality because the world is making more land—a digital landscape.  Yet instead of training educators, young and old, to engage inspiration and inventiveness, American politics burns the digital landscape right from under our feet, almost as fast as it can be created, with the oversights of the Common Core.

The axiom good writing is good writing will never be displaced.  Whether we teach with chalk, white board markers, or Smartboards (which some will consider outdated by the way), the fundamental truths of reading, writing, and arithmetic remain among the few constants in education, yet we stand on the frontier of a Digital Revolution and the national plan is fragmented and weak...actually, there is no plan. With only a too casual yawn and nod at technology, the Common Core nudges educators to rewrite curriculum built on international testing standards.

We can’t just leave using technology and digital literacy to the whim of individual teachers—yet this is what the Common Core establishes.

Common Core Oversight #1: No specific mention or acknowledgment of digital literacy

Without the appropriate level of leadership and training, computer labs can best be labeled technology dumps as educators are left to decide for themselves—depending on their school’s budget and climate—how best to incorporate technology in the classroom.  For what we do and produce in our American classrooms, Underwoods, hardback encyclopedias, and tri-folds are currently just as effective as computers—given two classes, one with technology and one with typewriters, books, and cardboard, we would see little difference in the products between the classes.

Until there is a common training program and goal built on digital literacy, educators will continue to use new technology in old ways because the old ways are rooted in the financial soil of testing and achievement.  What message is reinforced when our schools receive Race to the Top funds and selective waivers from the No Child Left Behind requirements all in the name of carrying the torch for the Common Core?  What incentive exists to grow with the technology?  How will we ever expect educators to see new technology as anything other than a digital poster, encyclopedia, or way to type and print? 

In reality, we will fail our students when it comes to digital literacy and this new access to power.

Education is failing—we are failing to be led.  We are failing to be supported.  We are failing to be recognized for all that we achieve with technology in spite of the “you’ll figure it out” model.  Buttressed by the financial obligations of Achieve, Inc., the ACT, and the College Board,  the Common Core supports the testing business.  Who is in the business of supporting, leading, and recognizing educators? Who is in the business of supporting and leading technology use in education?  Educators.  I assure you, we will figure it out.  Yet, along the way, we fight district by district for what we need, to overcome the inequities from school to school, and only if we’re lucky and blessed some of us fight to bring American education into the Digital Renaissance.

Common Core Oversight #2: Reading
The Common Core does little to encourage adequate growth and progress of technology use in the K-5 Reading Plan.

Listing no formal digital reading expectations among its Foundational Skills, the Common Core mentions in its Reading Standards that students should analyze how writing is affected by different modes, particularly multimedia.  A modest, but promising start considering “multimedia” does not explicitly mean digital.  Multimedia can mean photography, a poster, a set of slides.  Depending on the whim, comfort, or training of the teacher, an informed exposure to digital reading may never occur for many students.

Additionally, and equally as distressing, in the Common Core Reading Plan, from the 6th through 8th grades, students are asked to compare and contrast different forms, including multimedia. Even if I imply “multimedia” as digital and online, it does not mean others teachers will—education outgrows that word on a daily basis. 

Digital reading for citizens and consumers in our society is a non-negotiable skill. It is a must-have. Perhaps this dearth of digital reading is a reflection of the comfort level that our Common Core designers have with the K-8 age range handling costly digital hardware.   Perhaps they have well-founded fears of elementary and middle school students seeing pornography or graphic violence on the internet.  Perhaps the focus in K-8 should be more on the skill of analysis than the digital vehicle through which the analysis occurs.  This is plausible until we consider the next phase in the Common Core progression.

Sadly, from 9th-12th grade there are no digital (or multimedia) reading expectations.  There are no expectations for students to interact with what they read digitally.  There are no expectations to instruct students in how to be a savvy digital reader and consumer.  None.  Zero.  Digital reading, disguised or misinterpreted as multimedia, ends at the 8th grade.  In our Common Core, digital literacy may never develop for some of our students. 

Is this plan driven by pedagogy and the needs of an emerging societal shift?  Or is it the architecture of a financially asphyxiated team regarding education through test-colored lens?

Common Core Oversight #3: Writing
Heroically, the anchor standards for writing in the Common Core ask students from the fourth grade through high school graduation to “use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.”

The focus words are produce, publish, interact, and collaborate—no explicit mention of achieving these things digitally other than through use of the Internet.  While the Internet is one important acre of the emerging digital landscape it does not cover everything.  Suggesting Internet equals digital literacy is already an old-fashioned understanding of technology; I’m reminded of Rupert Murdoch sounding out of touch recently as he railed against Google as an Internet pirate.  An illustration of just how confused people in power can become; we so often mistake the size of someone’s bank account for the breadth of one’s knowledge.

Educators are forced to imply the word “digitally” within the expectations of the Common Core—but what happens when that is not implied?  The problem with the language in the Common Core is that “digital” is implicit and therefore this aspect of the Common Core is open to the vagaries of a teacher’s digital comfort level. 

For example, if I show my students a sample of an essay (on the internet), and then students brain storm ideas face to face while hunting for topic ideas (on the internet), then type a paper on a laptop while checking my requirements for the assignment on our school website (on the internet), then save the essay to the school server (on the internet) and print it wirelessly in order that I might tack their essays across the walls in my classroom, haven’t I then fulfilled the expectations of the Common Core: produce, publish, interact, and collaborate?  I included the internet and I can complete that assignment in less than a week.

Fundamentally, I’d hope the Common Core meant to express that our students also digitally produce, digitally publish, digitally interact, and digitally collaborate.  Embedded in what it means to be alive in 2012, much of the world communicates through digital means—if we leave these emerging digital tools to the next Angry Birds or just to keep in touch with family and friends then we lose—and you can point your fingers right at us, the American educators, because we will be working in a system which fails all of us.

It is not too late for American education to right itself and become active participants in the digital literacy renaissance.  We belittle the tools of technology when we do not actively reach to train our teachers and then our students to use them.  Otherwise, computers are little more than toys, typewriters, encyclopedias, or delivery systems for web-based supplemental tools such as Study Island (which provides little more than supplemental worksheets and activities on-line).  Technology in education often suffers beneath the yoke of simply pulling the same lessons built on the same expectations of tools-gone-by.

Why?  Because that is all we know—it’s what we were raised on.  A computer works like a typewriter, works like an encyclopedia, works like a tri-fold; therefore, that is all I’ll expect of it.

It is no longer enough to put computers in schools and roundly call it a success.  Educators need training in digital literacy, but that takes having a plan.  Currently, teacher training programs such as the National Writing Project are under the gun to have its funding eradicated.  If we ever really want to see our young people grow into creators and innovators, then we need teachers trained and constantly practicing and talking all aspects of the art of teaching—added to this is the digital component all teachers need training in digital literacy.  

We seem to be working backwards—the talk is that teacher training is a target of upcoming economic cuts and yet we roll out a Common Core entrenched in testing.  Write your Senators and Congressmen to take a long hard look at the Common Core and then at the digital landscape.  They won’t have to look far to see it—its inspiration is burning all around them.

Common Core Oversight #4: Assumption
Now there is a caveat for the Common Core—intended as merely a guide it assumes that districts can add and modify as they see fit.  This is a big assumption by our best and brightest.  Irrespective of neglect born from pedagogy or finance, we as educators can’t in good conscience leave this emerging and critical skill to the hope and discretion of “do as you see fit.”  Digital literacy skills are a must have for every child.  We can’t assume that it will get done.   We can’t assume that all kids have access to it at home—we have to demand training, resources, as well as the leadership.  We need to demand a better plan—we can measure training.  To the educational leadership, raise up your teachers, expect more—and arm them with the tools to do more.

Today, the Common Core leaves our young people digitally unarmed.  Students will file out of graduation and into a world milling and seething with technology…and we will have barely touched on it unless a rogue teacher exhibits the comfort and expertise to use it and teach with it.

The one thing that education should have going for it is technology—the depth and quality of our nation’s education should rise along with the continued evolution of technology.  We’re in the infant stages of a Digital Renaissance— and while our biggest and brightest sleep on this issue, we have a professional responsibility as educators to make ourselves digitally literate. 

I also hold the mirror up to myself.  We need to take the responsibility for the digital literacy that this generation will need to thrive and survive not only in the workplace, but in the family unit.  Digital literacy has infiltrated our television screens, our smart phones, and in our daily moment to moment communication with our family and friends—all of which sits in many of our pockets or bags.

Digital literacy is about more than recognizing the Twitter or Facebook icon at bottom of a commercial, it is bigger than the fear of graphic imagery that our young people could be exposed to on the internet.  You know they print pornography with paper and ink too, but that never stopped us from going to the library, bookstore, or handing out paper and pencil.  Avoid the luxury of excuses—make yourself more digitally literate.

Common Core Oversight #5: All Teachers Left Behind
Recently I wrote a grant for technology so that my students could be digital writers and readers more consistently and found myself presented with a concern that technology would replace pencil and paper.  The insinuation slanted technology more towards fun or idle time and pencil and paper as the emblem of diligence and getting our knuckles dirty with graphite.  Every adult in education is responsible for that perception.

Digital writing still requires that writers move through the recursive phases of planning, reflecting, drafting, and revising—the skill is still the skill, and, no, technology is not essential to the core of that skill, but we can't simply bring only traditional mindsets to current literacy practices.  The day is coming when reading and writing on paper will not be good enough in our world.  The definition and cultural concept of a textbook is about to be exploded by Apple and its competition.   Digital technology creates new skills and redefines old skills—life is about growth and change.  Depending on your perspective I suppose it is also about withering and dying…and being left behind.
I came across the anecdote that a group of teachers, instructed on some advancements to school email, learned students would also have their own school email accounts.  A concerned teacher questioned why we would give middle school kids this kind of access—how could we possibly trust them?  Can’t they abuse this?  What about if one kid cyber bullies another through the email we handed to them?  The teacher leading the group retorted, “Why would we ever trust them with pencil and paper?”
These concerns illustrate the boogeymen that can be conjured without the proper exposure and training to just what these tools are, what they can do, what they can’t do, and how they improve education and our collective quality of life.   It also demonstrates how far behind some of us are—eh, Rupert?

 If we allow the innovations of technology to serve merely as distractions or vehicles of our social lives then that is all we are going to get out of them.

Digital tools aren’t used in schools because they are cute or the latest thing or a vehicle to produce a sexier reproduction of a tried and true lesson, but they should be used because they, and only they, address the specific and unique skills emerging in today’s world. 
We underwhelm ourselves sometimes.

Politicians, parents, and educators need to share in a common core.  Our core should be built on the recognition that the digital age is here and it is a renaissance that we need to engage.  We can’t continue to be so casual about it.  We need to expect more of each other and become active members of the current Digital Renaissance in order that our students have a chance to grow into active creators and innovators who network professionally and socially as easily as they speak. 

If we want measurable results, train your teachers with an eye on the specific needs and evolution of society.  Being an adolescent in the early stages of the 21st century looks little like the early stages of the 20th century—when typewriters, the New England Primer, and paper flourished. 

You cannot teach what you have not made your own. You cannot inspire unless you too are inspired.  Quite frankly, the Common Core does little to inspire any of us, and in the end, may only serve to leave all us behind.

art by Sarah Louette


  1. Hi Brian

    I'm wary of coming across as some pro-Common Core advocate (Lord knows, there are enough of those in the bureaucracy) but I wonder if your reading of the CC and mine are the same, when it comes to technology.

    First, this passage:
    "Today, the Common Core leaves our young people digitally unarmed. Students will file out of graduation and into a world milling and seething with technology…and we will have barely touched on it unless a rogue teacher exhibits the comfort and expertise to use it and teach with it."

    My perception is that the Common Core is an improvement from my old state standards, in which digital literacy and technology were only mentioned as addendum to the ELA Frameworks, and then only in passing. So, while I wish the CC would go farther, I see it as a way for teachers who have been resistant to make the first leap forward (I suspect your argument is that the CC language should have been much stronger and that teachers should have already made that leap). In the end, I mostly suspect that what the PARCC will assess is what will drive the curriculum changes, more than the CC document.

    I appreciated your post, and you certainly have me thinking ...

    Take care,
    Kevin Hodgson
    Western Mass WP

    1. Thank you for the reply, Kevin.

      You summed up my frustration well--the CC does not go far enough. I believe schools should be well beyond just dipping our toes in the water of technology.

      Too often, technology is viewed more as a toy or a film screen and less as a tool. It is our responsibility to "teach writer not writing."

      Today I read the Atlantic Monthly piece questioning cell phones in schools. Well, if we allow these digital tools to be used as popular culture uses them, then of course they are distractions. A pencil and paper is a are a distraction for some for Pete's sake.

      It all comes down to the teacher and the teaching...and most importantly, the training and professional development in my opinion. The CC had a chance to move to education to expect more of itself. It didn't, and it leaves me frustrated.

      Cheers, Kevin--I enjoy your Tweets and links, and gain much from them professionally

  2. Brian,
    Great analysis. I share the same concerns as you do. While many educators are quick to praise the increased rigor and challenge of the Common Core, there is still a massive disconnect in how students and adults live their digital lives and explicit instruction on addressing the ever-evolving skills and issues. To make matters worse, the end of course assessments are completely old-school, so there is increased pressure to teach traditional reading and writing skills to prepare students for the exam. It's only one piece of the puzzle. Is it more important to analyze old literature or analyze the way digital media is created and interpreted?
    I just wrote about the need to teach more digital literacy skills, inspired by Howard Rheingold's book Net Smart:

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