the blog of Carol Burris

Teacher: My Students were Never Taught History due to Common Core Test Prep

I adore getting emails from former students.  Students are the joy of my life.  I am always especially proud when they become teachers.  This letter from a graduate broke my heart–both for her and for her students.

Here is her letter. Please read it and share. She asked to remain anonymous so she would not get into trouble in her school.

Good morning Dr. Burris,

My name is ## and I graduated from South Side many years ago (2003). I am now finishing my seventh year teaching middle school social studies at a public school in New York City. I came across your piece in the Washington Post this morning and I felt compelled to send a quick note to say how appreciative I am of your efforts to fight the challenges that our students face in the age of high-stakes testing.

This school year was the first year that I truly felt the effects of “the tests.” The majority of students in my Gifted & Talented classes told me that they had never learned social studies until my class. I used to be able to quickly review topics and get right to document analysis, debates, and discussions. Now, I find myself teaching a basic introduction to U.S. history for half of the period so that my students can even access the primary source materials I provide. For example, several of my “level 4” students had never heard of the Boston Tea Party or understood why we celebrate Independence Day until this year. They confessed to me that ELA and Math were the only two subjects that they learned in elementary school and that their teachers taught a random “social studies unit” once a year. While my students definitely know how to cite evidence from a document or article, I find that they have little context or background to explain what that text means in the larger scope of history or even contemporary issues.

I am sure this is one of many stories that you’ve heard from teachers across the country, but it is truly a testament to the effects of high-stakes testing that really “hit home” for me this year. Again, thank you for being a voice for the frustrated and narrowly-educated children of our communities.


12 Responses to “Teacher: My Students were Never Taught History due to Common Core Test Prep”

  1. Lori Atkinson Griffin

    Sadly this is becoming the norm. As a ninth and tenth grade English teacher the gap widens every year. In fact it is no longer a gap but an abyss. I see a huge difference in the prior knowledge that my kids are bringing with them. So many things are being tossed for test prep. They don’t know geography, basic grammar, historical references, good critical writing beyond copying a “text based” answer, spelling (but it’s okay because they are told the computer will do it), awareness of current events because there’s no real history discussion, etc. It is frustrating because there are such holes in their learning I fee like I’m either teaching Swiss cheese or the kid in the Dutch story plugging holes in the dam and it is going to explode on me.

    • Shar

      I’m seeing exactly the same thing. Every swing of the “reform” pendulum steals still more from the families now in the education system– who generally don’t even know what they are being denied. The demoralization of teachers and the money wasted on constantly re-training in the latest ed-fads are not as serious as the enormous chunks of TIME forever lost. How ironic that the “experts” are typically those who themselves benefited from a broad-based, classical education, but who now insist that their priorities must be foremost, their decisions must be slavishly followed, and they are the only ones who know anything worth knowing.

  2. Chris Cerrone

    Do not let an administrator tell you that the EngageNY ELA module units are used to teach Social Studies – most of the module units do not align to the Social Studies standards for each grade level.

  3. Chuck Fellows

    Common core has absolutely nothing to do with standardized testing. It is a common standard set of knowledge expectations that school districts nationwide can use on a voluntary basis. Standardized testing is a local state or district initiative in an effort to game the system and get federal dollars which then go to enhance the revenues of national testing companies. Sense anything circular here?
    And the standardized tests are an excellent way to insure that learning never occurs and that those at the top will continue to tell those at the bottom how, what, where, when and who. Anybody that subscribes to the use of standardized tests is either really, really stupid or being willfully ignorant to achieve a goal that has nothing to do with learning.
    Stop blaming anything and just opt out.

  4. Thomas Martellone

    It sounds like you are blaming the Common Core State Standards for poor instructional decisions on teachers’ behalf to not teach the curriculum and doing test prep instead. Common Core State Standards are not responsible for standardized testing…states are. I agree with Chuck….stop placing blame in other places where it is unwarranted or deserved.

    • carolcorbettburris

      The Common Core is certainly partially to blame. There has been 3-8 high stakes testing for more than ten years, but because the standards were more reasonable, teachers still had some time to teach beyond English and math. Notice what she said in the piece… “my students can cite evidence but…” The technique of using text based evidence is the common core skill that appears on the test. Therefore it has become a drilled skill to the inclusion of others.
      Do not think for a moment these decisions to only teach ELA and math are made at the teacher level. Not in NYC. When you combine restrictive, difficult standards with high stakes testing, this is the outcome.

      • Chris Cerrone

        As a school board member and parent of two I asked why our elementary schools have double blocks of ELA and math each day but no scheduled times for SCI or SS in grades k-3. I was told that is how everyone in our region does it. We fit in SS and SCI when we can or with our ELA units. Upon further investigation on my own, it is true most other districts focus primarily on ELA and math. As Carol has noted CC has played a role in this narrowing of curriculum because of the challenges schools face because of age-inappropriate content in the early grades.

      • Chuck Fellows

        The issue is not common core. Learning is an interdependent set of relationships between and among various types of knowledge. Common core suggests, not dictates. Locals who cannot see beyond scores, ranking and rating, identifying winners and. Losers, translate common core expectations into questions for their standardized test relying solely on the type of assessment that is beyond useless. If our educators Cannot understand what a system is, cannot understand interdependence , cannot understand diversity as essential and are unwilling to stand up to those on top dictating practice and procedure to those on the bottom learning is forever lost.
        See Edward Demings comments about schools and education and what a system is and stop seeking to blame something for the failure of the human participants in the system of education.

    • Nancy m

      It is not always poor instructional decisions. It is often what administration TELLS the teachers what they must do. It IS a disgrace but don’t jump to conclusions . Some of us are scared of losing our jobs.
      Not all principals share the belief that all decisions be based on the best interest of children. Your teachers and students are lucky to have you leading them in the right decision.

  5. ‘Why do you believe you need the Common Core?’ - The Washington Post

    […] It is also crowding out curriculum in the younger grades. I invite you to read a letter I received from a South Side graduate who is now teaching in an urban school where nearly every child is economically disadvantaged. She sees the effects of a narrow curriculum designed to teach the Common Core skills. I have posted her letter with my comments here. […]

  6. chelle'

    I am a parent based in Florida with a child enrolled in the ESE program due to a hearing deficiency during the critical stages of learning to speak. His inception into school began at three years old; at which time he began speech and language therapy. He has worked hard to overcome the many challenges that come with his learning and comprehension and has made good grades and loved school – until this school year.

    The Common Core tests, known in Florida as the FSA, have simply wreaked havoc on not only my child’s enthusiasm for learning and school – but other parents who constantly inquire in hushed tones about this asinine approach to educating our children(not) and consistently asking how my child is doing in class – as if they need assurance that their child is not indeed the “only one” struggling.

    To add insult to injury, although my child is clearly at a disadvantage, he is expected to perform at the same level as his peers; while being given only slightly more time to complete the test. This is no fix seeing that all of the text, including the math portion is so convoluted in its delivery of questions by which to assess our students.

    Until both parents and teachers and all those who are interested in the holistic education of our children coalesce together around the same fundamental issue of fairness, equality and building a “life long love of learning” into our children – we will be utterly consumed. No, third grade class, outside those who are gifted and need more challenging curriculum, should be required to learn Algebra and Geometry.

    Thank you Dr. Burris for your extremely valid, insightful, and valuable opinions, knowledge and wisdom and thank you for your service. I very much enjoyed your letters and only hope that you embark on a nationwide tour very soon and I would love for you to make your first stop Florida! Please join our coalition in Florida and other places around the country to defeat the corruption and corporatization of education.

    GodSpeed and Many Blessings

  7. fonzi2015

    Over a decade ago I worked summers in the Social Studies Dept writing reading exercises with a social studies content, in our “hope” that they would be used in the testing environment of the classrooms. When I retired, I wrote a book, THE GEOGRAPHY BEE (Amazon), about a brave teacher and her students who fought the system. Her students were learning to be “Active Citizens in a Democracy.”
    Dr. Marie Fonzi


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: