Seeking Common Ground?

A few years after I joined my university, following 18 years as an English teacher at a rural SC public high school, the faculty ventured into the task of reforming the curriculum and academic calendar. The changes included a revised set of general education requirements, a first year seminar model, and a significant shift in the calendar from three terms and Monday-Friday class sessions to a more traditional fall/spring semester format with an optional May experience and M/W/F or T/Th class sessions.

The university now has experienced several years of the new curriculum and calendar, and is poised to assess how well the changes have been implemented. One concern among faculty and administration rests with the first year seminars. Currently, our students are required to take one first year seminar (FYS) and one first year seminar that is writing intensive (FYW).

Anecdotal and gathered evidence suggests a wide range of how the FYS/W courses are being implemented—some are strong examples of the intended goals of the seminars and how effective they can be, but many miss the goals and appear ineffective. A recent survey also shows that faculty are mixed on the effectiveness of the FYS/W courses for our curriculum and students.

As a writing teacher, I was an early and eager supporter of the move toward first year seminars, especially since that curricular change opened the door for faculty across disciplines to teach FYW classes (I am in the education department, and thus had not been teaching writing for the university since freshman writing had been under the English department). I have taught an FYW each of the academic years of the new curriculum, and have worked as closely as possible with the university to support the effectiveness of writing instruction in those courses.

This current academic year, I have chaired our faculty FYS Oversight Committee, and then was recently asked to take on a small administrative role to guide the assessment and implementation of our first year seminars. One of my first tasks has been to draft and share a common experience document [1] with FYS/W faculty in order to start a conversation about what experiences we believe are essential for FYS/W courses and how to insure all students have these experiences and how to support faculty teaching the courses.

Some of the responses from my colleagues have included strong concerns about attempts to “look over professors’ shoulders” and “dictating” what and how professors teach. When I received those responses, I have been forced to consider a powerful and important tension that now faces me in my roles as an academic at my university and as a public intellectual who spends a great deal of my time engaging in the public sphere about public education policy—a tension that required me to check myself for the very hypocrisy I have claimed about public education reformers.

The question I have asked myself: How can I justify my early and consistent rejecting of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) against my role within my university advocating for common experiences within out FYS/W courses in order to insure all students receive the highest quality education we can offer?

On the surface, the motivation for CCSS in K-12 public schools and common experiences in our FYS/Ws appear to be the same: Identify and implement standard expectations for a commonality of educational experiences by all students.

Setting aside my deep skepticism about the sincerity of those advocating for CCSS, especially at their inception, I can concede only that similarity, and I believe that my experience at the university level with changing and then implementing the curriculum offers the current failed K-12 education reform movement some key lessons about how to reform the reform movement.

Seeking common ground among educational settings must include the following paradigm shifts away from the accountability/corporate model and toward an academic/collegial model:

  • Curriculum change and implementation at the university level are grounded in professor expertise, professor autonomy, and academic freedom. These foundational beliefs provide the central tension necessary for genuine education reform. As Tierney explains, K-12 public school teachers are denied these essentials—and thus current education reform fails:

“In this country, we lurch back and forth between efforts to professionalize and efforts to infantilize public-school teachers, and have been doing so since the beginning of public schools in America. Neither kind of effort accords teachers much respect. Because teachers are chiefly employed by local governments  (unlike doctors or lawyers who are typically employed in private enterprise), there has always been a tendency on the part of some groups of people to try to exert greater central control over teachers, not believing them to be professionals who can be left to do their jobs according to their own judgment. When those skeptics hold sway, the ‘solutions’ they impose favor quantitative/metrics-based ‘accountability,’ top-down management, limitations on teachers’ autonomy, and the substitution of external authority (outside measurers and evaluators) for the expertise of educators themselves.”

  • Thus, curriculum and pedagogical changes as well as on-going evaluation of those changes are prompted and driven by faculty, in collegial (not authoritarian) partnership with administration.
  • Course development and approval are conducted by the faculty. Professors design the courses they teach, propose them to the departments and faculty committees, and then the entire faculty approves those courses.
  • Curriculum change remains “in house,” in that the changes are related to the unique mission of the university and outside political and corporate influences are essentially absent from the process (notably the influence of commercial interests related to textbooks, resources, and testing).
  • Curriculum change and the subsequent evaluation of the implementation are necessarily slow. A great deal of public deliberation (at faculty meetings and committee meetings) went into the initial changes, and that process has continued into the evaluation of the implementation.
  • A constant refrain through the change process has been: Who are our students and how well are we serving them? This is another “in house” element that honors the belief that faculty knows best the students they teach.
  • The pursuit of “common,” “challenging,” “foundational,” and “essential” is not conflated with rote standardization. In other words, faculty are both aware of and honor that a common experience may look different among the faculty teaching the seminars while students still receive high-quality common experiences. For example, our FYWs seek to provide foundational writing instruction for all our students, but the ways in which that can be achieved are varied since each professor must articulate the common experiences for the 12 students in that particular FYW (again “common” is not rote sameness).
  • Absent in the reform and implementation are issues of bureaucratic accountability or concerns about high-stakes testing.

Let me note here, however, that I am not trying to paint the university curriculum change process as some sort of ideal: We now know that despite the deliberateness of the initial process, we likely still moved too quickly, particularly in implementing the first years seminar program, and too often the practical elements of change (for example, having the necessary FYS and FYW courses, all new to the curriculum) overshadowed the issues of insuring faculty were prepared to teach the courses and that courses were being implemented as proposed.

Ultimately, however, I have a great deal of optimism about the curricular change and ongoing efforts to maintain high quality in our courses at my university, but remain deeply skeptical (even cynical) of and nearly hopeless about the failed mechanisms of current K-12 educational changes.

While I am not yet convinced, as Tierney is, that the accountability/corporate reform movement is on its last legs, I am convinced that the model I have noted above is one way that we can and should reform the reform movement.

[1] See a model of common experiences detailed at Cornell University.

2 thoughts on “Seeking Common Ground?”

  1. Interesting piece–around an issue I wrestle with myself: When is “common” practice a productive thing? In 30 years in K-12, I can testify that the most useful, practice-building conversations I had were with my music colleagues, as we hashed over big questions like: What do we want our students to take away–in their “real” lives–from the experience of being in the band or choir? From learning about music in the early grades?

    K-12 practitioners rarely get the opportunity to even have those conversations. Which makes the imposition of a national curriculum-cum-assessments (let’s call ’em what they are) so wrong-headed. The very core of teachers’ work–including those “what do OUR kids need?” conversations–has been ripped from their hands.

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