Recently, a perfect example came to light of the propensity of the Common Core curriculum to teach to a test instead of teaching to comprehend.
It was revealed that a teaching unit on Lincoln’s famed Gettysburg Address instructs that students read the text but warns teachers not to inform kids what the speech was for, when it was made, or tell them about the Civil War that spawned the famed presidential message.
This unit on the Gettysburg Address was written by three educators who are chief authors of many Common Core policies: David Coleman, Jason Zimba, and Susan Pimental. The instruction can be found on the education website AchieveTheCore.org.
Early in the unit package informing teachers how to proceed, educators are instructed to avoid “giving background context” on the history of the Gettysburg Address.
The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset. It may make sense to notify students that the short text is thought to be difficult and they are not expected to understand it fully on a first reading–that they can expect to struggle. Some students may be frustrated, but all students need practice in doing their best to stay with something they do not initially understand. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.
Valerie Strauss identified the main problem with this approach in a piece for the Washington Post in November.
“Such pedagogy makes school wildly boring,” Strauss quotes an English teacher as saying. “Students are not asked to connect what they read yesterday to what they are reading today, or what they read in English to what they read in science.”
Even educator Diane Ravitch finds this Common Core approach to be a major mistake. Ravitch, an appointee by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and an advocate of teachers unions, tweeted on November 28 that the whole idea of teaching the Gettysburg Address without teaching its context is a “travesty.”
In an entry on her blog Ravitch asked, “How is it possible for any student to understand the meaning of the Gettysburg Address without knowing the historical context in which it was delivered?”
To teach the Gettysburg Address without teaching why it was given and what it means to our history and culture denudes the speech of all importance and makes of it a mere rhetorical exercise. This is not teaching.