There's a story about a neglected, unkempt boy, Teddy Stoddard, whose mother had died the year before. For Christmas he gave his fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Thompson, a bottle that was one-quarter full of perfume. One day when Thompson wore the perfume, Teddy stayed after school long enough to tell his teacher, "Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my mother used to smell. After the children left, Mrs. Thompson cried for at least an hour. On that day she quit teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, and she began to teach children." (You can google "Teddy Stoddard" for the full story).
What does this story tell us about raising children? What does it mean that Thompson quit teaching the curriculum and started to teach children? Does it mean she no longer taught school subjects? If we read between the lines, we can discover the magic touch of extraordinary teachers. Thompson discovered what was most important about her profession.
One difference between average, ordinary teachers and great, extraordinary ones may be this — Average teachers try to make students fit the prescribed curriculum. They dutifully try to make students alike in knowledge and skills. On the other hand, great teachers modify, adjust and help students choose curriculum to fit their unique needs. They make curriculum fit their students.
One big problem with the Common Core Curriculum, recently adopted by Utah and 46 other states, is this feature. It specifies what all students should know and be able to do at grade-level check points. It pressures teachers, with excessive testing, to make students fit the curriculum. The testing draws forth low level teaching by trying to measure student growth in likenesses. Never mind that it's impossible to standardize students; the Common Core is exactly what it says it is, "common." It tries to make students "common" in knowledge and skills. It's a generic, narrow curriculum designed by subject matter specialists who have never even met the students it is designed to serve.
Is this what we want for Utah schools? Do we really want students to become uniform in knowledge and skills? Do we want a common school system? What would happen if we started to measure student growth in unique talents and gifts? Would a different kind of assessment produce great teaching and national attention?
When Thompson stopped teaching reading, writing and arithmetic and started to teach children, she decided to put her students first. She decided to do what extraordinary teachers have always done — get to know each student well and work with parents to make curriculum fit each child's unique needs. Thompson decided to change curriculum from being her boss to being her servant. If Utah's teachers will use the Common Core as their servant rather than as their boss, they will rise to a higher, professional level.
I have a challenge for Utah legislators and the State Board of Education: They need to assume their rightful role as leaders and produce genuine reform. With integrity and courage they need to do what is best for children.
The Core Curriculum should be offered as a guide, not as a mandate, or it should be replaced with curricula that aim to develop student variety rather than student uniformity. In this way, the "core" may become a stepping stone instead of a stumbling block that impedes progress.
Lynn Stoddard is a retired educator and the author of four books on the need for authentic reform of public education.