I’m an invested party. I believe in the public education system as a grand experiment in providing the humanizing effects of education to all people. I have a minor in secondary education. I am married to a former educator. I am the son of an educator. I am an invested party.
I’m also aware that I have never had a particularly great experience as an educator myself. When I spent a semester in student teaching, I quickly realized that I was not appropriately gifted to teach in a school setting. I’m not a seasoned teacher.
And so, I find myself at a crossroads of admitted ignorance and passionate concern, a dangerous intersection regardless of topic. I want to be a participant in the public life through the school system. I want my children to go to school with other children from the neighborhood. I am theologically inclined in these ways. But I also question the standards to which we are teaching. While I have long been able to make a passionate (and only moderately informed) argument against standardized testing, that particular practice does not cause me so much mental anguish as my understanding of the widely adopted “Common Core” standards.
I encourage you to read more about the standards here, but in brief they are a state-led national set of education standards for grades K-12 developed by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). They have been adopted by 45 states currently (see the map of adoption here). Increasing the educational performance of American students is a lofty and worthwhile goal, but my concern is that we will sacrifice even more holistic educational ventures in an attempt to teach even more fully necessary information for college admission and workplace performance. In essence, we will sacrifice the molding of human beings for the performance of human doers. In particular, these standards have caused concern among English teachers “that they will have to replace the dog-eared novels they love with historical documents and nonfiction texts” (Lyndsey Layton, The Washington Post, “Common core sparks war over words”, link). They are, in essence, concerned that the captivating novels and stories that form the current curriculum will be replaced by purely functional reading assignments. Further concerns arise in the Common Core’s approach to our youngest students, where educational play may be replaced by information mastery – or programming (an excellent article outlining these concerns can be found here).
Additionally, this set of standards also seemingly fails to acknowledge the changing nature of knowledge itself. While it is admirable to apply evidence-based research to the standards, I’m concerned we may be teaching to a future that will no longer exist. Our constant connectedness to one another and the great wealth of knowledge available at our fingertips (or voice commands) are changing the way we think. It is not a matter of whether Google is making us stupid, but rather that we are now viewing our relationship to knowledge differently. No longer do we need to know everything; we simply need to know where to look to find answers. Our minds are already changing to adapt to this new world (for further information, either Google the topic or look here or here). This complaint, at least for me, is not a new one. Even as a high schooler, I thought that some of what I was being taught was irrelevant. Consider geography; in the real world, I’ve never encountered a map that was blank – it is far more important to teach one how to read a map.
So, why would I share these concerns on a Baptist blog?
First, I believe that there is, in our tradition, a desire to see the betterment of society and to provide some witness to that society. Theologically and historically, Baptists have been people who have walked beside our brothers and sisters in the public forum, not separated ourselves from them. We have a vested interest in the betterment of our world, and as Americans that involves the way our public schools function. We must be aware of changes being made and seek to be a part of the process.
Second, Baptists have historically been people who are wrapped up in a story. Historically, we have been a community who has interpreted life through scripture. But we have also interpreted that scripture through Jesus, the revealed face of God amongst us. So while we encounter and read the entirety of the biblical canon, we have seen the story, the narrative of Christ as framing the rest of scripture. We have understood that it is story that shapes things, not isolated facts.
Finally, I believe we have avenues to effect change. Many churches I know partner with local schools. Within these partnerships, we can begin to develop ways of making sure that we are cultivating the humanity of students. We can read them stories, ask them to share their stories, and teach them that their ability to craft a compelling narrative out of their lives matters to us and the world. Additionally, we can evaluate the ways we are teaching our own children and students (and adults). Are we simply shoving information towards them that they could easily look up on their smartphones, or are we drawing them into a larger narrative, a captivating story that shares with them the overwhelming notion that the God of love is personally invested in their lives and connected to them?
My concerns could be unfounded. I hope they are. There is support for the new standards, and I’ll support school teachers regardless of what they are teaching. They are out on the front lines making a difference because they care, because it is certainly not for the money. And I will sympathetically view the plight of administrators and others who are simply trying to make all of public school better. But I will also be honest about my concerns and personally aware of what I can do to teach my children and the children of my church that who they are is far more important than what they know or what they do. They are stories still being written, and I’ll play my part to help them, by the grace of God, learn to craft happy endings.