Will the Common Core Widen the Digital Divide?

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Ever since the advent of Web 2.0, users of technology are no longer just spectators and consumers of web pages but content providers and active participants. The implications for teaching and learning are enormous, especially now as teachers focus on the new Common Core standards that demand more critical thinking skills.

As a high school social studies teacher, and observer of new technology, I've seen whole new skill-set emerging with concepts such as Collective Intelligence enabling people to work together in new ways, Transmedia Navigation (story telling through various media) and Networking to name a few. This skill set necessitates problem-based and authentic learning and often significant tracks of time from standard curriculum scope.

These skills have been described as part of the Participatory Culture, and some see real benefits for teaching and learning. They presuppose higher order thinking skills, reading and writing and critical thinking. Much like the Common Core. However, they go even further in that they compel us to be more than technical manual writers but to engage the world around us, empowered by the evolving mediascape.

Are these Participatory Culture skills the new standards for democracy? And, if so, why aren’t they getting as much play as the Common Core?

I see problems implementing these standards at my school -- Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers -- where over half of the students read significantly below grade level. Many students have been socially promoted to the 9th grade, and suffer from learned helplessness. They were not exposed to Common Core standards and teaching in middle school or elementary school. Yet, they will be expected to jump into the final stratosphere of the Core in high school without preparation at the lower levels.  What are the prospects for success with these students, given their lack of preparation?

And how will teachers be evaluated, now that New York City and the state are using a whole new system of classroom observations and student performance on state exams? I wonder just how I will find the time to engage in new media laced activities, which can deepen learning, while also covering the bases for the standardized exams. I help prepare new teachers in media skills, and wonder if they will put the interests of keeping their jobs, and teaching to the test, above what they have learned in my seminars.

The new evaluation system requires a measurement of student growth as compared to what is predicted by a Department of Education score generated by a complex algorithm, in order to avoid being rated "ineffective". This is regardless of what your principal, students or parents of students think about your teaching. A teacher who doesn't meet the testing targets for two years in a row can be removed (fired) from the classroom. How will new media be utilized in the schools? To drill for the test or to engage students in enrichment activities?

I predict we will see a rush of teaching to the assessments, those Common Core exams. In social studies it will still mean breadth versus depth to cover the chronology of history, but perhaps the essays and database questions will be fortified with demands of Core competencies. In schools with high academic needs we have seen a new kind of "Digital Divide" where the technological assets are used to drill for exams. This is less likely to happen in wealthier districts and schools of privilege, where many of the politicians and corporate education reformers send their children even as they pushing the Common Core and teacher evaluations. New media will continue to be used for enrichment and Participatory Culture activities in those schools.

The high stakes associated with the Common Core assessments, where teachers' careers hang in the balance on just two years of test scores, will guarantee a continued rudimentary use of new media in the classroom focused on drilling students for the upcoming tests.

Good teaching has always included the skill set we associate with the Common Core, and Participatory Culture skills presuppose their mastery. It's nothing new. What's disturbing is the presumption that students of high academic and social need, like the ones I teach in high school, have been unsuccessful in school because no one has asked them to perform on the higher level. Can standards alone make students engage in learning as they never had before? Can standardized tests with high stakes create life-long learners?

Many education reformers pushing the Common Core and evaluations have us thinking that the conditions of poverty - where children are read to less, abandoned more, spoken to less, physically punished more, and sit in larger classes - are irrelevant to their preparedness to function at high academic levels. That is the myth of the Common Core movement, that all we have to do is raise the bar. It's especially damaging when coupled with teacher evaluations that assume standardized tests can be the final and stand-alone determinant in student and teacher success. It's a misunderstanding that will further rob our disadvantaged students.

Will an unintended consequence of these new standards and teacher evaluations wind up keeping our less privileged students on the rudimentary side of the new digital divide? If so, this will be another departure from fairness, from equity.