Working within Common Core to introduce social justice and sustainability into the Ypsilanti public school curriculum

The Ypsilanti-based nonprofit Creative Change, which works with schools and universities around the country to develop sustainability and social justice curricula, just recently completed a project inside the Ypsi Public School system. As I was curious as to how things went, I reached out to Susan Santone, the founder of Creative Change, and asked if she’d be willing to talk. What follows is our conversation.

santone1MARK: Recently, a fellow in Indianapolis wrote to me, asking for advice as to whether or not he and his wife should move to Ypsilanti. I posted his letter on my site, and, in the resulting conversation, a number of people suggested that, because of the schools in Ypsilanti, he’d be better off in Ann Arbor. You, as I recall, pushed back at the suggestion that Ann Arbor schools were “better.” Why?

SUSAN: The question I raised in my comment was, “What do we mean by better schools?” I asked readers to consider how we measure this. Do we mean the A2 schools have “better” teachers, or are we gauging quality by test scores? If it’s the latter, I noted that that there’s a strong (and even predictive) correlation between a child’s test scores and his/her parents’ income. Based on this, we can conclude with some certainty that many children in Ann Arbor come from higher-income homes. What we can’t conclude (and I’m not saying anyone implied this) is that A2 schools (or any other district) has better teachers. There are great teachers in all corners of our region, but my aim was to highlight some of the outstanding educators and programs in the Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS). The new district has a bold vision and a strong commitment to equity.

MARK: And how is it that you’ve seen this “bold vision and strong commitment to equality” play out in Ypsi schools? What tangible, positive changes have you seen since the launch of the new district in 2013?

SUSAN: Well, two of district’s five pillars are Cultural Competency and Restorative Practices, approaches grounded in the principles of democracy and responsibility to the larger community. I saw these principles come to life through a course at the middle school focused on diversity, equity and sustainable communities. The project was a partnership between the district and Creative Change. The course, taught 2013-2014 school year, wove topics such as racial equity and community change into social studies and language arts instruction. Three interdisciplinary teams of teachers delivered the program, reaching over 300 students. I worked with the teachers to help plan the program, and provided a collection of lessons to support the instruction.

MARK: So your job, at least in part, was to ensure that the lesson plans fulfilled curriculum objectives laid out by the state…

SUSAN: Yes, of course. The standards must be addressed in any type of program we offer. Interestingly, Common Core does not dictate specific texts or content; rather, the standards provide learning outcomes that teachers can meet in multiple ways. Many schools rely on commercially-developed materials that promise alignment to the standards, but the Ypsilanti teachers used compelling, authentic content as a context for meeting the outcomes. That’s what makes their work so unique.

MARK: And what did these 300 students address in this course?

SUSAN: Through the course, students investigated diversity, equity, and community vitality, all in the context of history and literacy instruction. The program also engaged students in tough conversations about race and discrimination. For example, students explored race-based land use policies after World War II and their role in regional segregation. They also examined their own stereotypes and the sources of their beliefs.

MARK: And I assume that, at the end of the term, these students were tested, right? What did those test reveal?

SUSAN: We administered a pre- and post-test to assess changes in key literacy skills such as interpreting graphs and charts and supporting claims with evidence. These skills are among those emphasized in the new (and controversial) Common Core standards your readers may have heard about.

The test consisted of a reading selection with multiple-choice and essay questions. The reading focused the race-based housing policies after World War II and their impacts on regional segregation. Students had to interpret data to explain changes in Detroit’s demographics. For the written question, students used evidence to assess if the housing policies supported institutional discrimination. Overall, we wanted to evaluate students’ ability to think about equity from a systems perspective–one that connects causes and effects at the policy level.

We worked with the University of Michigan Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program to score the tests. The post-tests showed gains of up to 20%, with clear improvement in writing. Students also brought in ideas from the history and literature they were studying as part of the course… If you’re interested, the final report is available online.

MARK: I have no idea how such things are studied in academia, but I imagine that, in order to state definitively that one curriculum is “better” than another, you need to follow pretty rigorous protocols, screen students carefully, establish control groups, etc. In other words, it’s great that these students improved, but it’s conceivable, isn’t it, that other factors may have played a role? Assuming that’s a possibility, do you have plans to move forward with a more rigorous study?

SUSAN: You make a good point. We’d love to do a study with a control group. Unfortunately, the resources aren’t there for that.

Overall, the project provided rich and challenging content delivered by highly skilled teachers. They made the material engaging and appropriate for students’ developmental levels while also connecting the content to the standards. I feel quite confident that these factors had a positive impact on achievement. The teachers also reported that achievement increased on other assessments they administered, and that the learning climate improved.

Too often, “diversity” instruction is superficial or watered down to feel-good slogans or one-time cultural events. It’s truly rare to engage students in deeper investigations of institutionalized inequalities–and rarer yet to do this in ways that support literacy skills.

MARK: I don’t think there’s any question that kids learn better when they relate to the material that they’re given, when it make sense to them within the context of their own experience…

SUSAN: Absolutely. “Culturally responsive” pedagogy means (among other things) grounding topics in students’ lives and experiences, and using that as a bridge to academics. This is exactly what the teachers did. (It’s worth noting that the district provided teachers with extensive professional development on these approaches as part of its commitment to cultural competency.)

MARK: As someone who develops curricula, I’m curious to know your thoughts on both Common Core and this new test-driven environment we seem to find ourselves in. Personally, I’m more inclined to say that we should hire great teachers, pay them well, and give them the freedom to teach their classes, within reason, as they see fit, assuming, of course, that the children in their classes can demonstrate some level of proficiency. It seems to me, however, that we’re moving into a world where teachers are seen by those in government as little more than script readers, who should be rewarded by how well the children in their care memorize things, and not by whether they can help kids discover what they love, and turn them into good, bright, innovative, free-thinking, contributing citizens. I could go on, but I think you’ve probably heard this a thousand times before…

SUSAN: This topic is certainly big enough for its own discussion, but here are a few thoughts: While the Common Core standards are new, high-stakes testing is not. The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) ushered in an era of testing tied to escalating sanctions for “failing” schools. In response, many schools have narrowed the curriculum to focus on the two tested areas, English and math. Common Core continues the NCLB policy, but with new. and more demanding, tests. Backers of Common Core claim the standards support higher-level thinking skills, but if “teaching to the test” intensifies, critical thinking will be the first casualty.

MARK: As you said at the beginning, we know that there’s a strong, and even predictive, correlation between a child’s test scores and his/her parents’ income. Given that, it’s hard for me to see NCLB as anything but an attempt on the part of the Bush administration to cut funding for poor schools, paving the way for privatization. I try my best not to indulge in conspiracy theories, but, given the way that things have played out, it seems logical to me that NCLB was passed with the intention of privatizing public education under the guise of helping kids in “bad” schools, thereby weakening the teachers union. I don’t have a question for you here. I just find it difficult to talk about NCLB without venting.

SUSAN: You don’t have to be much of conspiracy theorist to make those conclusions. Over the past decade, we’ve seen that schools attended by low-income students and students of color are more likely to be labeled as “failures.” This subjects the schools to restructuring schemes that strip control from teachers and communities — witness the The Educational Achievement Authority — while often funneling resources to private, for-profit companies. Corporations have also made millions from the testing industry that grew from NCLB.

The fingerprints of private interests are also all over Common Core, from its developers to its funders and advocates. Achieve, one of the organizations involved in Common Core, has long worked with the corporate community on education “reform.” The testing industry was heavily involved in the development of the standards and is making tens of millions of dollars on the new tests. I agree that businesses, like all sectors of society, have a stake in quality education. But their goals are economic, not civic.

The Common Core mission statement is especially telling. It focuses on “college and career readiness” so that our communities can “compete in the global economy.” A strong economy is crucial, but will it be an economy that sustains the environment it depends on? Answering that question requires the critical thinking Common Core aims to deliver. But can that happen when the standards are built on the mindset of global competition? I believe that citizenship, not economic competitiveness, is the purpose of schooling. It’s time to reclaim that civic mission.

MARK: Speaking of politics, I’m curious to know what kind of response you’ve gotten with the Creative Change curriculum. Have you gotten any pushback on the content? We do, after all, live in a society in which several people refuse to accept the reality of global warming, and become incredibly defensive at even the the most casual mention of the racial inequality that exists in this country.

SUSAN: Sure, there is a faction that is vehemently opposed to the type of work we are doing. They label education for sustainable development as “education for sustainable tyranny,” and believe that it is “prepar[ing] children to accept the total transformation of America under global totalitarian control.” They decry teaching children concepts such as interdependence — the idea that people, societies, and the environment are all connected. Fact: Interdependence is not a totalitarian plot; it’s a basic principle about how the world works, with a firm grounding in fundamental laws of physics and biology.

Overall, though, Creative Change has been very successful in a range of settings, including conservative communities and religious schools. No matter who we’re working with, we frame our work with this question: “What will it take to create healthy, democratic communities where all can thrive?” And I’ve yet to find a single person who does not want this. Granted, how we get there can certainly become political, but having common ground at the beginning enables us to continually ask, “Is this policy/economic approach/etc. getting us to that healthy community?

Moreover, the military sees issues such as climate change as a security concern. The economic and social instability created by extreme environmental changes will escalate conflicts. But there are some incredible visionaries within the military. I would highly suggest people read “A National Strategic Narrative,” a treatise on sustainability authored by two top-ranking Pentagon officials. The document questions the Cold War agenda of zero-sum competition and puts forth a national vision grounded in diplomacy, human rights, sustainability and education. Here’s my favorite quote: “Dominance, like fossil fuels, is not a sustainable form of power.” I have been so inspired by this work.

Here’s the bottom line: Today’s students must learn how to adapt to climate change, transition to renewable energy, feed a growing global population, provide clean water for all, and build democratic and peaceful societies. When the military is paying attention to these issues, it’s hard to say they’re an agenda designed to dismantle US sovereignty and deliver us into the hands of a one-world socialist government orchestrated by the UN. (Yes, this is some of the thinking out there.)

As far as this concerns Common Core, here’s the good news: As I mentioned, the standards do not dictate specific texts or content (although some are recommended). Teachers can use sustainability topics as a context for teaching Common Core skills such as defending a position with evidence, or determining an author’s purpose. This is exactly what the Ypsilanti teachers did. And they’re doing it again this year in the middle school world history curriculum. Students will examine ancient civilizations and the environment, economic and social influences that led to success or collapse. Armed with these insights, students will investigate the environmental and economic changes facing the region (including climate change), and develop ways to create a more sustainable and resilient future. We’re planning a community event as part of this, so stay tuned.

Readers interested in these approaches may benefit from these short videos, which provide strategies for meeting the language arts and math standards through sustainability topics.

MARK: I’m curious about that space… that wiggle room you have around the perimeter of Common Core and No Child Left Behind… where you still have some freedom to operate and try new things. Is there any fear that this space might become more narrow?

SUSAN: I think Common Core is here to stay in Michigan. Teacher evaluation is the next frontier for accountability, and many are concerned these evaluations will rely too heavily on students’ standardized test scores. I’ve yet to meet anyone who is against accountability; however, given the heavy influence of out-of-school factors (such as parents’ income) on test scores, educators are right to question the weight those scores should have in teacher evaluations. If policies echo the punitive nature of NCLB and use inaccurate measures to punish “bad teachers,” it’s reasonable to conclude that teaching to the test will intensify. This will narrow the space for trying new things as you describe.

On the other hand, I think the new Next Generation Science Standards present a good opportunity for educators. These standards identify specific topics — including climate change — while emphasizing scientific processes and “cross-cutting concepts” such as systems thinking. I find much to like about these standards, and think they will support the scientific literacy students need to make informed decisions. At this point, science is not a tested subject under NCLB. That alone may provide more room for teachers to use innovative approaches.

This entry was posted in Education, Sustainability, Uncategorized, Ypsilanti and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Posted December 29, 2014 at 7:42 am | Permalink


    While I support the effort, I wonder if this might not be walking a very thin line, In essence, politics are being introduced into a school curriculum, and while that set of politics may be acceptable to some, it may not be acceptable to others.

    Does she see potential problems with parents who might not support her brand of leftist politics and how would she respond?

    Again, I’m not arguing against the effort, but it would seem to be a potentially sensitive issue particularly with very conservative parents.

    Forgive me if I am misunderstanding.

  2. Posted December 29, 2014 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Understand also that my comment is related to a discussion I had with a libertarian friend of mine who took issue with leftist courses in Universities.

  3. Posted December 29, 2014 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    I argued that his worries were overblown.

  4. Posted December 29, 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Ah, I see that she addresses it in the last section of the interview.

    Thank you.

  5. anonymous
    Posted December 29, 2014 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    You’d be amazed how many questions are answered by actually reading the interviews, Dr. Larson.

  6. Curtis Evans
    Posted December 29, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    The work is about preparing students to make the world a better place. As someone who served 20 years in the Navy, this doesn’t seem leftist. It seems democratic. And yes, she addresses this well in the interview, noting the work has been successful in conservative and religious contexts.

  7. Meta
    Posted December 29, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    I’m reminded of this quote from the 2013 article in Salon about corporate education reform:

    “For all the elite media’s slobbering profiles of public school bashers like Mayors Rahm Emanuel and Michael Bloomberg, for all of the media’s hagiographic worship of scandal-plagued activist-profiteers like Michelle Rhee, and for all the ‘reform’ movement’s claims that the traditional public school system and teachers unions are to blame for America’s education problems, poverty and economic inequality are the root of the problem.”

    Read more:

  8. Meta
    Posted December 29, 2014 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Also of interest.

    “Exploring Michelle Rhee’s destructive influence over Michigan education reform”

  9. Posted December 29, 2014 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Conservative anti-intellectualism is a real threat. Efforts like this have the potential to provide fuel for their mostly overblown criticisms of education in general.

    Outside of the interests of fairness, I think that it is important to be aware of how efforts like this might be twisted and used against us.

  10. Eel
    Posted December 29, 2014 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Are you suggesting that we only develop curricula in America that the far right will not find fault in, Peter? Shall we eliminate any mention of evolution? Shall we paint slavery as a positive for those ungrateful slaves brought over from Africa? Shall we not mention the separation of church and state? Shall we teach Ayn Rand as literature?

  11. Demetrius
    Posted December 29, 2014 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    “I try my best not to indulge in conspiracy theories, but, given the way that things have played out, it seems logical to me that NCLB was passed with the intention of privatizing public education under the guise of helping kids in “bad” schools, thereby weakening the teachers union.”

    I appreciate Ms. Santone’s reluctance to point fingers … but is there any question, at this point, that NCLB was nothing less than the capstone of a 30+ year-long effort (on the part of the right) to destroy universal, free, public education in the United States?

  12. Posted December 29, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Ummm… no?

    But one has to be careful when introducing potentially politically sensitive topics in schools. The push back might be intense.

  13. Posted December 29, 2014 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    I was responding to Eel’s comment.

  14. Dan Blakeney
    Posted December 29, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I liked this from the interview:
    ” “What will it take to create healthy, democratic communities where all can thrive?” And I’ve yet to find a single person who does not want this.

    Granted, how we get there can certainly become political, but having common ground at the beginning enables us to continually ask, “Is this policy/economic approach/etc. getting us to that healthy community?” ”

    To my mind – the test for any practice, president, or policy, is “how does this help our citizenry?” I like Susan Santone’s thinking.

  15. John Galt
    Posted December 29, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    There is no substitute for hands-on education. It’s one thing to tell a child that 5 ten-pound buckets equals 50 pounds. It’s another to give them a tiny axe and a bucket and tell them that they won’t eat unless they put 50 of coal on the scale. Their understanding of addition will be instantaneous.

  16. Posted December 29, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    I think part of the problem is that she uses a vocabulary which is associated with leftist causes. Words like “sustainability” and “social justice” don’t bring up images of healthy, market based communities, but rather crushing bureaucracy and rigid, poorly thought out government rules.

    Again, I have nothing against what she’s doing, but I do think that she and people like her need to back away from semantics which are associated with specific political groups and positions.

  17. Eel
    Posted December 29, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    I agree. She should use the word “freedom” more, and phrases like “market based solutions” and “America is the best country on the earth.”

  18. Jcp2
    Posted December 29, 2014 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    If poverty predicts 2/3 of school outcome, does it really matter what we do with common core and/or school reform if we don’t address economic inequality?

  19. Posted December 29, 2014 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    “I agree. She should use the word “freedom” more, and phrases like “market based solutions” and “America is the best country on the earth.””

    I find this response interesting. It seems that you are suggesting that I am advocating for a right wing position, when I am not.

    But perhaps you are not suggesting that at all. It is hard to say.

  20. Oliva
    Posted December 29, 2014 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    I thought Eel was poking fun at the Right’s appropriation of words like “freedom” to argue anything they want to and get lots of, well, free support, via sentimentalism, kneejerkiness, and stuff.

    As for the interview here, I appreciate it but don’t recognize our experience of one Ypsilanti school last year in the discussion. The teachers had taken a huge pay cut and had no union, and clearly everyone was getting a very bad deal. Not good or fair! But it was an abominable situation that was soul squashing from day 1. “Preschool to prison pipeline,” the worst of authoritarian rule and the rough introduction to the power of hierarchies, with children of color, esp. boys, down at the very bottom. School could be a glorious, liberating encounter/opportunity, but this was more of a place of punishment and rules and dullest learning. That was elementary school, and the discussion here seems to focus on older children. I hope for the best, love the promise of public education . . . Maybe it was just so bad because it was the first year of the new school system, and some teachers were resentful and plain tired. But I know of other schools in low-income areas that have similar situations. Just so wrong when good alternatives are really possible and many great teachers want to teach well and want to love their work.

  21. Posted December 30, 2014 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Jcp2 asked:

    If poverty predicts 2/3 of school outcome, does it really matter what we do with common core and/or school reform if we don’t address economic inequality?

    Oooh, you hit on a topic near and dear to me, friend. It is such a complicated issue, and I have perhaps just seen the worst of it so YMMV on the issue. Let me say that I’ve worked with kids in poverty and kids not in poverty. There are some very common things that happen with the former group: parent absent or not able (because of a variety of issues) to devote time to reading/working with the child, unstable living situation (dirty, nasty area, lack of cleaning supplies), child comes to school not at all prepared to be there (not able to sit still having never been made to do that, not knowing how to hold a pen/pencil, doesn’t know letters, etc.). This does not, of course, happen in all cases, but it happens in enough that I feel confident saying it is common. Poverty fucks with you and fucks with you and just when you think the fucking is done, that’s when the real fucking begins. It’s relentless.

    So after about a year or two in school, kids are either reading at grade level, able to do math, able to sit still and be in class, or they aren’t. If the child is not in poverty and has attentive parents, there are usually additional therapies or tutoring that get put into place. If the child is in poverty, the parent(s) probably can’t afford anything and so the child continues to fall. Also, and I think this is important to note–there are often (not always) very low expectations for the children. When I was in Detroit, I had several families who knew their children would “get a check” for life and that was enough. If the kids didn’t learn to read, do higher math, etc., then so what? It didn’t matter to them. (This was NOT the majority, but I had more than two families express this).

    By second grade, if you can’t read, you are probably fucked. (Remember what I said? Just when you think it’s over, that’s when the real fucking begins). Special education has been decimated to the point where sometimes, all you get is a teacher like me with you for 1/2 hour a week. Or if you’re lucky, you might get 1/2 hour a day in a “special” class with other kids at all different levels. If you are REALLY lucky, you might have an actual resource program with co-teaching and a resource room for additional “services”. See, the wording in special education has changed and now we offer “services” instead of being a “place” to learn. It makes all the difference, but that’s another post. Some kids are absolutely successful with just a little extra help! Yay! But others need so much more.

    So now you are in middle to upper elementary, and all the Common Core in the world isn’t really going to help. If you can’t read, or if you can’t comprehend what you are reading, you are in trouble. We do have materials available on CD, MP3, etc., so that helps, but it isn’t addressing the root problem of not being able to read. (But remember, I am just offering “services”!) We pass kids along because what else can you do? Have a nonreading 14 year old in the second grade? That’s creepy.

    That said, I am not at all anti-Common Core and I personally LOVE the sustainability idea! I think that may be a place for kids to really shine. I’m just saying that JCP2’s original question is valid. We can Common Core or we can Grade Level Content Expectation or we can have a Reading Rainbow cakewalk right down the center of Lansing, but unless we address the underlying issue of poverty/inequality, I don’t know how the end result will change. What’s that saying…repeating the same thing over and over again is the definition of what again??

  22. Posted December 30, 2014 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    “Poverty fucks with you and fucks with you and just when you think the fucking is done, that’s when the real fucking begins. It’s relentless.”

    I can state from experience that this is totally true. Childhood poverty is something you carry around for life. I’m white so I am given particular advantages, but for a lot of poor kids, even solving income inequality won’t fix everything.

    Poverty isn’t just about how much money you bring home. It’s also about how society views you and determines your relative worth. Simply raising the income of the poorest or decreasing the income of the richest) won’t make them any more valuable to society than before. It’s going to take a radical change in how people view each other to truly eliminate the problems of poverty in the US.

  23. Brainless
    Posted December 30, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Peter, maybe you should just sit this one out. I can’t make the least bit of sense out of anything you’re saying. Is someone behind you forcing you to comment? Post a Fox News link for “yes” and a drawing of Mark’s penis for “no”.

  24. Posted December 30, 2014 at 4:36 pm | Permalink


  25. Posted December 30, 2014 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    I’m wondering what is so difficult to understand, Mr. Brainless.

    I said

    1. When designing educational programs for public schools branded with terms like “sustainability” and “social justice”, one should anticipate that conservatives will mindlessly pick up on such terms and use them as political weapons. Because they will.

    2. Poverty is about more than just income inequality.

  26. PrincessTinyMeat
    Posted January 1, 2015 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Ypsi schools are a disaster. Some A2 schools are marginally better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


BUY LOCAL... or shop at Amazon through this link Banner Initiative Jodi Lynn