Let’s clear the fog of confusion by shining light with our real stories about the Common Core.
The summer of 2011, I had homework. Each teacher at my school was assigned to spend at least 6 hours combing the new Common Core State Standards, comparing the old state curriculum, and taking detailed notes. As I evaluated the fifth grade math standards, I first noticed:
- Concepts that had been developmentally beyond even my most advanced fifth graders had been moved to higher grades (such as surface area).
- Concepts that had been unchallenging for most of my students had been shifted to lower grades (such as basic order of operations).
- Concepts that had previously emphasized just teaching an equation had expanded to be more in-depth and investigative (such as volume).
- in general, the math concepts taught remained the same–just with more depth and critical thinking.
In fact, as I wrapped up those notes, I wrote,
In all, the emphasis is now heavily placed on models to really understand how and why the operations work. For example, much of the emphasis in volume is placed on understanding that it is packed with cubes without gaps or overlaps, [rather than just teaching the formula].
Year One Teaching the Standards
Delighted with the developmentally appropriate changes, we updated our scope and sequences in math and language arts and began the school year. And while it was sometimes a challenge to find ways to dig deeper, I appreciated knowing fifth grade teachers across the country could collaborate to find solutions–a shift that was made evident as I observed an increase in shared online resources like LearnZillion and Khan Academy. Best of all, I watched my students rise to the challenge of cultivating genuine number sense–instead of just memorizing shallow tricks.
As for language arts, I noted on my class blog several standards that I found to be an improvement for similar reasons of increased depth and clarity.
That fall, it had never occurred to me that this curriculum would soon face bitter resistance. As the criticisms started to arise, I was further baffled by the fact that they rarely seemed based on individual standards themselves. Instead, I’d usually hear comments that made “Common Core” sound like a single and monstrous entity (ie “Common Core is assigning students to throw out the Bill of Rights;” “Common Core requires impossible math problems;” “Common Core is mandating sex ed in kindergarten;” “Common Core is dismantling local control of education”). Over the course of the year, I found myself sending emails to my students’ parents to convey reassurances. Little did I know that that was just the beginning.
A few years of widely-circulating falsehoods and exaggerated claims apparently takes its toll on public opinion; according to a recent poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University, “a 55 percent majority said “the Common Core covers at least two subjects that it does not.” Certain individuals are so convinced of conspiracy theories that they respond to basic facts–such as the Common Core only covering English and math–with assertions like, “Anyone who says this is just about English and Math is misleading you” (a comment that was ironically given on the above-referenced article).
Unfortunately, not all the issues with public opinion have been the fault of perpetuated misconceptions. Since the Common Core is in fact state and locally implemented, some schools did so poorly. As Pam Allyn wrote in “Let’s Not Opt out of the Common Core,”
State departments of education launched the Common Core by mandating assessments and linking them to teacher evaluations. In this crucial way, they put the cart before the horse. This all happened before ensuring that all schools had the resources needed (books and technology to start) and before training teachers effectively in new methodologies and best practices for the new era. This was not sensible.
Others debate about what they perceive to be developmentally inappropriate curriculum for kindergarten. In another Washington Post article, a Massachusetts grandparent comments,
My 5-year-old grandson adored his play-based preschool, but it was a different story when he started an all-day, very academic, public kindergarten. From the first day he had mostly worksheets and table tasks, which he said were “hard.” On the fifth day of kindergarten he refused to go to school, locked himself in his bedroom, and hid under his bed!
But as educator and author J. Richard Gentry simply states in a recent article, “Well-trained kindergarten teachers don’t subject children to hours of drill and stacks of worksheets. Your child should not be engaging in that kind of instruction.” He also responds to concerns about too-rigorous standards in kindergarten by clarifying what exactly those standards entail. For example, one contested language arts standard reads, “Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.” Gentry explains that this refers to memory reading in which, “The emergent-reader text is first modeled by the teacher for the students, then joyfully read over and over with the students until eventually the easy book is independently read by the students with great joy and confidence.”
Spreading Awareness with New Common Core Stories
In “Let’s Not Opt Out of the Common Core,” Pam Allyn goes on to offer additional clarification for misunderstandings, and then calls on individuals to “tell a new Common Core story:”
Stories about how students are now given more access to authentic and diverse texts in the classroom, are being encouraged to talk more about the deeper ideas in the texts, are encouraged to do the kind of research that matters in their own lives, are given the opportunity to share their opinions in ways that enhance their skills.
I finish my Common Core story by offering further anecdotes to help spread understanding:
Some assert the Common Core allows the federal government to control education?
→ My fifth grade team and I selected the language arts program with which we wanted to teach the ELA Common Core standards (which our entire school later adopted, too).
Some assert the Common Core involves more than just English and math?
→ When we revamped our scope and sequence to align to the Common Core, math and language arts were altered. Our units in everything else (science, social studies, health, art, etc.) stayed the same.
Some assert that Common Core is just too hard?
→ I have witnessed the difference between the student instructed to just “memorize a math trick” and the student who takes ownership as a real mathematician, experiencing real success as she comes to understand the process. I have also witnessed the difference between a student who is assigned to read and then write 10 poems just to memorize structures of limericks, sonnets, and haikus, and the student who is asked to review high quality poetry to analyze, find meanings, and defend conclusions. The biggest difference: the Common Core is encouraging teachers to help students grow as confident and critically thinking learners.
If you are involved in teaching and learning with the Common Core, it’s up to you to share your new Common Core story, too.
Michael Shaheen (featured image)
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