Tuesday, September 24, 2013

In Defense of Reason: Educating Oneself on the Common Core

Several events that happened yesterday led me to spend most of my children's nap-time studying the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I approached this research with some knowledge on the subject. As a former teacher, I know exactly what is meant by the word "Standards" in the CCSS title. CCSS was set to be implemented the year after I left the field, so though I have a basic knowledge of how standards drive classroom instruction, I have never actually taught with CCSS. I felt like this basic background knowledge but lack of immediate contact with CCSS would give me the critical eye that is much needed in the debate over the CCSS.

First and foremost, I learned too many Americans have no idea what is meant by "common" and what is meant by "standards." In fact, a Gallup poll showed 62% of Americans have never even heard of CCSS. Whoa, then what is all the fuss about? 

Well, there are three key groups opposing the CCSS. Like most opposition forces, they are the fringe. Still, their voices deserve to be heard. But I wanted to hear other voices, particularly the voices of high quality teachers. Study after study shows that educators and parents in the know actually support the CCSS. One study even found that 44% of teachers think the new CCSS are as good as their old state mandated standards, and 49% believe they are actually better than their old state standards. Surely this has to be viewed as a victory for education reform.

What is meant by standards
I believe much of the misunderstanding out there exists because non-educators do not know what a teaching standard is. Want an example? 

     8.W-I.1. Write stories or scripts that include 
          • well-developed characters and setting, 
          • dialogue, 
          • clear conflict and resolution, and
          • sufficient descriptive detail.

And how about one more example, for comparisons sake?
  • W.8.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
    • W.8.3a Engage and orient the reader by establishing a context and point of view and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically.
    • W.8.3b Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, and reflection, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.
    • W.8.3c Use a variety of transition words, phrases, and clauses to convey sequence, signal shifts from one time frame or setting to another, and show the relationships among experiences and events.
    • W.8.3d Use precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language to capture the action and convey experiences and events.
    • W.8.3e Provide a conclusion that follows from and reflects on the narrated experiences or events.
To you, my dear reader the above two standards may seem foreign at first glance. Let me help 
decode them for you. The 8 in each standard's title indicates that these are both 8th grade English standards. The W indicates that they are writing standards. The I-1 and 3 indicate what number the standard is in their respective documents. The bullet points are the set of skills a student must demonstrate in order to be considered proficient in this standard, the rubric if you will. Now, I'd ask you to go back and read through both of them again, asking yourself which standard you think is more rigorous. Both standards are asking students to do the same thing, and that is (in simplest terms) to write a story. Which standard would you want your 14-year-old to master?

Did you re-read them? Do you have your answer?

Well, the first standard is the DCPS standard that I used to grade a student's proficiency for story writing. The second standard is what CCSS considers proficient. I have my opinions as to which is more rigorous, but I won't taint your decision with my opinion. Decide for yourself which is more rigorous. And then know, that the DCPS standards were considered some of the most rigorous in the country (only because they were adopted straight from Massachusetts) prior to CCSS. 

If you have more questions about how teachers use standards in the classroom, either in their lesson planning, teaching execution, or assessment development, feel free to ask me those questions in the comments. I'd love to address those complex dynamics, but it would probably require a completely separate post. I'll do it if there is interest. 

What is meant by Common
Let me give you a scenario that plays out in every school across America -- the new kid moves to town. 

When new students arrived at the middle school where I taught there was often confusion as to what math class they should be in. Our school offered pre-algebra, algebra, and geometry to our 8th grade students. Students coming from other states would show up with a transcript that said they were in 8th grade math. Well, what was the equivalent of 8th grade math for our school? These students would be given a test, to assess their proficiency in math. One such student was found highly proficient and more than ready for the rigors of Geometry. But we soon found out that 8th grade math in their former school was algebra. So what was to be done? Place the student in the class that would provide the best challenge for their skill set, or keep them in a "lower" math class so that they could obtain all the learning necessary to move on to those more rigorous classes in High School? The later was always the conclusion we came to. It was more important that a student gain all the skills (ie master all the standards) they need to succeed in later math classes, than to have them worrying about "status" amongst their peers. But the whole process always came with a lot of frustration on the part of the student, their family, and the math teacher. 

Common, as in Common Core State Standards, will eliminate this problem. Well, almost eliminate it. There are 5 states who have not adopted the Common Core State Standards, so if you move to or from one of those 5 states you will still run into this frustration. CCSS assures that all 3rd graders, regardless of where they live, will be taught to multiply and divide within 100. Can you imagine the frustration you would have as a parent if your child had been taught only multiplication in 3rd grade, and then at the beginning of their 4th grade year you moved to a new state, where all your child's peers had been taught multiplication and division in 3rd grade. Your child is immediately disadvantaged and almost a year behind their peers. Outrageous!

At its Core
It was this kind of lunacy that prompted the birth of CCSS. Despite what you may hear on the news, this was NOT a federal government mandate. It was a bi-partisan initiative that started with state governors. Award winning Educators helped prepare the drafts and design the standards. Research and rigor guided their cause. This was in no way a brainchild of the Department of Education. 

There are a lot of rumors circulating about what is wrong with the Common Core. I would be more than willing to write a follow up post explaining exactly what can (and will) go wrong with the implementation of Common Core. But I assure you that dumbing down education, teaching to the middle, mandating curriculum, and government takeover are not likely outcomes of this initiative. The people who are accusing it of such lack the basic background knowledge needed to understand how standards are used in everyday classrooms. 

I fully support everyone coming to their own conclusion on the topic of Common Core State Standards, but please be informed about whatever conclusion you come to. As you read the opinions of others (even mine) ask yourself what their motive is. Is the veteran teacher who is complaining about it just too lazy to make meaningful changes? Is the pundit tearing it down using fear and controversy to improve their ratings? Is the textbook company praising it looking to make millions off its implementation? 

When it comes down to the bare bones, look over your state's previous teaching standards and compare them to CCSS. Ask yourself which set of learning standards you'd rather have your child master. Then get involved at the local level, ensuring that whatever standards are used, your child's teacher has the support and resources needed to help your child master them. 

Teachers shouldn't have to invest their time and energy fighting politicians who don't put our kids needs first.

Their future is my motive

Updated posts:


Anonymous said...

At least for Utah, the Common Core, renamed "Utah Core Standards" to avoid politics, is much more rigorous than our former Core. It requires critical thinking and tons of writing.

One complaint I receive often is that the Math is too hard. The reason it is too hard stems from the critical thinking aspect. Parents can't help their kids do it because parents were not taught to think. They were taught algorithms and if you gave them the formula, they could do the problem -- well the formula was always in the instructions at the top of the page. That's how I was taught and that's how you were probably taught too.

The "Utah Core Standards" in Math are a good combination of algorithms and inquiry based learning (thinking). The argument I use for the "new" Math is the same one I used with learning to read. There are two schools of thought -- phonics and whole language. You gotta have both!

The Common Core is the only way to go and if "you know who" destroys it, it will be a major win for them, as they desire a nation of illiterates, so they can reign upon the little people and "bless" their lives with the scraps from the overflowing tables.

I loved your blog sis. Love, Pa

Troy and Lisa said...

Loved this post! I was excited when I saw it on facebook and finally read it today. I have too many friends posting crazy stories about how the common core is now causing schools to teach abortion (what!?!) and other crazy ideas. Yours is the first thing I read that actually made sense. As a teacher, I was all for it (although quit the same time you did). I taught in a transient school and it was sad to see kids so lost and confused, even within our district, because the schools picked which math program to use and in what order to implement it. Common Core seems obvious, and it's not the scary, liberal, government takeover people are posting about on fb!

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