The Common Core Standards: The Chatter vs. The Truth
Recent soundbytes have offered continued opposition to the use of the common core standards in public schools. Everyone from President Trump to the cashier at the local grocery store has managed to form an opinion about why we should or should not be using the common core standards. Interestingly enough, it is highly unlikely that those most vocal in their opposition, truly understand what the common core actually is. Many believe it is the federal government’s way of imposing undue influence in educational decisions that are constitutionally granted to individual states. Others question the need to change the methods of teaching math. And still others suggest the intent is to indoctrinate students by controlling the rhetoric and information introduced in schools.
The common core standards are a set of academic expectations including those for math and English Language Arts, which include reading and writing both informational text and literature.
While they can be broad and repetitive, they present a sequence of skills and concepts that spiral from one standard to another, and across grade levels from Kindergarten through 12th grade. More simply stated, mastery of standards in 2nd grade are needed to master standards in 3rd grade, and so on. For example, a 4th grade standard requires students to be able to describe characters, setting, or events occurring in a story. Mastery of this skill is needed, as students will then be required to compare characters, settings and events in a story, when in 5th grade. Each set of skills are the building blocks for the next.
Educators deconstruct or unwrap the standards in order to identify the teaching and learning targets. “Unwrapping” the standards refers to breaking down each one to specifically identify what students should know or be able to do, and how they will demonstrate that they know or can do it. The process enables the educators to divide the new skills and concepts into smaller, sequential learning chunks that teachers can then use in lesson planning. What makes the standards common is that, aside from a few modifications included by each state, a student whose family moves, for example, from NY to Arizona will receive instruction based upon the same set of standards. Moreover, students attending public school in Yuma will be exposed to the same rigorous standards as student attending in Scottsdale.
The greatest differences between the traditional standards and the common core are found in the the application of the new learning. Educators are finding that having students practice new skills and concepts by applying them in real-work scenarios during each lesson, directly impacts learning. It is the primary intent of the new academic standards to facilitate college and career readiness for all students equitably.
Opponents of the core standards have complained that they are unnecessarily difficult. For example, the math standards call for multiple methods of solving, which have caused numerous accounts of parents left scratching their heads when trying to help with math homework. The frustration of new methods, increased rigor, and online testing has caused many to become cynical about this new direction of education.
Mathematics has not changed since the time of Archimedes! In reality, the methods and mathematical practices in the common core require students to reason abstractly and quantitatively, create a model to show their thinking, and be able to explain in writing how they arrived at their answers. While admittedly, the process is more complex, it is meant to facilitate learning math at a level of conceptual understanding, rather than a memorized set of rules. Conceptual understanding is not just knowing that something works, but knowing how and why it works, as you would in your job.
The Truth About The Chatter
While the chatter continues, educators in the trenches are discovering that teaching to the full intent of the standards has the potential to change American education, as we know it. It is a curious thing that in all of the banter among state and federal leaders, no one has asked if it works. It is also curious that they want less for public schools, when most of their children attend private schools. There is a German quote that says, “Sie predigen von Wasser, während Wein trinken.”, which means, “They preach of water, while drinking wine.”
The truth is, when you want to know if a new procedure would cure your heart disease, you would not have the Governor weigh in. You would not check the Fox News feeds. And you would not rely on Donald Trump’s tweets on the matter. You would exercise common sense and ask a healthcare practitioner. Even with a new procedure, the practitioner’s experience outweighs any other input. Perhaps we might defer to education professionals on this one. Perhaps we should treat our students and future citizens as we would treat our hearts…as though our lives depend on it.
Jacqulyne Hardiesty is a veteran educator who has served as a teacher, academic coach, school principal, district STEM Director and professional development facilitator. She currently is a designer of STEM curriculum and standards-based instructional resources.