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Education Trends

The Common Core Debate: One Teacher Vs. The Experts

Perhaps the most authoritative voices on the Common Core’s effectiveness should be those of veteran teachers with hands-on experience about how students learn.

July 7, 2015

For years, I've been saying that the Common Core State Standards needed true teacher voice in order to succeed. Millions, however wittingly, have taken on the challenge, reading denser passages in English and complicating their math problems. Whenever we talk about the standards, we rarely hear about what's actually happening in classrooms beside what I view as outliers: the intense schools with kids crying their eyes out during a test, homework assignments that many of the math teachers I speak with would rebuke, and mass movements of opting out across larger states.

And I'm a teacher whose professional duty is teaching to the Common Core, and have done so to fidelity (more on this later) for the last five years. In that vein, I've decided to jot down some notes comparing the original claims I heard those five fateful years ago to what I've actually experienced since then.

The Assessments

I'll do my best to work around this because many of us signed a non-disclosure agreement, so we can't reveal much about the contents of state exams. On a cursory level, I find the tests fair in comparison to my teaching. In New York State, we work with three sections (books) for math, with the first two strictly multiple-choice questions and the third open-ended response. I don't give multiple-choice questions in my teacher-created quizzes because I don't see a real skill in completing those. When I asked students for general feedback about the exams, they found them fair and comparable to the stuff I taught. Granted, I rarely trust the students because multiple-choice always seems easy until you get the results back. But I trusted them when the third book came and they found it the most difficult.

Based on what the students told me, the questions weren't far from our in-class assignments, but it made me take a step back and look at the standards themselves.

The Standards

Student Achievement Partners (Sue Pimentel, Jason Zimba, and David Coleman) sold us on the idea that we'd have fewer and more rigorous standards. They'd compared individual states' standards with the CCSS and found that most states had anywhere from 15-40 percent difference in rigor. As a teacher, I don't know how one measures that exactly, but at the time, it sounded convincing to my district and state. When the CCSS first came out, many high school teachers just noticed that the math high school standards got pushed down to the middle grades. I was willing to give them a chance, because the old New York standards looked like a laundry list compared to the guideline-driven CCSS.

I should have been more critical of this element, because this too posed problems. For all intents and purposes, the CCSS has the same amount of standards, but they're tucked away more neatly inside the standard. For example, this standard, Math 8.F.A.3, is deceivingly open-ended:

"Interpret the equation y = mx + b as defining a linear function, whose graph is a straight line; give examples of functions that are not linear. For example, the function A = s2 giving the area of a square as a function of its side length is not linear because its graph contains the points (1,1), (2,4) and (3,9), which are not on a straight line."

At first, this doesn’t seem so bad. Coupled with my month-long unit on linear relationships, this standard shouldn't take more than a week to complete. Yet look at the second part of the first sentence. What does it mean to be non-linear? Are we also expected to teach parabolas and hyperbolas? What does non-linearity look like in a graph, a table, or an equation? From a pedagogue's point of view, the standards are deeper and more complicated, but to say there are fewer standards doesn't help teachers understand how much work goes into teaching to each standard.

The Pedagogy

The other claim that's worth our time is connected to the last two. In comparative studies, the folks at SAP have said that the U.S. expects students to learn 100 percent of the standards they teach because they're so disjointed, whereas teachers in Japan only teach around 50 percent of their standards. According to the experts, this disparate percentage also explains why high-performing countries do better than the U.S. -- their curricula allows for teachers to not teach everything on the list and still get maximum learning from their students.

Unfortunately, our current national climate wouldn't allow for that. The art of leaving out suggests that districts trust their teachers to make the right decision about what not to teach. When I get my curriculum map ready in September, I always think I'll get through all of the material, but by February, I always find myself cutting my losses. Why? Because learning is not linear. As such, students rarely if ever learn in exactly the way my lessons are set up for them to learn. Usually, it takes five days longer than I intended for my students to grasp the material fully, so by March, I'm hoping they don’t see too many questions on angle relationships or triangle similarity.

That's a rush on my pedagogy, but the CCSS architects would have known that if they'd actually invited teachers.

They claim that teachers were important for the process:

This sounds like they got teachers in a room and said, "Here's what we're doing." Even naysayers like me could have provided more helpful feedback if we gave the standards time to foment in a teacher's pedagogy. The rushed implementation, plus lack of teacher voice in the earliest stages of creating them, frustrated even the most ardent supporters of the standards. This also seems to hold true for English language arts, where students who've been taught to write more thoughtful evidence-based essays get their time cut short during assessments.

In the event that these standards stick around, the conversation needs to change from "These experts say the teachers should do this" to "Teachers are experts, and other experts who aren't teachers have an expertise, too." Reframing the expertise would give every child a real common core.

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