It’s not about Common Core…

After yet another Common Core diatribe on Facebook yesterday, I invited a friend to a conversation to discuss the new curriculum. I offered to send articles, if that would be helpful. The response I got back was, “Sure! I am not well read in that area so any articles that have been peer reviewed would be appreciated.” My first response was to be offended. Was he assuming I’d send him a blog full of propaganda? Am I viewed as yet another bandwagoner, here to spread the gospel of Common Core as if the debate were about Planned Parenthood and abortion or gay marriage? I came to the conclusion that he clearly doesn’t understand what I do for a living (to be honest, we’re not close enough friends that I couldn’t tell you what he does on a daily basis either, so… touche). And that his only experience with Common Core is in the world of propaganda. In other words, maybe it’s not all about me.

But then I reflected: Am I a Common Core bandwagoner? Well, some background information first…

What is Common Core? You can read all about it on their website. My short answer is that it’s a set of guidelines that inform us what students should know and be able to do by the end of each grade level. The Common Core standards ARE our curriculum. (That word gets thrown around and has more uses than some expletives, in my opinion). Districts are required to adopt a means for teaching the Common Core standards. There are currently little or no good options for textbooks that are fully aligned with the new standards. This is important to note, because much of the frustration that gets blamed on Common Core actually is the result of poor instructional materials/textbooks (another place for the blame is on poor district implementation resulting in teachers not feeling confident about their teaching material and new content). An example of a Common Core standard for math in Grade 1 is, “Count to 120, starting at any number less than 120. In this range, read and write numerals and represent a number of objects with a written numeral.” In our previous set of California State Standards, this same skill was described as “Count, read, and write whole numbers to 100.” I could say much, MUCH more, but I’ll leave it there for now.

So back to my reflection: Am I a Common Core bandwagoner? My answer is mixed.

Yes I am. After teaching in England, I saw what students are actually able to do when we meet their needs and expect that ALL students learn. I saw 2nd graders writing 5-paragraph essays, pre-kindergartners (Reception) doing math that my 1st graders in the US struggled with. I saw teaching in a progression that makes sense developmentally. It was and IS a system where I believe that my children would be challenged no matter how bright or what supports they might need. (As an aside, a teaching friend once pulled her son out of 1st grade for a week to go to Disneyland. She told me, “He’s at the top of his class. He’s not missing anything by missing a week of school.” *Face Palm*) By no means is the British system perfect, in fact it has changed a lot since I was there 5 years ago (wow, I’m getting old). But our system hasn’t come close to catching up! Until Common Core. And even Common Core doesn’t come close. It sets higher expectations, but still not as high as what I saw abroad. It shows a progression for learning, but we still base students’ grades on their age rather than ability. We are still so far away. But Common Core is a step in the right direction. So yes, I’m a fan of Common Core.

But at the same time, it’s not about Common Core. In 2002, California adopted a Language Arts curriculum called Open Court Reading. It was a research based instructional material that held the belief that if all teachers read the script, then all children would receive equal access to quality education and all of our equity and achievement gap issues would magically disappear. Blah blah blah. Yet another magical solution. It took the art out of teaching and for once and for all turned our schools into the factory that factory-workers intended a century ago when they funded the school system that still exists in our country today. I began teaching at a time where I needed no skills to teach, I only needed to know what page to turn to and then read the words on the page. Students didn’t get it? Give them the practice or reteach page. Students finding it easy? Give them the challenge page. No prep necessary. Oh, and there were even tapes that read the stories aloud, so I really didn’t even need to know the books the children were reading. This scripted curriculum mentality is still pervasive in our classrooms today. How many times have you read articles touting that Finnish students are more successful because they aren’t required to learn to read, but instead are required to play? (Admittedly, my husband shared one such article this afternoon with a dear kindergarten teacher friend of ours). That insistence that children need to crank out the learning, turn it up a notch, sit and learn, learn my way… all of that is a product of a century-old factory-style educational system culminating in scripted curriculae. This has got to stop. How many times in my role as a math coach have I worked with teachers looking at the standard they are meant to address (e.g. 100 can be thought of as a bundle of ten tens — called a “hundred.”) and we discuss what that would look like and sound like in the classroom, what the students’ work should look like, and then I get asked, “So how long should I spend on that lesson?” My response every time is, “How long do the students need to be able to master the concept that 10 bundles of 10 is 100?” We are so stuck in our instructional materials that we have lost the child. So I don’t care if it’s called Common Core, get your head out of your ass, or good teaching…. our system needs a major overhaul to focus on the child and their learning.

My husband loves to remind me that “communication is only what the other person hears.” Well, teaching could also be described as “what the student learns.” Common Core Math requires teachers to know math content deeper than in past decades. It requires teachers to assess what their students do and don’t know. It requires that teachers learn new conceptual ways of doing math (ways that are decades old to our international counterparts). It requires that students actually problem-solve, not just solve problems (Asian countries school us in this area… pun intended).

So let me be clear: I am in support of all of these changes. But I don’t give a damn what you call it.

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