Standards Opinion

Common Core is Hard Work

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 25, 2014 6 min read
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The Common Core: three words that evoke some strong emotions within our schools and in the community at large. Everyone is talking about it. Glenn Beck has written about it and recently said it was “slavery”. Most everyone has an opinion about it. Does your community think the Common Core is a curriculum, a set of learning standards, or a set of tests? Are they for it or against it? Where do you and your teachers stand? No matter the answers, for most whose states have accepted them, it is our charge to learn and use them. That is best done as a community, including the parents.

There is still confusion and that is a big part of the problem. The creators of the Common Core mixed it up by calling it standards when they also included curriculum topics. Clarification is needed. Let’s first use ELA as an example. It does not delineate what literature is to be read, but it does identify what skills are to be learned. So fourth grade ELA standard RL.7.1, for example, states, “cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” Certainly, it is written with a language that requires teachers, who are professionals, to explore its meaning, to question whether this is a skill they have already included in their work with students, or whether it is something they need to add. It also calls for communication among teachers and leaders in order to ensure the grade level agreement. What does the standard mean and is it worth our students’ learning? It informs the teacher, that in whatever piece of literature is chosen for instruction, part of the learning experience must engage students to discover the text that supports their understanding of it. And, it is asking the teacher to have the students learn how to find that evidence, even if it is inferred. A leap, for some, from “what did the author mean by that?” to “how do you know (or where do you see) that is what the author meant?” That is all about only one standard!

Changing the questions used in a classroom is not as simple as flipping a switch. Knowing how to ask good questions is an art and a skill. Good questions are the ones that move learning from ‘having the right answer’ to a simple problem to an understanding of the concept in a more complex one. In the current model in most schools, time for learning is limited to minutes. So, it is natural that teachers historically developed questions from which they can quickly ascertain students’ understanding of the information. Those questions require right answers. Did the student understand the information I taught? The bell rings and off they go. But the Common Core, using this example, is pushing toward questions that take more time and thought than cannot be accomplished as quickly as “where did the story take place?” That takes time to learn and to practice in classrooms. Questioning is an art. So is teaching.

The Common Core Standards in math posed some different challenges. They shifted topics from what had been traditionally in one grade, to a new grade. In many cases, topics moved to lower grades. For some, new vocabulary words were introduced like, ‘decomposition’... a new word for some educators, but certainly a new word for students and parents. Although the skill may have been taught in the past, the Common Core requires a common language that will be used across grade levels and vertically as students go from grade to grade. This is not a bad thing but, again, it needs to be learned, discussed, and implemented by teachers and leaders alike. Parents who want to help their children must also be taught. Much local work had to be done in order to make the Common Core work locally.

Since educators know all of this, why are we spending time writing about it? We contend that some of the conversations that are taking place about our schools are uninformed. Right now, for us, the conversation is about implementation. No matter our impression of the Common Core, it is our mandate. And with seriousness of purpose schools have worked hard at understanding them, and trying to make sense of them within the context of the schools in which we work. There are schools in which there was time and support and in others, it was done as best as was possible. But either way, teachers were learning something new and replacing old practices with new ones. That is hard work and it should be recognized.

But, the public isn’t yet with us. Glenn Beck holds court regularly via radio and his Buzz and has a large following who look to him...and to his new book...for the real story. Therefore, we know that there will be people in our public meetings for whom this will be the source of fact about Common Core. Beware if you don’t know what they have been told. Here is a bit of the perspective. “As Americans were debating bailouts, individual mandates, and Michelle Obama’s finely toned arms, progressives knew they had a golden opportunity to sneak Common Core through the back door” (p.82) Had we not made a commitment to listen to divergent opinions, right there is where the book would have been shut. First, a comment about the First Lady’s arms has nothing to do with the policy or the problem. Second, can we all agree that it is time to stop defining and degrading women? That aside, clearly the Common Core is a bad thing to those who are listening.

It was a questionable decision to couple the implementation of the Common Core with standardized tests to measure the work of the students and the teachers. And from a common sense position, it made it more difficult for teachers and their leaders to accept this shift in standards because of the sting that accompanied them.

To what can we compare the change this requires for teachers? If we compared it to what it would take for our country to move to a metric system...well, no, that would be only learning something. If we compared it to learning a new language...well, no, that would only be learning something too. Teachers have to do two major things with this...they have to learn it and then, they have to apply all of their formal learning, experience, and creativity, to shift their practice and teach anew. Teaching is not just an art, nor is it just a science. Teaching is both an art and a science and needs to be seen and respected as such. Change is a process. Teachers are working hard at this process and they need support and understanding from the public.

We have become experts at advertising our results, our team wins, our scholarship winners, and our Dean’s Lists. We need to get better at teaching the public what it is we do, what our work truly is, and the process through which we all go in order to get where we are headed. Perhaps it is the accelerator provided by social media, or perhaps it is frustration with our perceived lack of progress, or perhaps it is those like Glennn Beck, but education is now being discussed by almost everyone, from school board meetings to neighborhood picnics to doctors’ office waiting rooms. We need them to get it right. We want them with us as we make this change. That is part of the hard work.

Beck, Glenn (2014). Conform: Exposing The Truth About Common Core and Public Education. New York: Mercury Radio Arts

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