Common Core – The Standards

I think that anytime there is an implementation of a sweeping new policy or procedure, in most any walk of life, it is met with suspicion.  This could just be now (we have all been burned before—post 9/11 weapons of mass destruction, I’m lookin’ at you), or maybe it’s always been the case.  In any case, change is scary.

So, when it comes to the Common Core Standards, I think there are multiple things that need to be addressed, and need to be addressed separately.  It’s so easy to get overwhelmed with information, from the ZOMG-BIG-BROTHER-IS-LEGISLATING-A-CRAZY-NEW-CURRICULUM-AND-ALL-OUR-KIDS-WILL-DIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!! to ZOMG-LIKE-THIS-IS-THE-BEST-NEW-IDEA-LIKE-EVER!!!!!!!!!!  There are plenty of terrifying YouTube videos showing kids telling their parents all about how dumb the curriculum looks to blog posts filled with conspiracy theories to propaganda.  For the record, we have always been at war with Eurasia.

I think that the main issues that need to be examined include, first and foremost, whether or not the standards are any good.  If the standards themselves suck, well, I guess OUR-KIDS-WILL-ALL-DIE, no further examination needed.  Second, if the standards are alright, what’s the deal with the implementation?  Is this another case of widespread new education policy that isn’t funded and does more harm than good (No Child Left Behind, I’m lookin’ at you)?  And the implementation issue is a big one—there is a lot to unpack there.  What resources do teachers have?  How much training on the new resources do they have?  What kinds of assessments are going to be used?  How much information, source materials, and curriculum understanding do teachers have going into this?  What happens to the kids who are most of the way through their education and don’t yet meet these standards?  And other questions that exist that I haven’t thought of yet (if you have any you’d like me to think about, post in the comments!)

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  This is probably a total straw man, but is there something wrong with our public education system in the first place?  The answer seems obvious to me—um, yes—and I think that most Americans would agree with me.  Public education, and who attends for how long, has grown faster than we could keep up with it.  It wasn’t that long ago that many people didn’t progress beyond elementary or middle schools—and didn’t need to.  Nowadays, we have a huge push for everyone to go to college that I think is unnecessary considering that most jobs these days shouldn’t require a college level education.  But, that’s a different thought process for a different day.  Along with the huge growth of public education in our country, we have the added problem of education being a convenient political football to be tossed back and forth by politicians without education know-how.  While the politicians huddle up and smack each other’s bums, children and teachers take all the hits as education reform swings its pendulum in various directions.  Mixed metaphors aside, we have a really complicated history of fixing education problems in the United States with bandaids placed in where there is the most blood (regardless of whether that’s where the bleeding is coming from).  In a lot of ways, it seems like the easiest solution would be to scrap the whole danged thing and start fresh.  Of course, how you scrap something that affects oh, 80 million kids or so, is too complicated.

I would argue that we do need nationwide standards.  I would also argue that how those standards are implemented should be done by the states, not federally.  I would also argue that the federal government takes too much of our taxes, which means that states who need more funding for education have a hard time getting it, because you can only tax people so much, and how much money the states get is a political matter, complete with more bum smacking, huddles, and pork.  (I would also argue a very unpopular raising of the Social Security and Medicare ages, and a phasing out of benefits if your income in your old age is higher than a threshold amount, but that’s unrelated to this, except inasmuch as the amounts we spend on one area in government are amounts we can’t spend on others.)

Universal standards across the nation are good, I think, based on my earlier blog posts.  And I don’t think that having these standards precludes states from taking them above and beyond if they are capable (which is an argument that I’ve heard—that some states have to become ‘dumber’ to implement these standards—if that is the case, then the states are doing something right (yay for smart kids!) and something wrong (it really doesn’t make sense that they’d have to teach kids less if the kids are already understanding these standards… First of all, you could teach them the next “grade level” material.  Or, take them deeper into subject material.  Your students already know alliteration?  Great.  Read more poetry.  Talk about more literary elements that go into these poems.  Have them write alliterative poems.  Talk about assonance.  And that’s just on the surface of the standards.  In other words, I call bullshit on that, with a small caveat*.)

*Caveat: For the first few years of common core implementation, as states are working out the kinks in their curriculums and in figuring out how assessments will be administered and what will be focused on, it’s possible teachers would worry that they might muddy the waters or focus on the wrong things.  That’s a time problem, and an implementation problem.  Not a long term problem.

I think universal standards are appropriate.  I admittedly did not read all of them (there are math and language arts standards for all grades, and I really focused my time on the kindergarten standards and the second grade standards; the grades of my children), but they are not overly specific.  I think that is also appropriate—states can interpret them and fine tune them.  I also found them to be specific enough to convey the concepts that should be learned at each grade level.

First I looked at the kindergarten math standards.  (If you want to read along, you can find them here.  While reading them over, I considered whether these are standards that I think it is fair to assume that Hazel should learn this year.  Hazel and Oliver may not be the best benchmarkers for the standards in general, because they are ridiculously smart and engaged kids (obviously thanks to their awesome mom and dad), but they’re the kids I have, and the kids I’m mainly concerned about (although I’m sure yours are just lovely).

My lovelies with Kullervo.  Just kidding, that's Rodger, the school mascot.

My lovelies with Kullervo. Just kidding, that’s Rodger, the school mascot.

In math, kindergarteners are supposed to learn to count to one hundred by ones and by tens, to understand greater than and less than, perform addition and subtraction problems within ten, using manipulatives to understand and demonstrate the problems, memorize math facts up to five, begin understanding place value for the ones and tens digits, begin measuring things and understanding measurable attributes (length, width, height), and learn shapes and their names, and relative positioning of objects (above, beside, and other prepositions from the Schoolhouse Rock song).

Personally, I think those math standards are very appropriate for kindergarten.  I would have a hard time finding something to argue with—Hazel can already count to 100, can do basic addition and subtraction on her fingers (manipulatives for sure).  She knows shapes (although maybe not their three-dimensional names), and can always tell me who she sat beside and across from at lunch (obviously the most important part of a social butterfly’s day).

My favorite butterfly

My favorite butterfly

In fact, I would have a hard time imagining that these math standards are a huge departure from what kindergarteners were already learning.  I want kindergarteners to be playing with blocks (and learning their shapes and relative positioning in doing so), to be experimenting with measuring tapes (goodness knows they are really quick to steal all of my knitting measuring tapes to “measure” all sorts of inane things as well as to taunt the cats), and to be able to count to one hundred.  Hazel and Oliver’s preschool classes were practicing counting to one hundred by all standing up and hollering numbers (or maybe that’s just what it sounds like when 20 three and four year olds are counting in unison…).  Any kindergartener with a sibling understands more and less (“you gave him more juice than you gave to me!”)… actually, I think we should be teaching volume to kindergarteners and showing them that different widths of glasses might look like more or less juice, but I seriously am not a rookie who doesn’t measure out your damned juice.  Maybe if we taught that skill earlier, kids would be less annoying.  Just sayin’…

In second grade, kids are expected to be thinking algebraically and being able to solve one and two step addition and subtraction word problems within 100.  They should be able to mentally figure out addition and subtraction problems within twenty, and have memorized single digit addition.  That’s good.  I never fully memorized what 7 + 5 is (really), or 8 + 6.  It’s really annoying to have to think that out and not just know.  12.  14.  12.  14.  Maybe while Oliver learns his, I’ll work on learning the ones I’m missing.  It’s dreadful when your kid is smarter than you, and this child already knows more about history than I do.  I will be better at math.  Dammit.  7 + 5 =12.  12.  12.

Seriously.  I need to be better at math than he is.

Seriously. I need to be better at math than he is.

Second graders should also be able to figure out odd and even, and start baseline conceptual learning for multiplication by using equal groups and addition.  That standard wasn’t written as clearly as I would have liked, mostly because the word ‘rectangle’ reminds me that I never learned anything in geometry other than triangles.  But, I think this one means they are using addition and pictures or manipulatives to see how multiplication works.  Second graders also should know place value up to 1000, count by 1s, 5s, 10s, and 100s (can you imagine being the student teacher stuck testing kids on whether they can count to 1000?), read and write numerals and number names for numbers up to 1000, and compare using the greater than, less than, and equal to symbols.  (The alligator is going to eat the bigger number first, y’all. Every time.)  There are also various adding and subtracting standards that are meant to illustrate understanding of place value, and being able to explain why the strategies work.

Second grade math also includes more measuring standards (length, width, and height… not volume.  I want them to learn volume!  Come on, people!  They should learn how to tell the time to the nearest five minutes using digital and analog clocks and do simple math problems with money.  This is definitely age appropriate, and something Oliver hasn’t mastered.  He’s actually learning it in school right now, but the trouble is that his homework is on paper, so he gets confused about which coin is which.  Money manipulatives in the classroom would probably go a long way with this.  Money manipulatives at home (like, change), would also probably be helpful.  I’ll tell him to dig in the couch cushions for some.

The geometry standards also seem reasonable to me.  My fear of geometry and the worry that people might ask me to draw a hexagon (I’m unreasonably bad at drawing) aside, I don’t think that the geometry standards are too different from what kids were already learning in second grade (or even earlier in some instances).

Something interesting about the math standards is that throughout the elementary and middle school standards, it specifies using base 10.  Now, I never learned anything other than base 10 in school, so I wonder if other kids do, and if that is something that will now be taught.  I think other-than-base-10 is sort of a cool mental exercise, like learning a foreign language when you realize all the grammar rules you use all the time but always took for granted.

Now, for English and Language Arts, I won’t go into as much detail (mostly because I’m beginning to bore myself and I don’t think these standards can be that funny.  Or, at least, I can’t make them funny.)  Also, looking into the standards with my own children in mind isn’t really fair.  Kindergarteners are supposed to, by the end of the year, read words like rat and pot and other three letter words.  Hazel reads chapter books, and when she reads out loud, she reads with appropriate inflection and understanding of the storyline.  And, Oliver is so beyond his grade level in language arts that I’ve made things like his spelling list activities into logic problems for him to solve (along with learning appropriate spelling) just to keep his interest.  (If you’re wondering, if you’re still even reading, he can choose from a list of spelling activities, and one of them is to create his own.  Well, he creates his own “crosswords”, where he writes out his words but has them overlap crossword style.  It’s harder to do than you might think!)

That said, I did read the standards for kindergarten and second grade, and I think that they are all appropriate, and again, probably not a huge departure from what teachers were already teaching.  I know in Chicago, the goal was that by the end of kindergarten, all children would be reading.  That isn’t a Common Core Standard until the end of first grade.

So, my initial assessment of the actual standards themselves is a good one.  I think the standards for my kids’ grades are appropriate.  I haven’t read through all of the standards for all of the grades.  But I do want to take the time to read the 12th grade standards.  What do we expect kids to ultimately come out of high school knowing?

Because this is unreasonably long with not nearly enough cute pictures of my children, I will break for now and come back to talk about implementation and the other issues surrounding the Common Core Standards.  Because, again—I think it’s important to separate the different issues arising from these new standards.  Like all big sweeping policies, it’s easy to just decide to hate it or to love it, but most of them have good and bad points (even if you hate ObamaCare, you probably are pleased you aren’t paying copays for well-doctor visits, because insurance covering preventative care for everyone makes sense, for all parties involved).

Cute kids

Cute kids

So, there will be more blogging about this.  I might intersperse it with some other blog posts I’ve been wanting to write, but there will be more blogging about Common Core.  I apologize in advance.

Oh, and for the record, we have always been at war with Eastasia.

Gratuitous photo, completely unrelated to this post at all

Gratuitous photo, completely unrelated to this post at all

Common Core Standards – Why This Matters To Me

I posted before about my experiences moving around as an elementary and high school student, and the major differences in curriculum and levels of education at my various schools.  I forgot to write about the experience that we had last year.  Oliver attended three different schools in first grade.  We moved once across the country, to the great state of Maryland, and once within the same county.  All of the schools that Oliver attended were rated highly on (the Chicago school is rated a 9 out of 10, the first Maryland school gets an 8, and the second Maryland school, our current elementary school, scores a 10 out of 10).

As this is more current than my experiences, I think it’s worth bringing up.  Oliver attended a year of preschool, kindergarten and half of first grade at our Chicago school.  It was a Literature and Writing, and Technology magnet school in Chicago.  The schoolteachers and administrators wrote their own curriculum, and we had a generally very positive experience there.  Oliver had some fantastic teachers.

Oliver isn’t your typical kid, you see.  He began reading at age three.  At four he was reading chapter books with help; at five he was devouring them so quickly that finding age appropriate, level appropriate reading material was a huge challenge.  He intuitively understands mathematical concepts, and is fascinated by all things science.  Sometimes I cook with the kids, and I work on math skills with them while we do it.  I’ll present Oliver with a question like, “Oliver, this pizza crust recipe calls for two and a half cups of flour.  We are doubling the recipe.  I am using a half cup measure.  How many half cups of flour do we need?” With barely a pause, he’ll respond with ten, and be able to explain to me how he arrived at his answer.  (I guess, maybe that’s normal, but it seems pretty danged impressive to me.)

With that in mind, Oliver’s education has always been at the forefront of my mind, and I can be a bit of a rabid dog about it with his teachers.  I have very little tolerance for him being bored in school, and I feel very strongly that he is a special needs kid, but the kind of special needs kid that can easily be ignored because he’s fairly easygoing, and is smart and engaging.

In Chicago, the curriculum was set up in such a way that the teachers were able to do differentiated learning.  In kindergarten, Oliver’s teacher actually had individual time with Oliver almost daily, because he was in his own learning group.  He was able to pull work out of Oliver that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and keep his spark for learning going.  He provided Oliver with a set of learning bones and scaffolding that I think have been instrumental in getting Oliver through all of the transitions in first grade (and getting me through them as well).  His first grade teacher was able to engage him in other ways through technology (which I didn’t love, but he did) and more differentiated learning.

Oliver’s second school in first grade, our first school in Maryland, didn’t go as well.  Although the class size was almost half as big (19 kids versus the 34 in Chicago), the teacher didn’t know what to do with a kid like Oliver.  At one point, she said to me that she had six kids in the class who needed IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) that she had to do all the documentation for, and who were really disruptive, and she just wasn’t able to do much to help Oliver.  He cried every day before school, and I literally had to push him onto the school bus.  He came home with worksheets that were unreasonably easy, and the teacher took a month to test his reading level and insisted that he stay in the lowest level until she did so… even though she had documentation and letters from his Chicago school that should have assisted her in placing him.  When we met with the principal, the best solution they could come up with was to have Oliver skip a grade, which Kullervo and I decided wasn’t appropriate, because, as lovely and wonderful as Oliver is, he is not necessarily socially advanced.  And, on top of that, he was a first grader reading at a fifth grade level and doing math and science at least at a third grade level… being the youngest, smartest kid with a tendency to be a know-it-all doesn’t bode well for a kid.  I was very close to pulling him out and homeschooling him, but for the fact that we bought a house and moved to a new school.

Oliver’s final school for first grade was much better.  It was the end of the school year—he only spent three weeks there before summer break—but his teacher engaged him with creative thinking and projects that the class all enjoyed.

And it isn’t limited to Oliver.  While Hazel is a completely different style of learner, she is just as gifted as Oliver.  She, too, in kindergarten is reading chapter books (her first show and tell item in her class was the copy of Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew, which was the first chapter book that she read independently to herself.  Her needs are different from Oliver’s–she is a lot more like I was as a smart kid in school, wherein she is more interested in the socializing and doesn’t mind if the work is easy–but that means that she can also easily get looked over in terms of pushing her academically.  She attended preschool in Chicago before she had a gap in schooling when we moved to Maryland before starting kindergarten this fall.

So, all of that to say that the levels of education that kids get vary widely across this country, even within a county in a state.  Also, as I look into the common core standards, I am doing so selfishly.  My kids have special needs that should be, and need to be, met.  I have the luxury of being able to homeschool them if we determine that will be the best option for them.  I am less interested in the macro-effects of the common core standards than I am in the micro-effects, specifically regarding how these standards will affect my children and their education and opportunities for the future.  Not that I am not thinking or considering larger picture issues, but my focus is mainly on my family.