Common Core Standards – Implementation

Over here in my neck of the woods we are about a month into school, which means we are about a month into my kids’ school’s implementation of the Common Core Standards.  Now, Maryland actually adopted them and, I think, supposedly, began some initial implementation a couple of years ago; but this is the first year that it is “official”.

Shadow children, on our morning walk to school

Shadow children, on our morning walk to school

In endlessly quizzing other parents, throwing questions into conversations with experienced local teachers I know, and observing my own kids’ schoolwork, I think that our county has made the implementation relatively smoothly.  There are bumps—which I want to address—and there are benefits.  I have some potential concerns for how it affects my kids down the road, some based on rumors and hearsay, some based on my experience with how new educational programs are rolled out.  I have also talked to teachers in other counties and other states, and know that it has been a bumpier road in other places.

I already talked about the standards themselves, and that I think, at least for the grade levels that I reviewed, that the standards seem unobjectionable to me.  So the implementation of the standards is what could be problematic, and appears to be more or less so depending on location.  Locally, I know that all of the new class materials have not been released to the teachers yet.  This meant that when the original spelling words were clearly too simple for kids like Oliver, the teachers didn’t have a good way to access the material that was supposed to be released for kids who were more advanced than the regular curriculum (I don’t know if that also means that it wasn’t released for the kids who are below the average, although I feel like the words on Oliver’s spelling list were so simple that it was really the lowest common denominator for the grade level (one of the words was fish)).  My question for Oliver’s teacher was what they’re going to do with kids who don’t need phonics.  I know he’s only in second grade, and there are probably some phonics lessons that he could use… but none that he’ll need to extensively study—for him, it would more along the lines of, ‘oh, there is this rule and that’s why you pronounce this word the way you do’.  They didn’t have the answer to that question yet.

The lack of access to all of the teaching materials right now is especially problematic for Oliver’s teacher, who is currently pregnant.  She has to be planning for her classes now, but also looking forward to when she is on leave so she can lay out clear teaching plans for her long term substitute… but doesn’t have the materials with which to do that.  (Note that I am inferring a lot from our brief conversation on the matter.)  That said, my understanding is that the teachers are very pleased with the teaching materials they have been given, and really feel like they are able to teach to the different levels in their classes.  As a mother to a child who is on one end of the learning spectrum, I am relieved to hear that.

A concern that I have is that I have heard from other parents that there is no longer a gifted and talented program (in our county it starts in third grade), because there is supposed to be appropriate amounts of differentiation in the classroom.  I don’t know if that is true, because the county website still has a gifted and talented section that lays it out very unclearly.  In general, my opinion of how “gifted and talented” is handled across the country is pretty low.  There are some schools that knock it out of the park and get it right.  And there are places that treat gifted and talented learners are just ‘advanced’ and just teach them at an accelerated pace—so third graders learn what the fourth graders are learning.  I am fairly certain that that is how Chicago Public Schools handled gifted kids, which is why I never bothered to get mine tested.  I feel strongly that a gifted program should not teach accelerated skills, but rather go deeper into materials.  Our nation’s recent focus on solely teaching reading and math skills makes that seem like a waste of time, but it is through the deeper learning, the more focused and in-depth learning that should be a gifted education that kids are really able to develop and demonstrate the critical thinking skills that are so valuable.  For example, I can imagine Oliver getting really excited about a science project about a specific planet, where he not only learned the usual things, but really studied what we know about the planet, how we know about it, and what we hope to learn in the future.  He could build models, he could write stories about the planet, he could study all that NASA has released about it.  I can’t even imagine all of the work a kid could put into a project that is seemingly limitless like that.  So I think that schools that have a gifted program that are not going deeper into subject matter are failing those kids.  Is that related to the common core standards?  I guess that probably depends on where you live and how they are addressing it there.

Talking to teachers who live in other areas, some of the major complaints that I have heard include two things—test making and paperwork.  In some places, the teachers are being asked to write the test questions to appropriately test the materials.  I think this will turn out to be a failure on a massive scale.  I think, in general, people are terrible test writers, introducing all sorts of bias into questions, too many assumptions, and not enough information.  While I assume that classes on assessing students is a part of an education curriculum, I don’t have a lot of faith that the one class they took years ago is going to help teachers write appropriate testing materials.  Not that all tests should be purchased, but that administration should tread carefully here and expect that refinements will have to be made.

Also, there seems to be a lot of paperwork piling up for the teachers.  It is as if they are supposed to be doing all the things they did before, plus a bunch of documentation of all the new stuff, and it is overwhelming.  There is a lot of pressure from above in some places to get everything right the first time without a lot of training or experience doing it, and without a clear understanding of what the expectations are.  It very much seems like a math problem where there are too many unknown values, but where you are expected to deliver a concrete answer.

I am of two minds about this.  First, I empathize with the teachers.  The pressure that has been put on teachers since No Child Left Behind was adopted and high stakes testing was put into place, and since teachers’ salaries and job security were based on delivering test scores is enormous.  And it seems like everyone realizes that… except for the people laying all this pressure on the teachers.  Teachers in some areas are punished for being willing to take on classes with higher percentages of kids who are at-risk, autistic, or otherwise developmentally delayed.  It’s a huge systemic problem.  Right now it seems like in some places (maybe everywhere) teachers are being asked to deliver something unclear while being given new materials with which to do it, and having all of their teaching methods dictated to them.  It’s an impossible position to be put in.

That said, and this will make me unpopular with many people whom I love dearly, I’m sure, I also don’t have a lot of sympathy for all of their complaints.  When I was auditing, when new standards were released, we had to adapt our audit methodology.  When clients in financial industries created new financial products, or came up with new, weird ways of reporting their numbers, or changed the processes and systems that they used regularly, we had to create new ways to audit them that answered all of the main audit questions.  And having to create the new ways to audit them took more time—which, oftentimes, the clients didn’t want to have to pay for, because they didn’t think it should take any longer than it had in the previous year.  It meant more work.  It meant late nights, weekends, and hours that took me away from my family for unconscionable amounts of time… and my pay was the same as the average teacher salary ($55,418) in our country (actually, because I was on a flexible work arrangement, my salary was considerably lower).  For three months of the year, accountants at the largest accounting firms had a mandatory work week of at least 55 hours.  Considering that my commute was, at the very shortest, 40 minutes, and that I eat lunch, that meant that I was away from home for at least 14 hours a day.  Plus time on weekends.  I loved my job; loved my job, more than most accountants do, I imagine.  But it was a lot of long days.

(If you’re wondering how that worked with my 70-80% of full time flexible work arrangement, well, because I had work that needed to be done by specific deadlines, I would work full time hours during busy season, and then take a few weeks off when things slowed down to ‘even out’ the hours.  It wouldn’t work for everyone, but I was in a fortunate situation in terms of child care and audit clients that I was able to arrange that and make it work.)

So, that said, I have trouble being sympathetic to people being resistant to changes in their normal protocols.  Not only were the auditors required to change everything around… when clients updated systems or did things differently, everybody at the company that touched those products would have to change their normal operating procedures to make it work.  And it always took time to implement, and meant that people messed up and had to deal with the consequences of their mistakes.  That’s just a part of work-life—adapting to changes, dealing with the pressure, and figuring it all out.  It isn’t the fun or glamorous part of any job, but it’s a part of the job for most professions.  Thus, the amount of sympathy I can muster for teachers having to do this is minimal.  If you know me and are a teacher, forgive my candor.

But that’s a tangent.  To connect it back to the implementation of the common core standards, I think that a problem that is surfacing is that teachers, who know how to do things in a certain way, are being asked to present them in a different way.  And it might take some of those teachers longer to understand how the different methodologies behind the new ways of teaching.  But, yet, they are still supposed to teach it, even if they don’t understand it.  That’s a problem–another problem that will resolve itself over time, as teachers become more accustomed to the new teaching methodologies.

There is also a shocking lack of information being disseminated to parents (and maybe teachers too) about why some things are now required, especially when it comes to math.  It seems that the way that most of us learned how to do simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are not the standard ways of teaching anymore.  Or, rather, they aren’t the sole ways of teaching.  So, for subtraction, instead of lining up your numbers that you are subtracting on top of each other so that you can start subtracting from the rightmost place value, borrowing from the next place value over, etc., the math problems are being broken down into more basic components during the instruction.  At first, it looks bass-ackward when you aren’t used to seeing it.

Math, the "normal" way

Math, the “normal” way

Subtraction, broken down into its component parts. Photo from Stop Common Core in New York State.

Subtraction, broken down into its component parts. Photo from Stop Common Core in New York State.



But really, if you look more closely, it is identifying and teaching the concepts behind how the subtraction and the borrowing actually works.  When I learned how to subtract, I didn’t need this additional step; I intuitively understood how that worked.

Some kids don’t.

Math doesn’t come as easily to everyone.  And if we fail, as a nation, to teach the concepts behind how simple math works to our children, they will have no framework when the math gets more difficult.  And, I also have heard from parents who were learning delayed themselves, who learned how to do math in this way, and who are shocked to see it’s now a standard way to teach.

So, I am all for teaching this way, with some caveats.

  1. Kids who don’t need it—who already get how to do the math problems—should not be made to repeatedly show this work.  Supposedly, differentiation should take care of this, but even if it doesn’t, I think that if a child demonstrates that they understand the concept, they should be allowed to move on and not repeatedly show elementary steps that they can actually do in their heads.
    1. Note that I dealt with this when I was in school, too—it’s not a new problem.  I was learning long division, and my older brother taught me how to do short division instead.  It was basically the same, with some simple math taking place in my head instead of on the paper, but I was not allowed to use it.  It was incredibly frustrating.

      Long Division vs. Short Division

      Long Division vs. Short Division

  2. Test-makers need to remember that the different methodologies taught to understand the concepts are not the point.  Understanding how to do a math problem is the point.  If a student needs to break it down to its component parts to show understanding, that student should do that.  If a student can demonstrate it differently—with pictures, through the ‘traditional’ subtraction patterns, etc., that should be allowed and accepted.
    1. This means that a standardized test question should not say, “Do this subtraction problem using the three-step BlahDeeBlah process,” but should say, “Subtract these numbers and show your work.”  Students should be taught to demonstrate their understanding of the subtraction concept through showing their work the way that makes sense to them.
    2. This involves trusting teachers to teach the concepts.  I think, as a nation, we don’t trust our teachers.  That’s why so much politics goes into high stakes testing, pressure put on teachers, etc.  We give teachers terrible odds, tell them to perform miracles, and then blame them for not being Jesus.
  3. Teachers need to have faith in their abilities to teach different methodologies to different children in ways they will understand.  I feel like the broken-down math strategies are fantastic.  Not because my kids will need them—but because some kids do.  I remember working with young kids and trying to help them understand math concepts.  Because it was so instinctive for me, I often had a difficult time breaking down the steps far enough to help struggling kids understand the concepts.  If teachers and interns and parent helpers in the classroom have more math strategies in their tool belts, they can pull out the various ones with kids and see what fits.  That means that the teachers need to understand all of the methodologies, and again, that the school administration trusts the teachers to teach the way kids need to be taught to learn, without beating some kids with dead horses of methods that are too elementary for them.

I think a major problem with education in our country is that most of the major decisions about education are decided by businesspeople and politicians.  And by ‘major decisions’, I mean how tests should be structured, what should be tested, and what the results should be.  In business, people are very goal-oriented.  You want to see a certain percent profit.  A certain, measurable amount of growth.  We are a nation very concerned with measurement of results… and it’s hard to measure learning.  And if there aren’t massive “improvements” on tests within a year, I worry that school administrations will scrap the good parts of programs in order to see the results they want to see, without having the long view of trusting that as kids learn and build and receive scaffolding, there will be more improvements over time.

It has got to be incredibly frustrating to be a teacher, and see a kid struggle all year long until the light bulb finally lights up and they get it… and know that they are still going to fail the state mandated test, and thus be deemed a failure because they got it too late, or didn’t get enough of it to pass the test.  That light bulb moment is probably why many teachers keep teaching.  I’ve seen it with my own children—it is so incredibly, indescribably joyful.  I don’t remember Hazel’s first steps (sorry, kiddo).  I don’t remember what her first word was.  But the first word that she read on her own, completely independently?  It was shell.  We drove by a Shell station, and she sounded out each letter, and put it together as “sell”.  I told her that SH usually says “shhh”, and she tried again and said, “shell”.

So, overall, after reading and observing what I could about the common core, I think that it has a lot of potential to be a great tool for teachers.  That said, I think that bad policies, too much intervention by non-teachers, and high expectations right out of the gate are big issues that we will have to contend with.  Also, there will be a period of growing pains and turmoil as everything is adapted and put into place.  I haven’t read anything that screams to me that I should pull my children out of school and homeschool them… but I will not hesitate to, at least with Oliver, if his needs cannot be met.  (Hazel is so much more socially inclined than Oliver that she won’t be bored even if the work is always unreasonably easy for her—she’s must more interested in who she gets to sit next to at lunch and giggling with other little girls.)

Let me know your thoughts on how this is being implemented in your area in the comments!

You made it this far; you earned a picture of cute kids!

You made it this far; you earned a picture of cute kids!

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.

Reasons to Love Maryland

We’ve lived in Maryland for more than three years now.  I never would have guessed that I’d have ever lived in Maryland (or Illinois, but that’s another story), but over the years I have grown to love it.  Here are some of the reasons:

1.  The annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival:  a party where people bring their yarn and sheep?  I’m totally in.

2.  Blue is my favorite color.

3.  The different towns that I’ve visited within the state all have a distinctive flavor.  Just in our county, you can tell when you move between Bethesda and Chevy Chase and Kensington and Rockville.  I like that a lot more than suburban sprawl (which seems like a strip mall wasteland to me).

4.  We get to experience all seasons here, without any of them being so extreme that it dominates the others.  We have a nice hot summer, a distinctive fall, a cold and snowy winter, and a flowery spring.

5.  The city called “Havre de Grace” is pronounced like it is spelled “Haverty Grace”, instead of something French sounding, like one might assume.

6.  It is relatively close to most of the places we might travel.  New York City is an easy drive (even with two little ones in the back!), we just drove to Connecticut this weekend, I’ve driven to North Carolina from here.  There are a bunch of airports near here, which makes flying further out easier and less expensive.

7.  Beautiful children are born here.  Case in point:










8.  Rock Creek Park is beautiful and has been the source for some of my favorite photos.

9.  I get to experience DC whenever I want without losing my right to vote, or having to live in DC.

10.  We have amazing friends here, without whom we would be lost.

11.  And, finally, there is a bit of a feud between Maryland and Virginia.  People in Virginia think that Maryland is dirty and gross, people in Maryland think that Virginia (northern VA, at least) lacks character.  I love a good feud, and fuel it whenever I can.

12.  Maryland has the highest median income in the US, and who doesn’t love rich people?