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”.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!