No current discussion on education is complete without addressing the controversy surrounding the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and I thought now would be as good a time to bring it up as any, since I see it as related to my previous post. If you don’t remember, my last post talked about functionalism and how the “hidden curriculum” keeps schools from being the ‘equalizers’ they should be (in addition to the effects of poverty, unequal funding, etc.). Common core seems like a logical deterrent to the hidden curriculum – everyone learns the same thing. Regardless of your background or what school you go to, you can expect to learn the same material as millions of other students without worrying that your teacher is only teaching you what you need for a low-paying job. The problem with CCSS, however, is that it has been anything but the equalizer it is intended to be. The success of the common core lies with how it is embraced and utilized, but its demanding standards and focus on testing have made it difficult for its intended success to be realized. The successor to No Child Left Behind has improved very little, and its rollout has been disastrous.
There has been a lot written about the challenges associated with common core (Sawchuk, 2012; Brooks & Dietz, 2013; Halladay & Moses, 2013; Vecellio, 2013; Wexler, 2014; among many others), but the most convincing data, in my opinion, comes directly from teachers who have had to teach the new standards. This semester, I have had the privilege to observe the classes of two high school math teachers in a high-needs rural school near Colgate University, and I interviewed both of them about their experiences with the common core. It’s important to note that both teachers actually see the good in the common core; one of the teachers is actually very excited about the “real-world problem solving” the common core demands, but the rollout and associated demands of teachers and students have been extremely challenging.
This school, despite being “high-needs,” has very dedicated teachers, a supportive administration and sufficient resources. The challenges faced by these teachers would only be amplified in a less supportive school environment.
They said they went narrower and want us to go deeper. I think they’ve kept it the same width and expect us to go deeper. I don’t think they’ve taken any material out.
I can’t get them (the students) to an advanced proof without teaching them the basics. So even though the standards don’t say I have to do that, I have to do that in order to get them to understand what is in the standard.
-10th Grade Geometry Teacher, referring to the depth of curriculum in the Common Core standards
One major problem with the common core is the demand that students understand material at a “deep” level. However, understanding takes time. To help teachers find this time, the decision-makers supposedly reduced the width of the curriculum. While this teacher is skeptical that any material was taken out of the Geometry curriculum, she also realizes that the standards may have more advanced material, but she still has to teach the basics. Repeatedly, both teachers told me that “time is of the essence” because there simply isn’t enough time in the school day to accomplish what the common core demands.
Now, imagine a school where students struggle to pass standardized tests due to underfunding, poverty and, perhaps, unqualified teachers. This school is now expected to achieve at an even higher level. This is impossible in the short term, and without major changes to funding and teacher retention, it’s pretty close to impossible in the long term.
There’s going to be a group of kids this is going to hurt. The ones that are in the middle. It is going to hurt them.
-11th Grade Algebra 2 Teacher, referring to students who are “caught in the middle” of the Common Core
Additionally, the Common Core was rolled out across all grades in just a few years. Students who did not go through elementary and middle school with the Common Core were suddenly faced with a new curriculum. They were unprepared and so were their schools. The school I have been visiting used the New York State Common Core Modules, which are known for being too difficult and scripted, during their first year of common core Algebra. This first year was “disastrous” and even a couple years later, when the teachers are armed with textbooks and other resources, students still have “knowledge gaps” because they did not grow up with common core.
The Algebra 2 teacher thinks that the Common Core will pay dividends in a few years when students are more prepared for it, but why are decision makers content with hurting today’s students? We should never sacrifice today’s students so that tomorrow’s students can succeed, especially when the future success of the Common Core is so debatable. (And by the time today’s elementary schoolers are in high school, the Common Core will have likely gone the way of No Child Left Behind and be a distant memory).
Overall, there are a lot of technical difficulties with common core, but these can be addressed over time, though at the expense of current students. Perhaps the Common Core can eventually be considered a strong set of standards, but I have to wonder, why is all of this necessary? Yes, the new standards may encourage more critical mathematical thinking than past standards, but the two very qualified teachers I have observed can encourage this kind of thinking on their own. After all, the Geometry teacher told me that her “professional opinion is the best way to teach” the new standards. Consequently, I strongly believe that her professional opinion would lead students to understand and enjoy Geometry with fewer or no state standards. The Algebra 2 teacher, who is described by some of his colleagues as, “the best math teacher on the planet,” is more than qualified to encourage critical thinking without being burdened by the bureaucracy of the common core. When I am in his classroom, I see a great and supportive teacher rushing through material and encouraging students to come after school if they want to review their homework, because there’s no time in class. Luckily, his school provides transportation and many students have the ability to stay after school. This is not the case in every school.
The goals of the Common Core are admirable: move away from rote memorization and encourage critical thinking. However, more rigorous standards are not the way to achieve these goals. Qualified, supported and empowered teachers who are free to make their own decisions are the answer. Decision makers should put their efforts toward measures to better fund struggling schools and better prepare teachers to understand and teach their subject at a deep level. Teachers who go through strong teacher preparation programs are more than prepared to make their own, informed decisions about what their students need to know.
I hope to emulate the practices of the teachers I have observed, but I realize I do not have their years of experience. However, I believe my colleagues and mentors will be a better resource than a set of bureaucratic standards. I can only hope to achieve the balance both teachers have found in covering the standards while still making informed decisions about how their students will best learn. Yet, even with their relative success with common core, both teachers express a desire to do more hands-on labs and projects to help students understand the material, but the standards don’t provide the time.