The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

The Common Core

[NOTE: I was not in the classroom today due to a schedule meeting of a district focus group examining the Model Content Framework for the Common Core English/Language Arts standards. So I thought it appropriate to share this post which I have had in my “drafts” folder for several days now. It is expresses my thoughts on the Common Core State Standards as presently constituted. I feel like I should express emphatically that this is my current opinion, but that opinion may change in the future.]

The following is a response I wrote to a friend who had asked me about my opinion of the Common Core State Standards. Those who read my blog regularly (probably all of you reading this right now, but possibly some new visitors) hopefully know that I am a supporter of these standards. I have seen many friends and family members write negatively about the standards, and I am sure that I even have colleagues who do not support them the way I do. I also know that I have colleagues who do support the standards like me, and I feel that our voices are often drowned out by the very vocal critics. I share this post as an expression of my personal views. I am in no way sharing anything that is an official position of my school or my district. I share this also because I have stated in my blogging manifesto that I reserve the right to use this space to think about my profession and share my thoughts. I will also remind any and all that I reserve the right to moderate comments. I am perfectly content to allow dissenting opinions, but I ask that all comments be respectful and focused on the issue at hand.

For context, here was the original question from my friend:

What do you think of Common Core and have you notice its effects yet in your classroom and school? I have a friend [who teaches in another state] who struggles with it and I’m worried about its application here in IL. I figured you would be a great resource, assuming this isn’t too personal of a question for you.

Here’s the short answer: I love, love, love, LOVE the Common Core State Standards, and I love the growth I have already seen in my students, but the true measure of growth will take years before we see it. If you are interested in the long answer, please continue reading.

Here’s the long answer: The Common Core State Standards are intended to challenge students to push themselves to think critically, read closely, and solve complex problems. They finally move education a step away from the rote memorisation and repeated actions that have been a hallmark of our system for over 100 years. At one point, the American education was developed in such a way to produce good factory workers. These new standards recognise that we need more innovators and thinkers than we do lever-pullers and button-pushers, and that is what the aim of our system and these standards should be.

The standards are state-initiated, state-funded, state-guided. The federal government (through the Dept. of Education) has given its official approval, but it has not had any direct influence in the creation or development of the standards. The fact that 44 states, the District of Columbia, several territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activities (DoD K-12 school system) have adopted them also means that it is much more likely for a student to move across the country and not have to spend a year or more playing catch-up in school. (This is a very real, very serious, and very annoying problem for both students and teachers when every state has its own set of standards that are not aligned to anything else.) They are NOT a “federal take-over” of education. Far from it. Everything about them has been through a collaboration of many state governments, educational leaders, and other local stake-holders working together.

What I do NOT like about Common Core is the way some states are implementing the standards. They are requiring teachers to do the same thing at the same time across the state. That isn’t teaching, that isn’t learning, and it isn’t at all what the Common Core State Standards were meant to do. I also don’t like the way some states/districts are implementing the standards by purchasing the same old textbooks that have new covers but no new content. Implementation, though, is far different from the standards, which is what I am focusing on.

The assessments that are being designed to accompany the standards are amazing. They are being built from the ground-up by educators who helped write the standards and are now determining meaningful ways to measure how well students are learning them. There are two main partnerships working on developing Common Core-aligned assessments. Illinois is part of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), and we have district personnel who have been directly involved in this partnership. I am excited about what I have learned so far about what PARCC is planning.

I don’t know much about what your friend’s state is doing with the standards, nor do I know your friend’s experience and current position, but I do know that the standards are rigourous, challenging, and very much a step in the right direction. They are not perfect and they are not final because educational practices are constantly changing and the standards will be changing with them.

Incidentally, my school district began implementing the standards several years ago, which has helped all of the teachers have a strong grasp of what the standards are and how they look in our classrooms. (This year is the first official year of implementation for all states.) That means that my college training was based on the Illinois Learning Standards, the teaching I did as a substitute teacher for three years was also under the old standards, but I adopted the Common Core standards the year I started my current job and have been teaching them exclusively. I like what I see happening so far in my classroom, my building, and my district as a result of these standards.

The reason I said it will take years before we see the true effects is simple: the standards are cumulative. That means that what students learn in fourth grade builds on what has been taught in kindergarten, first, second, and third, and will then continue to be built upon through high school. For us, that means that the kindergarten students who started school in 2011-2012 and will be graduating in 2024 will be the first class that has been taught entirely under the Common Core State Standards. Unless, of course, politicians do something stupid like throw out the standards before we get to that point. But that also means that the students I have next year will have been taught Common Core standards since first grade and the students after that will be my first group that has only been taught under these standards. If there is one aspect of implementation that I wish I could go back in time and change, it would be rolling out the standards one year at a time instead of all at once. It would have taken thirteen years, but I think it would have been worth taking the time because of the cumulative nature of the standards.

Finally, it is very important to remember that the standards are just learning targets that guide the pacing of my instruction. Just like the speed limits on the highway do not determine what you drive, how you drive, when you drive, or why you are driving, learning standards do not determine what I teach, how I teach, when I teach, or why I teach. They only determine the framework. I use the framework to plan and to assess, but teaching is still done by the teachers. Curriculum guides, lesson plans, learning targets, pacing, and assessments are all important parts of my professional practice but none of them are the end-all, be-all of teaching. That is student growth. At the end of the day, the one thing that matters more than anything else is this: have my students grown since the last time I saw them? I truly and passionately believe that the Common Core State Standards help me help them do just that, but only as I do my job to not just teach, but to teach well.

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