One of my favorite criticisms of the Common Core is that it is a “national curriculum” forced upon teachers, parents, and students by Washington. If you research the Common Core for about half an hour, you will realize that it is not an initiative originating with the Obama Administration, but it is a set of standards (not curricula) developed by education leaders, chief state school officers and governors from 48 different states.

I’m not saying they are perfect or that implementation is going well — by no means, there are improvements that need to be made — but I am saying that they are not some sort of Washington conspiracy to control teachers and education. They might actually work and give teachers more freedom in the classroom if given a chance to be implemented correctly (which, of course, will continue to be the challenge).

Instead of tossing them out and going back to the drawing board, I think we may have something here with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Looking at them critically and discussing how to implement them more effectively and make the necessary changes will be the key to them becoming a tool for teachers to use to improve education for our kids. Simply discarding them is not the answer. Any teacher can tell you that if you give teachers a new set of standards or curricula to teach every other year, sprinkled with field tests, you are wasting time.

What we need to do so that more time isn’t lost is to examine the value in what we have right in front of us because the states that are opting out of CCSS are creating standards that look very similiar to those in the Common Core. We need to stop trying to develop new alternate plans and instead analyze the strengths of what we have in front of us because every year that we spend flip-flopping from one set of standards to another costs our students a solid, valuable education.

If people are honest, most people can agree on the actual standards. What people can’t agree on is the how to implement (this includes things like the timing, funding, accountability, etc.) These things will still be controversial if we change to a new set of standards. Therefore, let’s figure out how to address these “how” issues instead of debating the actual standards that we all (basically) agree with.

Before we do that, let’s look at this article from NPR that addresses some of the key concerns with the CCSS.

As a teacher who personally had input in how to implement the CCSS at the district and local level, I want to go through some of these FAQs discussed in the NPR article and help clarify some of the main points. There are 25 different questions in the article, so I won’t go through each one, but a few stood out to me as worth explaining a bit further.

Issue Concerning FAQ #2: Math problems are confusing and difficult now with the Common Core.

Common Criticism: The way teachers are being made to teach math doesn’t make sense to parents — let alone students. The CCSS doesn’t work in the curricula area of mathematics.

OK, so the Common Core is a set of standards — it is not a curriculum. Teachers and administrators are the ones that determine how they will get their students to be able to master the standard. The criticism that teachers are being told how to teach is absolutely absurd because what the Common Core does is essentially gives teachers the freedom to teach their students the way that they determine is best for their students.

The problem with some of the wacky math problems that parents and kids are seeing is that their kid’s teacher doesn’t know what they’re doing. And that’s not entirely their fault.

Because the Common Core does not provide an endorsed set of textbooks, teachers are free to choose their own text (if they’re in a school that can afford to purchase new textbooks — this is another issue altogether) or their own material from the internet, their brain — wherever. So if your teacher doesn’t actually know how to get their student to master the material without a very precisely charted course, then your kids might be getting some strange classwork and homework that might not actually prepare them for the end of course test, college, or anything else.

This is a huge problem, especially when it comes to the math standards. This is why many teachers unions, educators, parents, and other supporters of the CCSS are requesting more time to prepare the teachers and school systems for this huge transition. The Common Core was rolled out before many school systems had ample time to collaborate and to gather funds to purchase new textbooks that would structure implementation of the CCSS. Before the Common Core was implemented, teachers were given a specific textbook and a very specific set of teaching standards and told to teach their students the material. Now, we have the end goal (the end of course test aligned with the CCSS) with no specifically chartered plan — and we have teachers who are floundering and students who are ill-prepared.

The helpful criticism here is that more preparation of teachers is needed (and — in some cases — we need teachers who actually know how to teach the material in the first place) before we can begin holding students accountable for mastery of the material. We need time to collaborate and decide on the best materials to use. The CCSS is also going to expose some teachers as incompetent while highlighting the creative genius that has been stifled in some teachers under previous restrictive learning calendars, specific text lists, and inflexible curricula.

Issue concerning FAQ #4: The Common Core is supported by big corporations and foundations.

Common Criticism: We can’t trust the CCSS to be beneficial for our students if all these big organizations are behind the CCSS.

If the CCSS were designed by Exxon Mobil, I would say that they were definitely out of their league. However, just because these big companies contributed financially to different educational foundations and nonprofits, doesn’t mean that they were the ones designing the standards. A quick look at the staff of Achieve (the primary nonprofit who received financial contributions from these big companies) will tell you that the “education experts” are in fact education experts with classroom experience and knowledge of his or her respective curricula area.

Not that is doesn’t matter where the money comes from — because it does in some respects — it’s just that the criticism that these big companies are just trying to make money off of the CCSS is unfounded. Perhaps, instead of simply “sinister” motives, these businesses are tired of getting high school and college graduates who aren’t prepared to meet the demands of an increasingly advanced economy and are ready to donate money to remedy the problem.

I’m not saying all the motives are completely pure, but I don’t think it’s logical to say that anything that receives funding from private corporations is clearly not going to offer anything beneficial to our students. Yes, they gave money. But teachers, administrators, state education officials, and governors of specific states (not senators in Washington) were the ones who were the driving force behind the actual creation of the specific standards.

Issue concerning FAQ #6 — The CCSS mandates a certain curriculum, right? WRONG.

Common Criticism: The Common Core dictates what should be taught in the classroom. Teachers should have more freedom to teach and not be given a specific curriculum.

As we have stated before, the Common Core State Standards is not a curriculum. To give you an idea of what this means, I’ve taken a direct quote from the FAQ page of the NPR article:

“To give an idea of scope and the level of detail, the Common Core standards for K-12 English language arts and K-12 math are each about 60-70 pages long. The curriculum in California public schools, which includes Common Core standards, is 79 pages for kindergarten alone(PDF).”

So, basically 120 pages total for the entire set of standards. The beauty of this is that teachers can see what their students need to know, but are not being told how they must accomplish this. There is no book list that dictates what books teachers must use. Instead, there is a list of suggested books so that teachers don’t feel completely lost when they begin to search for tools to teach their students. (The math standards, on the other hand, give so much freedom that many teachers don’t really know where to start.)

Last year, as our school began to implement the Common Core, I found this quite liberating. My students come from diverse backgrounds, from all over the world, and many of them had never read an entire book. I gathered student interest surveys to get an idea of what interested them and what kinds of books they might find interesting, and finally, after giving them a few books I had selected based on their surveys and my knowledge of the CCSS, we (collectively) decided on A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. 

The majority of the students loved the book. Instead of being told that I had to teach a group of disinterested ninth graders A Separate Peace (which may or may not have interested them), I was able to examine what type of literature would be best for my students based on their reading levels and areas of interest. Instead of being told that I had to make sure they knew what Phineas did to Gene, I could focus on teaching them how to read, how to critically analyze and think through the thematic elements of the text. Instead of being told that I had to have my students chronologically memorize plot points from a specific text, I had them research the biological and psychological effects of the war in Sierra Leone on the book’s narrator, and then I had the students write a research paper, using the memoir and supporting documents (i.e. news articles, reports, documentaries) to support their position.

Isn’t this what teachers crave? To be given the freedom inside their classrooms to get to know their students and teach them and challenge them in a way that will engage them in the learning process?

This is exactly what the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts allowed me to do. I met dozens of the standards, but no one told me how I had to go about it. Because I had taken the time to get to know what would challenge and (simultaneously) interest my students, I had fewer problems getting my students to complete their work and care about their work (which any teacher in a low-income school will tell you is often the primary challenge).

Issue concerning FAQ #14 — The CCSS tests are harder.

Common Criticism: Students have performed worse on the Common Core state tests which obviously shows that these standards are not appropriate for our kids.

There are two different aspects I want to address with this. First: yes, the tests are going to be harder, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use them. Many studies confirm that U.S. schools are lagging behind other top nations on international assessments — which is why we are always trying to come up with new and “innovative” strategies to close this gap. The intensity of the tests are not the problem (there are other problems, to be sure — such as funding for these types of tests — but simply arguing against them based on the fact that students aren’t performing as well as they did on past tests is not a persuasive argument).

The second thing I want to address is the method with which these tests are being administered. This is a criticism of how the standards are being implemented. Teachers haven’t been prepared to teach the Common Core, so obviously the students are not going to perform as well as they would if they were receiving the information using best practices from well-equipped teachers. Also, students — at least in my school — did not take field tests seriously. They knew that this was not a test that would affect their grade (How could it? It’s a practice test to see if it will be a test that will be useful in accurately assessing what students have learned!), and therefore did not take the test as seriously as they would a “real” test.

The main point is that we need more time before we start giving these tests. The tests need revision and the teachers need more training and the kids needs appropriate materials. Quite honestly, we need to settle on what type of standard or curriculum is going to be tested.

A tutor at a local tutoring facility in Georgia told me the other day that they had seen 3 different sets of math standards and curricula over the past 3 years with students from the same school in the same grade. She said that the inconsistency seriously harms the kids’ ability to succeed in math. Essentially, they learn one level of math in a specific grade that is supposed to prepare them for the next year of math, but the standards change and then they are either 1) under-prepared because the previous year didn’t include the necessary building blocks, or 2) bored the next year because they are covering the same material. The idea that the entire CCSS might be thrown out and replaced next year does not help any teacher or student take the standards and the tests seriously, and it forces kids to experience “holes” in their education.

I will continue the analysis of these FAQs in my next post. But hopefully this has given you a bit more clarity regarding at least some of the controversial aspects of the Common Core. Again, I think the implementation has gone poorly and there is still work needed on the standards themselves (especially when it comes to math), but I don’t think that the standards are beyond saving. I think they could be exactly what we need — with a little help.