Why we Hate Common Core

My plan was to write a post about parents’ struggles, and teachers’ struggles and why so many people are hating on Common Core Standards. I was going to talk about how change is hard, and how the Internet has blown small complaints into large issues that are not really issues. I was going to explain that were it not for the internet, Common Core standards would probably have come into being with the public hearing very little about them, just like the last set of standards. I was going to talk about standards vs. curriculum, and No Child Left Behind, the federal government and how they try to influence education with money and how so much of what is wrong with education has to do with the unintended consequences of those things, that are not new, and not necessarily connected to Common Core standards. But I wanted to be sure that what I thought I knew about people’s complaints and why they had them was true and valid, so I waited to write and I listened and I read.
What I found started me thinking in another direction, and so this article became about something else. Instead of telling you about everyone’s point of view and details about standards, I decided to tell you that we are doing it all wrong. I still think Common Core math will really help our kids, and I still think the new standards are much better than the old, but we have been going about it all wrong. Stay with me for a bit, and see if you agree.
As I listened to what people were saying frustrated them about the new standards, their struggles seemed to align with my thoughts. I was looking for a list of things, or something really insightful. It turned out the real ahha moment came when I started to do some research. You see, part of my job as a resource specialist is to assist teachers. My main goal in this capacity is to give teachers resources and assistance so that students who struggle, and especially those with disabilities, can better access the curriculum at their grade level. During my research to better do this I also come across overall tips to help teachers in their classes, and will often have an opportunity to share my findings.
All teachers are struggling to learn and implement the new standards, but the change seems particularly difficult for math teachers. Some of the classes at the middle school where I teach have a cluster of students with disabilities, and then the classes are support by a resource specialist. The teachers of these supported classes seem to be having a really hard time with the move to common core, so I was researching ways to assist them. I began my search looking for how to structure class time, which led me to articles about independent practice (in class practice) vs. homework, and eventually I found an article on brain research and homework. This was my big ahha moment. This is when I realized that we were doing it wrong.
The article, “How Can We Make Homework Worthwhile” by Annie Murphy Paul on Mind/Shift talked about brain research and how it relates to homework. She reports that research shows that the amount of time students spend on homework has steadily risen, but that the quality of that homework has not necessarily improved. A 2008 student reported that parents believe that the quality of the children’s homework assignments are fair or poor, and 4 in 10 believe that some or a great deal of homework is busy work.
One study that Paul referenced in her article, “Are we wasting our children’s time in giving them more homework?” (Erin & Henderson) was of particular interest to me because it involved middle school students. The findings were interesting, but the implications of the findings were even more telling for me.
In this study they looked at homework in various subjects, and it was found that the number of hours of homework had little or no effect on tests scores, except in the area of math. Not really surprising, because math homework usually requires practice, whereas homework in other content areas seldom included primarily practice. The interesting thing was that when they looked at parental education, homework was most beneficial for students who had educated parents.
So, what does this have to do with Common Core and how we are doing it wrong? I will get to that, but first I want to give you a snapshot into the typical middle school math lesson. It goes something like this:
• Correct and go over Homework and questions
• Direct Instruction by teacher of new concept and notes
• Modeled practice- Teacher models the task, may include more notes
• Guided practice- Students practice with teacher assistance
• Independent practice- may begin in class, but usually finished as homework.
If you look at the typical math class structure it becomes clear why students with educated parents have more success. A student who understood the lesson and/or can take good notes and understand them would do well under any circumstances. But what about the little guy who did not understand the instruction? What about the kid who struggles with note taking, or listening or paying attention and only got bits and pieces of both the instruction and the notes? When she takes her notes and Independent practice home and has no idea what to do, then what. Well, if Mom or Dad knows some math, she in in luck, until Common Core entered that is. For many years there were some variations, but for the most part math was taught basically the same way and so educated parents were able to help their kids. Even if they didn’t know the exact way the teacher taught it, parents knew some way to solve it, so they helped their kids. The parent became the “other teacher.” And in some ways this was very beneficial to kids. You see with this method they were able to practice the skills with new eyes, and possibly even a different way to solve it. They had practice in more than one environment, with more than one expert and often more than one method.
This has been a great tried and true system that teachers have been using for years, and it worked great, for kids who came from educated families who spoke English. Using the parents as the “other teacher” helped to fill in whatever gaps are bound to happen when a group of students learn a new skill.
Enter Common Core, and math doesn’t look the same any more. Parents can’t be the “at home teacher,” even educated ones, because they weren’t taught this way. They don’t understand the purpose or how to do it. Here is the interesting thing to me: Common Core did not create a new problem with homework, it simply amplified an old one. You see, there we always kids who did not benefit from help with their homework at home, now there are just more. There were always kids and parents who “didn’t get it,” now there are just more. What Common Core did is put the average, educated parent in the same shoes as the uneducated ones have been in all along. We, the educated parents who usually do get it, don’t like it when we don’t get it. So what do we do, we scream.
“This Common Core makes no sense;” “This is not the way I learned, so it must not be beneficial;” “This is too hard, my kid will never get it,” are among the complaints heard about Common Core. Here is the news flash, just because you don’t get it does not mean your kid won’t, so just stop it. Stop yelling at your school and your kid’s teacher, stop posting uninformed articles on your social media, stop petitioning your local educators, just stop it, and listen.
And, I don’t mean just parents. We educators need to stop too, and really look at what these standards are asking us to do, and decide if we are really doing it. If we take a completely different way of thinking, and just put it in the same framework of how we have already been doing things, it just won’t work. Look back at the “typical math class” above. Is that the way your class operates? If so, I say stop it. It just won’t work.
Look for part 2 and 3, what we should do.

We have Successfully Taught Them Not to Think!

Any idea what is happening here?  Me either.  A lack of critical thinking skills and an ability to judge the reasonableness of answer is a real problem with today's students.
Any idea what is happening here? Me either. A lack of critical thinking skills and an ability to judge the reasonableness of answer is a real problem with today’s students.

Today I was working with a group of 6th graders who struggle a bit in math.  We were working on some fraction concepts so we made some manipulatives; fractions bars.  We labeled, cut and colored the bars, then we looked for fractions equivalent to ½.  A few of the kids caught on and gave some suggestions, so we worked together on several of them, and then worked on notating them.  One other teacher and I walked around to be sure that everyone had the example, then it was their turn.

“Okay,” I said, “Go ahead and see how many equivalent fractions you can make.”  The few students who had initially understood how to form equivalent fractions got started, but the rest just sat there.  No moving of the fractions bars, no writing anything, they just sat there, and waited.  What were they waiting for?

Eventually, my co-worker and I were able to get the students moving with some encouragement and prodding, and a lot of assistance.  But, the experience got me thinking, why were these students so reluctant to jump in and get to work?  Why didn’t they get to work on figuring it out?  I remember being a kid that age, and I just couldn’t wait for the teacher to stop talking so I could work on something myself.  I don’t think I was all that uncommon, so why were this group of students so different?

As I spoke to some of my teacher friends about this experience and thought about it I realized it had finally happened.  We have successfully taught students not to think.  This is not to say that there are not some particularly bright and stubborn students who continue to think for themselves.  But somehow this group of students had learned to just sit, and wait, and do nothing until directed.  I tried to imagine what would teach this behavior and I came up with two things; learning to listen and a focus on grade level standards.  Seems like a strange combination, but bear with me while I explain.

This was a group of students who typically have struggled, and often needed more time to complete tasks.  I think many of these students have learned that if they listen and wait long enough others (other students or the teacher) will just give them the answer.  Why work hard and engage your brain on something that is hard if someone will eventually give you the answer?  But why would the teacher give out the answer when the goal is for the students to learn?  Well, face it, time is limited.  Sometimes it seems to make most sense just to give out the answer to the struggling students so you can move on.  And sometimes other students are asked to help struggling students so they can move along.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am all for students working together.  But most young students do not really know how to “help” other students.  It is the rare student who can really tutor others without some training in this area.  And so, often instead of helping, they just give the other students the answer.  The unintended consequence is that many struggling students don’t even bother to try and engage their brains, but have become quite adept at engaging their ears.  They have learned to listen, and wait, and when the clue comes, to write down what clues they gather.

The second cause I believe of this behavior is the focus on grade level standards.  I think there are some real plusses to standards.  Before grade level standards were enacted who knows what many teachers taught?  And, many students who struggled were stuck learning the same material year after year, often with no progress or success.  But, once again, unintended consequences rear their ugly head.  I remember the first time I heard a colleague explain it.  The students would take district benchmark tests to see how well they had learned the material.  After the tests, we would move on to the next set of standards, no going back no re-teaching, no review, just move on.  Huh?  In my experience one of the main reasons for assessments was to determine what to teach, reinforce or re-teach.  But these assessments, it seemed, were only to determine how well students would perform on state assessments, not to inform instruction.  It made no sense to me, but my colleague was more experienced than me, and she seemed pretty confident that this was a good plan, so why argue?

So what is the unintended consequence of a decade or more of this practice on struggling students?  Let’s say someone is trying to teach you a skill, and it is real hard for you.  It is so hard, that you really have no desire to learn it.  But, you find out that there is a limited amount of time to learn the skill.  Once the time period is over you will be assessed, but if you don’t understand, there is no accountability, and no one will go back and make sure you learned it.  You may get a bad test score or grade, but you never get good grades anyway.  So, you learn to lay low.  You learn to just wait it out and that skill will go away.  Maybe the next one will be easier.

2014 was the year.  No Child Left Behind called for all students to show grade level proficiency in each state by 2014.  Okay, really?  When can any group of people meet 100% proficiency in anything, and does it even have any meaning when each state makes up its own mind about what proficiency means?  And what made anyone think that tests given to children could have 100% reliability?  But this was not just pie in the sky wishing on the part of our federal government to get everyone there, this law came along with all types of “accountability” measures that put in place what amounted to punitive measures for schools and districts.  The stakes were high, so it is not surprising that administrators did all they could to raise scores as high as possible.  Teach to the test.  Focus on the kids who are most likely to reach proficient.  Hit all of the most tested items, and don’t go back and re-teach.  All good advice to bring up scores.  All poor advice to teach students critical thinking skills, to stick with it until they learn something and to solidly build foundational skills.

And so I sit with my little group of 6th graders as they look at me, and wait.  Wait for someone to give them the answer.  Wait for me to decide they just don’t get it and move on to something else.  Wait for me to give up on teaching them to think for themselves.  Once they know me better they know that won’t work.  They will find out that I don’t give them the answers, I make them work for them.  They will find out that I don’t give up on teaching them a skill and move on to something else, I stick with it until they get it.

So, have we hopelessly turned our schools into institutions of non-thinking, or is there hope of change?  In my opinion there is room for optimism, and the optimism springs from Common Core Standards.  I know, it sounds strange, after all much of the media publicity claims that the new standards teach students not to think.  However, critical thinking skills, showing evidence of an answer, being able to solve a problem in more than one way, and finding new ways of doing things are all hallmarks of the new standards.  Weird huh?  Here the media claims that the Common Core Standards will strips kids of the ability to think, but I think that ship left the dock over a decade ago.  Of course, the direction the new tests will take or the future of No Child Left Behind is a bit unclear, but I do think there is hope for our kids.