Sorry Parents, but Common Core is probably not going away for a good, long time.

In my previous posts I talked about how we were doing Common Core wrong, and what teachers could do to make the transition easier.  Here is part 3, the part where I have some advice for parents.  Now parents, before you start to think I don’t get you because I am a teacher you need to understand.  I was a parent before I was a public school teacher.  Long before I held a parent teacher conference or consulted with parents as a teacher I was on the other side of the table.  I know that a lot of teachers have kids, but a large majority of them were teachers first, and parents second.  Trust me, it is different.  And, I had kids who struggled, so it required me to be pretty involved to get them through school.  And, that involvement was not always smooth and easy.  So, I totally get you.  I get how sometimes schools, teachers and parents don’t see eye to eye.  But here is the thing, now that I have been on the teacher side of the table, I get them too.  It puts me in the unique position to give advice, that I think is valid, to both teachers and parents.

So, parents, when it comes to Common Core I have three pieces of advice:

  • Realize Common Core isn’t going anywhere for a good long time.
  • Ask how you can help, before you complain. And, when you feel you must complain, know your facts, and be specific about the problem.
  • If you don’t get the homework, or your child can’t do the homework, feel free to send it back with a note.

#1- Realize Common Core isn’t going anywhere for a good long time

Surely, if we put up enough fuss, if we make our voices heard and if we complain to our representatives we will get rid of it, right?  Well, probably not.  True, there are some states that backed down from Common Core, but these states did not go back to the previous standards.  They adopted new standards, and most of the new standards are very similar to Common Core.  So, like it or not, these standards, or something very much like them, are here to stay for a good long time.  To help you better understand why this is true I would like to define a few things, and explain a few things that parents and the general public may not understand just because they don’t deal with the inner workings of public education.

What are standards?  Educational standards define the knowledge and skills students ideally should possess at critical points in their educational development. “Standards serve as a basis of educational reform across the nation as educators and policy makers respond to the call for a clear definition of desired outcomes of schooling and a way to measure student success in terms of these outcomes” (National Research Council 2001).  Let’s liken standards to developmental milestones.  Most parents are familiar with these milestones because when you visit your pediatrician for a well-child check up your doctor will ask you, is your child crawling yet, can he roll over, can she sit up on her own or can he say 10 words.  These milestones are based on the average age at which children typically acquire these skills.  So if your child is significantly behind other children at her age it signals to your pediatrician that there may be a developmental delay or health issue.

Educational standards are a bit like this.  They list the grade at which students should have the identified skills and knowledge.  There are some differences, however.  The first major difference is that standards are tied to grade level, not to student age.  The obvious problem of this is that students at any given grade level will represent a sizable range in age, as well as developmental level.  Of course the nature of our public school system requires this age range, but this fact makes it difficult to say that a child that does not attain a certain standard is behind other students when he or she may simply be younger or slower to develop than other students at that grade level.  The next major difference between standards and developmental benchmarks is that given a supportive and healthy environment and typical developmental abilities young children will automatically acquire the milestones.  Educational standards, however, represent skills and knowledge that students must be taught, not that they will acquire on their own.   So, the problem with judging children based on these standards is that attainment requires just the right mix of quality teaching and educational readiness, as well as student engagement.  The third major difference between developmental milestones and standards is that milestones are based on what the typical child has been shown to master.  Standards, on the other hand, are more arbitrary.  They are not necessarily developed with the typical development of children in mind.  In my opinion, this was one of the major problems with the previous set of standards in the state of California.  They did not seem to match what is known about child development.  The jury is still out on how well the Common Core standards fit developmental levels, but I do believe that one area that better fits development levels is in the area of 8th grade math.  The previous California standards required every 8th grade student to learn algebra.  This requirement in no way took into account the developmental level of the typical 13 year old and caused much frustration among parent and students, as well as teachers.

How did Standards across the nation Come to Be?  During most of the history of public education state and local agencies set standards of what would be taught when, but these guidelines were often very loose and unregulated.  So it was not uncommon for individual teachers to teach what they wanted, when they wanted.  In 1989 George W. Bush met with many of the nation’s governors at the Charlottesville Education Summit and developed educational goals.  Goals centered around targets to measure educational improvement that asked states to give up some of their autonomy to provide for more educational excellence nation-wide.  “There is a growing recognition that an essential next step for education reform is establishing consensus around a set of national goals for education improvement, stated in terms of the results and outcomes we as a nation need for the education system.”  From this summit sprang “No Child Left Behind” and the required standards and high stakes testing that states began to adopt.  The plan was for each state to determine what a “proficient” student looked like and how to assess it.  Seemed like a good idea to ensure autonomy of the states, while moving closer to accounting for what they taught, but in practice this plan did not work well.  Some states, for instance Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee, set their standards so low that a large majority of their students scored proficient on their state tests, while independent tests showed that their students were genuinely nowhere near the proficiency that their scores would indicate.

So the deal was this, every year states would be required to increase the number of students who scored proficient.  Little by little, we would give students the skills they needed to all reach proficiency.  2014 was the year this was supposed to happen.  Every student was supposed to be proficient across the nation.  Yep, every kids 100%.  Do you see a problem with this plan?  Well, there were many.  First, in order to get 100% of any group of people anywhere to be proficient at anything is a bit problematic.  I can’t think of a single skill that everyone on this earth is capable of showing complete proficiency in, not even breathing.  At any one time there is a sizable number of the population that needs a machine to breathe, so even something as essential as breathing, cannot show 100% proficiency.  And, this was 100% of the population enrolled in public school, yep, even students with severe learning problems.  The last major flaw in this plan was the disparity of standards.  Some states did reach or come very close to that 100% level, but their standards were set so low when compared to other measures they were really quite meaningless.  As the number of students required to be at proficient increased, and more and more schools and districts were unable to reach the standard it became increasingly clear that the plan was just not working.

This is the environment in which Common Core Standards were born.  Didn’t it make a lot more sense to measure the whole nation with similar standards instead of widely varied one?  A lot of people thought so, which is what spurred the spread of the new standards.

How is curriculum different from standards?  There seems to be quite a bit of misunderstanding on the difference between curriculum and standards.  I often hear and see people refer to books or specific curriculum and insinuate that those items are synonymous with the Common Core Standards.  Even many websites designed for teachers provide activities and worksheets labeled as “Common Core Curriculum.”  In reality, there is no such thing.  Standards are like a list of things that student should learn; curriculum is how it will be taught.  For instance, if I want to teach you touch typing I can use many methods, such as on-line games or programs, or yours mother’s old typing class materials.  Touch typing would be like the standard, what will be learned.  The method is like the curriculum, how it will be taught.

No matter how good or bad standards are, they are not designed to teach students anything.  What teaches are good teachers and good curriculum.  Great standards can be completely unsuccessful with poor teaching and/or curriculum.  And, by the same token, good curriculum and teachers can often mitigate the problems with poor standards.

Can we get rid of Common Core?  When I hear people talk about getting rid of Common Core I often wonder if they know what this really entails.  As an illustration, let’s think about the direction that public education is headed as a long freight train moving down the track.  It takes an awful lot to get it moving forward, and once it does it takes an awful lot to stop it or change its path.  You see, new standards take years and years to create.  Once they are created they need to be adopted and then synthesized into a usable state.  The standards must then be disseminated to districts, schools, administrators and finally to teachers.  Once everyone knows the new standards, how it will be taught must be decided.  People start creating curriculum and publishers begin to develop materials.  Adoption of new materials can take years, and often early curriculum does not do a very good job of teaching the new standards.  We are in the midst of this process of change.  It took a long time, a considerable amount of money and a great deal of effort to get this train moving down the Common Core track.  Some states are a bit further down the track than the State of California which is in the very early stages of adopting curriculum (publishers have developed and distributed transitionary materials only for schools to use until state adopted curriculum are available).  But the standards and especially the curriculum that would supporting teaching of those standards are still in their infancy.  States are unlikely to abandon something that has absorbed so many resources to implement, especially when you consider that it is way too early to determine the value of the standards or the efficacy of the curriculum.  That is also why states that have moved away from Common Core have adopted standards so similar.  The freight train has just picked up speed and it is difficult, and probably ill-advised, to stop or change the direction of that train.  States that have moved away from Common Core have just moved to a parallel track moving in the same direction.

#2- •      Ask how you can help, before you complain.  And, when you feel you must complain, know your facts, and be specific about the problem.

There was a time when parents had a lot of power over public education.  They hired the teachers, set the standards and determined a school calendar that fit the needs of their family life.  Although the days are long gone when parents have this much influence over schools, parents do need to understand that they continue to wield a good deal of power.  Many decisions are made based on the views of the public and the desires of parents.  However, parents also need to understand that there is a way to wield that power that is successful and builds collaborative relationships, and there is a way to wield that power that can be very unsuccessful and may build roadblocks to schools and parents working together.  The most important thing that parents can do to influence change in their local schools is to gain credibility in the sights of teachers and administers.  There are several things that parents can do to gain credibility and be able to influence decision making, but the most important thing is to make yourself known in a positive manner.  I cannot say enough about the benefits of parents becoming involved in their public schools by working with parent groups and committees, volunteering in the classroom or making themselves available to assist with school and extra-curricular activities.  Once you make yourself visible and helpful you are no longer just someone’s parent, you are a known, valued member of the school community.

It is quite unlikely that your child will make it through their years of public education without something that you need to complain about.  It is not uncommon for actions, policies and procedures to violate what parents feel are in the best interest of their child.  At those times parents should speak up and they can wield quite a bit of power.  However, public school policies are designed to keep the power in the hands of administrators.  They will not easily allow parents to come in and start directing how things should be run.  But if parents take the time to make themselves credible to school personal, it will increase the likelihood that their voice will be heard.  The first step is to become involved.  This should be done long before a problem arises so that the school sees you as a helpful asset, not as someone who is only helping because of ulterior motives.  The next step is to do your homework.  Whether you are complaining about standards, curriculum, a policy or an altercation your child had with an adult or another student gather as many credible facts as you can.  I cannot tell you how many meetings I have been in with parents that were very upset about something, only for the parents to find out that they completely misunderstood the situation.  Once these steps have been taken, be sure you present your concerns in a calm, coherent, specific manner.  Complaints such as, “We need to get rid of Common Core,” does not build credibility for your case at all.  What about the standards are you concerned about, and what do you think needs to change?  While it is unlikely that states will entirely abandon Common Core or standards that are very similar, there is a lot of room for input on how the standards will be implemented and what the adopted curriculum will look like.

#3- If you don’t get the homework, or your child can’t do the homework, feel free to send the HW back with a note

Changing standards and curriculum is a big deal and a long and difficult process.  One of the primary complaints of parents with the shift in standards is that they don’t understand the homework, and neither does their child.  Be assured, your child’s teacher is pretty frustrated by this too.  Not only is it difficult to learn and teach new materials in a new manner, but as I mentioned before curriculum has not even been fully developed, and many of the transitional materials are not very good.  This makes for a frustrating situation for everyone involved.  It is a bit like learning to drive a new car, when the car is only half built, and pieces are being added on as you drive.

But here’s the thing parents, remember the power you wield?   Here’s one place you can really exercise it, homework.  Parents, you are ultimately responsible for your children and for what goes on in the hours between the end of school one day, and the beginning of the next.  While teachers would love it if each and every child would complete the homework that were assigned each day, the fact of the matter is that it often does not happen.  Sometimes it gets forgotten, or there are other family obligations or emergencies and yes, sometimes they just don’t understand what to do.  And you know what, as earthshaking as this may seem, if the homework does not get done some of the time, life goes on.  Of course, it is a problem if your child never does their homework.  But, what would happen if when you and your child don’t understand the homework you just wrote a note explaining the problem and told your child we won’t be doing this tonight?  If you have already taken the time to build that relationship earlier with your school and your child’s teacher they would probably understand and find a better way to communicate with you and/ or your child what should be done.

In conclusion, I would just like to share some Common Core successes.  Teaching in a California school for the first year of full Common Core adoption has been frustrating and an awful lot of work.  But I am starting to see some of the benefits of being able to delve a bit deeper into topics instead of skimming the surface as our last set of standards required.  The old standards moved so quickly that students had no time to really master anything, especially in math.  So the 6th grade math teacher that I work with and I slowed down even a bit more for the class that I support because they struggle in math.  We took a bit more time to really understand some number concepts and how the whole system works, especially when it relates to fractional concepts.  And, you know what?  When we came back around later in the year to using those fractional concepts, for the first time in a long time I did not get blank stares when I asked what .5 meant.  They had actually learned it, and I had students who could tell me that .5 was the same as one half.  That may seem like a small victory, and they certainly don’t all “get it” but I can’t tell you how many times I have dealt with whole groups of students who had no idea that .5 is the same as one half.  I feel that Common Core math, at least at the level I am dealing with, will be much more successful in preparing our students for actually using numbers in real life.

Lastly, I would like to share an example, pulled from the pages of my Facebook Newsfeed.  These comments came from a post of a mom who felt frustrated about how her child was being taught math, and both she and her daughter were struggling.  Interestingly, this mom lives in a state that did not adopt Common Core, however their standards are quite similar.  These posts are from friends from several different states, in various stages of teaching math differently.  Names were omitted.

  • Responder 1 – I’ve been trying to teach myself a lot of these new algorithms that my kids have been learning….and my first reaction is to reject them as hippy dippy nonsense, then after doing it for half an hour, I wish they taught us this stuff when I was a kid.
  • Original Poster- For my daughter math has been a struggle. When they teach so many different ways to do the same thing it confuses her more- doesn’t help.
  • Responder 1-I also struggled with math so much as a kid and it wasn’t until I was teaching “new math” that I really got it and watched soooo many kids really begin to understand how math works instead of just regurgitating facts. I know it can be hard as a parent to watch but honestly, sometimes the brightest students will struggle with these methods at first but they come out so much more fluid and flexible in their mathematical reasoning skills.
  • Original Poster- I hope so!
  • Responder 2- Going through this from 1st to 3rd grade with my daughter was the real struggle. Now that she’s in 4th grade, it makes a lot more sense to me, and looking back, the 1st-3rd grade stuff was doing a good job leading up to what comes after. I think the hardest thing was that the instruction didn’t make sense, and that’s probably due to it being new to everybody, including a lot of the teachers.

So there you go folks, to take us back to our train analogy the ride may be long and bumpy, but eventually I think it will get us to our destination much better than our older standards were doing.  Of course, you are welcome to your own point of view; varying points of view are one of the things that make this country great.  However, I would admonish you to take my advice and realize that Common Core is probably not going anywhere, know when and how to complain and feel free to let teachers know when the homework just doesn’t work.  Parents, you can wield a lot of power, but doing it the right was will be much more successful.

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