Tag Archives: Common Core Standards

Teachers, you’re killing us with this Common Core stuff!

If you asked a hundred teachers their thoughts and observations about Common Core, you would probably get a hundred different answers.  A recent poll done by The Association of American Educators showed that teachers are completely split on their views of Common Core, with a bit less than a third (30%) reporting they believe Common Core State Standards will improve the quality of education in their community, about 1/3 (34%) believe the new standards will decrease the quality of education, and a bit more than a third (36%) believe the standards will have no effect.  But despite their thoughts and feelings one thing is clear; teachers who teach in states that have adopted Common Core will be teaching the concepts outlined in these standards.  While teachers represent a widely varied group of attitudes and beliefs one thing that most of them have in common is a desire to be effective teachers.  Most teachers, no matter the curriculum, the standard, the materials or the challenges, will find ways to be as effective in instructing their students as possible.  A few weeks back I wrote about why we hate Common Core, and my main point was, we are doing it wrong.  The news and the internet overflow with examples of Common Core gone wrong.  We, as a society, don’t get it, we don’t see the point, it may even be detrimental and designed to circumvent our liberty, and we don’t even really get what the standards are or why we need them.

Fortunately, the research that convinced me we were doing it wrong, also helped me to pinpoint what we could do to adopt these standards more effectively.  My findings, along with some personal experience, leads me to recommend three changes I believe teachers should make in regards to Common Core:

  • Stop letting the popular media dictate what parents know about Common Core
  • Be smart with class time and
  • Be careful about assigning Homework, and mindful of brain research.

Now, when all of my recommendations are for teachers it all may seem a bit like blame the teacher, but contrary to the way it may sound I don’t think it is mostly the teachers’ fault.  I say mostly because although most classroom teachers have very little control over if and when Common Core happens, they have a lot of control on the how.  While I think there is a lot that schools, districts and states can do to better transition to and implement Common Core effectively I think I have very little power to change or affect that.  What I think I can have an effect on is my little part of the world.  And I think that if every teacher that read this took my advice and had an effect on their little part of the world, then that will affect much more of the world than a top down approach would.  So my focus here will be what can, and should, individual teachers do in their part of the world, with their limitations of time and resources to make this transition smoother and most successful for their students.

#1- Stop letting the popular media dictate what parents know about Common Core

I hate to say it teachers, but I think we really blew it here.  Much of what the general public knows about Common Core was fed to them by the media, and often not even the mainstream media.  The spread of social media at about the same time as the implementation of Common Core standards provided the ideal environment to spread rumors and accusations on how and why the standards came to be, how they will be taught, and even what they are.  Even though the public does not have a lot of confidence in the public school system in general, most people have confidence in teachers in their local area and rate them as being above average.  With that fact in mind it is time that we teachers speak up and share with the public what we really think.

Now, as I said earlier, what we think about Common Core is widely varied, so I am not necessarily talking about sharing your preference of Common Core.  What I am talking about is sharing what you know about the standards, how you are working toward implementation, the positives about the standards and yes, the challenges.  I don’t think the general public quite understands the plight of the public school teacher when it comes to shifting expectations.  I don’t think they understand how often we are called upon from those above to completely change the way we do things.  I don’ t think they understand the hoops we need to jump through, or how much our workload has increased with all that we are now called upon to do.  When we share with our friends, our neighbors and community members and parents of our students about our experiences they have authentic information, instead of information spun through groups with an agenda.  When we share that, “Yes, there may be some issues with new standards (or new anything) but there may be some strengths.  And, we are using whatever changes come along to our benefit to educate our children,” then the public starts to see things through our eyes, instead of those who would tear down educators.

Speaking out and telling the public what we think may not come easily for many of us.  We teachers have no problem speaking up in our classroom and with our students, but for some reason we are not all that good about speaking up in our communities. Teachers have gotten pretty used to letting groups that represent them do the talking, like administrators and teachers’ unions.  But I am not talking about administrators explaining to parents, I am not talking about teachers’ unions or union reps communicating with our communities, I am talking about regular, everyday teachers opening their mouths and sharing their thoughts and experiences.  Not complaining, not whining, not blaming it on someone else, but sharing what our work is, how we do it, what is rewarding and what is frustrating.   With the spread of social media there has never been a better time.  Don’t let those who know little about public education be the ones who dictate what the public hears and believes.  And, don’t let school districts or teachers’ unions paint us with a broad brushstroke that makes us look like we don’t have minds of our own.  When we speak up in a respectful and professional manner we become known for the varied, highly educated, highly trained group that we really are.

#2- Be smart with class time

Most teachers probably already know this, but contrary to many of the rumors circulating about Common Core, the shifts in the standards are based on research on how children learn best.   For my teacher friends who may have forgotten, or the general public who may also be reading this, they include basic shifts in not only what is taught, but, ideally, the way it is taught.  The shifts include:

    • Greater focus on fewer topics
    • Coherence: Linking topics and thinking across grades
    • Rigor: Pursue conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application with equal intensity

In math, and in ELA:

    • Regular practice with complex texts and academic language
    • Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts, both literary and informational
    • Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction

In recent years, to explore the seeming disparity in proficiency scores between countries around the globe, educators have studied how students are educated in different countries.  In their book, “The Teaching Gap, “ James Stigler and James Hiebert observed math lessons in Japan, the US and Germany.  The team observed many differences in the way concepts were taught, but one of the main findings was in the German and US classrooms much of the class time was spent in listening to a teacher, whereas the majority of time spent by Japanese students was spent in problem solving.

Some of the shifts associated with the move to Common Core are based on the evidence that the Japanese model, focusing on problem solving rather than teacher lecture on “how to,” improves achievement.  But, are teachers really shifting the how they teach, and not just what they teach?

As I have already mentioned teachers are a very diverse group.  So, some teachers have probably made many changes, while others are determined to pour a new standard into the same old mold.  As I reported in my previous post part of my job is to assist other teachers.  The research that I did to assist our middle school math teachers better incorporate the new standards is what prompted this entire line of thinking on my part.  From my understanding of what had been learned from Japanese instruction, the shifts in Common Core and what I observed in the typical middle school math class it seemed that most teachers were just not doing enough to shift their classroom teaching.  Teachers reported a great frustration to fit the new standards into their class time, so I determined that I would look for ways to assist them.  To assist me I did a very small, very unrepresentative study of how much time our math teachers spent on typical classroom tasks.  What I found backed up what I had observed, and gave me thoughts on what needs to happen to better address the new standards in the classroom.  My examples will all be from the point of view of a math class, however I believe the concepts are very similar in other subject areas.  Keep in mind, however, that in some ways math is very different than other subjects.  Math requires much more practicing of skills than many content areas, so not everything I found here may apply.

Part of what makes the Japanese model so different than the US model is the amount of time students spend engaged in performing math.  Not taking notes, not listening to the teacher, not watching the teacher solve problems, but actually doing math.  Part of the philosophy behind which a typical US classroom operates is that the teacher has advanced knowledge about a subject and the teacher’s job is to impart the learning to the students.  In turn, the students performs some sort of task, an assignment, a test, etc., to demonstrate that they absorbed and understood the knowledge.  The philosophy behind which the Japanese method, and to some extent the principles of Common Core, operates have less to do with the teacher imparting knowledge to the student, and more to do with the student gaining knowledge through their own enquiry, exploration, activities and  experiences.  This is a bold and risky change for teachers because instead of just telling kids what they need to know, we need to develop activities for students that will lead them to the knowledge that we believe is important for them to learn, and trust that they will indeed discover the important elements.

If this type of a model were implemented you would expect to see students spending the majority of their class time doing math.  So here is where my very unscientific study comes in.  I polled our math teachers and asked them to group their class time into 4 categories: 1-Homework- correcting and going over the previous night’s assignment, 2-             Direct Instruction- teacher talk, notes, examples, etc., 3-     Guided Practice- teacher guides students through the steps of the process and 4-                Independent Practice- students are solving math problems.  What I found with our teachers, and I believe this is typical, is that they were spending their largest proportion of their time, an average of 34 minutes in an 84 minute block period, in direct instruction and only an average of 19.2 minutes in independent practice, or actually doing math.  Now some may argue that much more of the period is really doing math.  After all, they are watching problems being solved, writing down notes filled with math problems, and being walked through the correct process to solve problems.  But I submit to you, that none of this is doing math.

The brain operates quite differently when we watch someone doing something, versus when we do it.  When you learned to drive, did you take notes on where the brake was, how to shift and when to look in your mirrors?  Probably not.  You may have had instruction on driving laws and rules, but the procedures you learned by doing.  In my work with children who struggle quite often I have a child come to me needing help.  They listened to the lecture, they wrote the notes, they completed the guided practice but they have no ability to duplicate the process.  This is because they were not doing math at all; they were copying what the teacher was doing.  Teachers do need to teach students about the rules that govern mathematical concepts, but it seems that our students are stuck in math training, and spend very little time “behind the wheel” and solving problems on their own.

So what should the ideal classroom look like?  In my opinion, and based on my experience working with all types of students and many teachers, here is what will help teachers better move toward the Common Core shifts.

First, limit time spent going over previous homework.  In most middle school classrooms I have observed the first part of class is spent going over homework from the night before.  Our teachers reported that they spent between 10 and 30 minutes on this.  While it is important that students get feedback and help if they struggle, I submit that spending a lot of time on this does not give you the best bang for your buck.  More about this below, but I submit if you restructure your time as I am recommending you won’t even need that much time for this activity.

Second, some notes and examples are good, but the sooner kids actually engage their brains in math activities, not just notes or copying, the more time they have to understand the concept.  Find a way to streamline this, and understand that not every lesson has to start with directions.  For some concepts an exploratory activity that gets kids immediately into doing math may be better.  Then follow with notes, and the “rules of the road” later.

Third, build in procedures to check for understanding as soon as possible.  Work a problem, check with your neighbor; work problems on a whiteboard; using hand signals to show understanding are all ways that students can all be working, and show they understand.  Try to stay away from, or limit, teaching methods that require only one student to answer at a time.  I have observed plenty of students who will quite happily just sit there and not participate at all unless required to.  Make sure you have procedures that require all to actually engage their brains, not just their eyes and ears.

Last, leave plenty of time for independent practice, in class.  This is the most key part and will do two things for you.  First, it will increase the likelihood that students will actually complete and understand their homework.  Students should not be sent out your door with homework that they do not know how to complete.  Unless you know who understands what, it is impossible to assure that this happens.  Also, if you have students who just are not getting it, this gives you an opportunity to modify their work, or suggest when and how they can get extra assistance so they can complete their homework.  In the past teachers relied an awful lot on parents as the “at home” teacher to get homework complete.  With Common Core, concepts may be taught so differently that teachers cannot really expect that parents can help.  Students should go home with practice they understand, not homework that parents need to re-teach.  The second benefit to leaving plenty of time for independent practice is that this is where you save time in the beginning of class.  If you are sure that most of your students understand the homework, then the checking and review portion is greatly lessoned and shortened.  This allows you to display the answers for self or peer checking, and then spend time answering questions on the most tricky, difficult or misunderstood items, instead of the concept you went over the day before.

Teaching is a very complex skill.  When a new way of doing things comes along it is not really advisable, or even possible, to just throw out the old and put in the new.  Change will and should be gradual, but that change should be guided by evidence on how children learn best combined with an understanding of what we are really changing.  I believe that if teachers will gradually shift the way their class time is spent that not only will they better be able to teach Common Core Standards, but they will also increase their practice and effectiveness.

#3- Be careful about assigning Homework, and mindful of brain research

Homework is probably the area that will most affect, and confuse, parents in the shift to Common Core.  This is where we get topics of blog and Facebook posts of, what was this teacher thinking? Or, just what are they teaching my child?  Not to mention the ever popular, what does this even mean?

It is easy for teachers to get defensive and defend their homework choices, but I think a better strategy would be to just admit a few things.  First, we might not get it all either.  New terms, new ways of doing things and new procedures can have us all a bit confused.  Second, some of the transition materials are just not very good.  The hope is that as we begin to adopt new materials they will better reach the new concepts, but some of the things we are currently using are just not very effective, and sometimes they are just plain confusing.  And third, we need to be picky and careful about what and how we assign homework.  I think if nothing else, all of the bad publicity should have taught us we can’t just grab some worksheet and assign it as homework.  When the terms and procedures are so vastly different from what students have been taught in the past it does not work very well.

This is where we go back to the article, “How Can We Make Homework Worthwhile” by Annie Murphy Paul which I quoted in my previous post.  Remember, her focus was on brain research and how it relates to homework?  Paul has five main suggestions on how to make homework worthwhile, the quality of the homework space reputation, retrieval practices, cognitive disgluency and interleaving.  We will discuss each of these areas and how teachers can use these skills to better implement Common Core, especially in the area of math.

Quality is more important than quantity.  One thing that Paul reported that parents complain of is that much of their child’s homework appears to be busy work.  The trick is not to make homework shorter or longer, but smarter.  Homework should be worthwhile and provide value.

  1. Spaced repetition– When I was an undergraduate psychology student I studied learning and how the brain operates to best learn and retrieve material. One concept of memory is that learning is enhanced when the method of retrieval matches the method of learning.  In other words, if you learn to drive in a car, you will better remember how to drive when you are in a car than in another location.  If you want to remember how to do something in the early morning, you are best learning that process in the early morning.  And if you want to remember something over a long period of time, you are better off learning that information over a long period of time.  That does not often match the way we teach.  Often we teach, assess, then move on to a new concept.  Students will remember concepts better if we expose them to material in brief periods over long periods of time.  This would indicate that a good use of homework is a brief review of concepts already learned that needs to be remembered on an ongoing basis.
  2. Retrieval practices– Teachers understand the important of assessment to determine what learning has taken place, but Paul asserts that assessment can also be used to enhance learning. There is evidence that frequent assessment enhances learning because it strengthens neural pathways.  If I ask your name you can immediately pull up that information, and answer the question.  Little thought, no searching for the correct answer, your brain knows just where to retrieve that information quickly and effectively.  Your brain is like that, it can best retrieve information that is frequently accessed.  So, frequent assessment ensures frequent use of the stored information, and enhances learning.  I find it also enhances homework completion rates.  If students are aware that they will be assessed often, they are more likely to keep up on homework assignments, and the practice has meaning, not just mindless practice.
  3. Cognitive disfluency– One thing I enjoy is singing, and I have sung in choirs for much of my life.  After years of singing many of the same songs I made an interesting discovery.  Sometimes, our choir will sing a song that we performed many years ago, and yet I have trouble remembering my part.  Other times, the part is so familiar that I could almost perform after not seeing it for many years.  One thing I began to notice is that often the parts I remembered the best were the most difficult to learn.  This illustrates the concept of cognitive disfluency.  I used to think that I remembered those parts better because I had to practice them more to learn them.  But, according to Paul, that does not quite explain the phenomenon.   Paul says that when we learn material that is a bit difficult to learn it signals the brain that this information is important and needs to be remembered.  As important as it is for homework to be something that students can complete, the concept of cognitive disfluency illustrates that it is equally important that homework be meaningful and rigorous.  Homework, and classwork for that matter, should not be busy work or meaningless.
  4. Interleaving– This concept has to do with mixed practice. When homework or practice of any kind is all of the same type, for instance and entire page of similar addition problems, learning is compromised.  Studies show that when students practice skills of mixed types that learning is enhanced.  This makes sense when you think about the way the brain works.  An entire page of similar problems only requires the brain to make one trip down the neural pathway to that information.  When the task contains mixed practice, however, the brain must visit the locations of several memory locations, thus strengthening those neural pathways.

This week a teacher friend of mine posted a picture of an assignment that his kindergarten son brought home as homework.  I have included it as the image for this article.  He was not quite sure what the directions meant, or if his son had completed the assignment correctly.  Several other middle school teachers, including math teachers, commented on the post and no one could understand what was being asked or if what was done was correct.  There were a few theories, but no definitive conclusion.  I think the child’s teacher probably assigned this activity in good faith that the student could complete it, but it appears there is a problem.  If a handful of highly educated teachers cannot figure out what needs to be done, what of the typical parent?  Teachers, help us all out here, look at my advice and help make the move to Common Core a little bit smoother.  We can do this, but it needs some work before we can say we are doing it right.

Next, advice for parents.

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.

What Common Core Math and Your Auto Mechanic Have in Common

What if I were to tell you that we have a new way of training auto mechanics.  It seems that it takes an awful lot of time to train auto mechanics about all those parts of an engine, and how they all work and there are so many kinds of engines.  You see, there are lots of parts on a car, but only a few of them break often.  And, some cars are much more common than others.  So, the plan is we will streamline the training.  We will teach mechanics to do just the most common repairs, how to get in, get out, no need to know how the thing works.

So, how effective would this teaching technique be?  Well, I suspect, for the most part it would be very effective.  These new mechanics would be able to do the large majority of repairs on most cars.  Some of the mechanics would even pick up some knowledge of how the engine worked, just through this process of knowing how to do a few common repairs.

But, what if you have a problem with your car that wasn’t covered in this expedited training course?  What if you had a car that didn’t fit the mold?  What if you had a problem that was hard to locate?  Would your mechanic be able to find it?  Maybe, but then again, maybe not.  If you had a really sharp mechanic he may be able to figure it out.  He may have come up with strategies to solve the unexpected problem.  But with no training on how it all works, you have no guarantee.

Well, that is how we have been training our children in math for a lot of years.  How were most of us taught to do math?  Algorithms.  How do you subtract 38 from 52?  Well you probably line up the digits, subtract the ones place first, borrowing from the 10’s place because you can’t take away 8 from 2, then subtract the 10’s place.  That process you go through is not really subtraction, it is an easy way to figure it out.  For most of us, we understand what is really happening here.  We get a picture in our head of 52 items and removing 38.  The algorithm is a shortcut, a way to figure it out quickly.

But here is the thing, we educators have been moving at such break-neck speed to teach the standards, that we have run out of time to teach kids what is really happening.  The last few years of crazy standards, standardized testing and moving at an astronomical pace to keep up with who knows who (specifically in the state of California), has left no time to teach what it really means.  It is like the mechanic who can only perform one action.  Most kids can do the algorithm, but they may have no idea what it means, how it works, or how it fits all together.

Enter Common Core math.  You’ve seen the examples of what seems to be long, crazy, drawn out ways to compute something.  Testimonials from parents, professionals, smart people saying, I don’t do math like this, why should my kid?

Well, I will tell you why your kid should learn with Common Core math: your kid should learn Common Core math for the same reason your mechanic should learn everything about an engine instead of just how to do a few repairs.  Your kid should learn Common Core math because it teaches kids how math works, not just how to solve algorithms.

I remember learning math as a kid.  The plan was to teach us how it works, but here was the process.  Teach a skill, show exactly how to do it, give an example, have the kids practice, then they practice alone.  Classic teaching, I do, we do, you do.  So, as a kid, I would take my example, my few I practiced in class, and my book home and do my homework.  Everything worked fine, as long as the problems looked exactly like the example.  When it started to diverge, I started to get lost.  And then, here is the part where the plan was for kids to figure out how it worked, we would get an extension problem.  Take what you have learned, apply it to something completely different, and figure it out.  I would look at those, look at my example and have no idea.  No one taught me how to do that, how are we supposed to do it?

Well, I am no one’s dummy, as a matter of fact I was very good at math, and it eventually became my favorite subject.  But, I wasn’t taught, encouraged, or really even given permission to think on my own (except perhaps in those extension activities I was supposed to do at home).  I had the process, the directions the way to do it.  As long as I followed the directions, I could do it.  Any variation, anything that looked different, and I was stuck.  I had no idea where to start or how to solve it.

Move ahead about 40 years, and now instead of learning math, I am teaching math, as well as a few other subjects.  Guess what, up until Common Core, not a lot had changed.  It was still I do, we do, you do.  And, kids still do not understand those extension activities.  Here is what did change between then and now: someone decided that kids should learn more math faster.  Never mind developmental levels, never mind the time in a school day, never mind that kids can only learn so fast, they should learn more, faster.

Did it work?  Did kids learn more math faster?  Well, if you look at the scores they did go up, but only on the specific tests that teachers were teaching to.  Kids did not really understand math, but many were able to perform a lot of algorithms, as long as it didn’t look different than the example.  Yes, just like the mechanics in my original example, for most students it worked fine.  They were able to perform prescribed operations as taught.

But here are the unintended consequences: kids can solve math problems, the math problems that were specifically taught, but how often will they see those exact problems in real life?  Using this method many students, I may even venture to say most, really don’t know math.  Most of us would recognize ¾ as their pieces of a whole cut into 4, or three out of 4 wholes.  I have worked with all sorts of students who may be able to perform some operations on fractions, but ask them to draw a model, and many just can’t do it.  Ask them to take away half of 8 and tell you the answer, and they may say 7 and a half.  They have memorized the rules (if they have a good memory), but they don’t understand the process.  And, the kids who don’t have good procedural memory are really lost.

So what does this have to do with the crazy Common Core examples?  It is teaching kids how it works, how it looks, what it really means.  Does this mean we don’t use algorithms anymore?  Absolutely not.  They go hand in hand.  The algorithms are short cuts, quicker ways to do things.   They should learn both, what it really means, and the quicker way to solve it.

This is not to say that Common Core math is the perfect solution, or the only way to teach math, but from where I sit it is the best alternative I have seen to what we have been doing for a lot of years that does not work all that well.

Want to know more? Stay tuned for my view on why parents are frustrated and why teachers are unhappy.  Or, check out this link from another point of view.