Sunday, 17 November 2013

Common Core?!?: Some Thoughts on Public Education Today

Common Core: What Is It?

There are SO many articles and videos warning people of the dangers of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, or CCSSI.   That's right, that's the official name: it's Standards, not Curriculum.   Standards are a part of a curriculum.   They simply state what each student should be able to demonstrate, with mastery, by the end of a school year.   Standards are important as they guide curriculum and the instruction in classrooms.

There are currently Standards for Mathematics and Language Arts, Kindergarten through Grade 12 and they are all available for inspection on the official CCSSI website:


For example, in Mathematics, there are Standards for Mathematical Practice, which are the general  "varieties of expertise that mathematics educators at all levels should seek to develop in their students..."   These Standards are to be developed across all grade levels, throughout each school year and some of them came from the NCTM, National Council for Teachers of Mathematics Process Standards.   NCTM recommendations have had an influence upon Standards and textbooks across the United States for several decades.   Their website is easily available for study:


The website includes their recommendations for Standards and Focal Points in mathematics instruction: 



In addition, there are the Domain Standards of the Common Core Standards, which are the specific skills students are expected to master.   The Standards are all organized by grade level.   On the official website, you can find all the grade levels listed.   Each has an Introduction section which gives a general overview.   Then, you can examine each of the individual skills a student would be expected to master by the end of the school year.   So, for Kindergarten, you can click on this link for an overview, with each Domain addressed during the year listed at the bottom of the page.   The sidebar gives links to the specific Standards of each Domain.

For English Language Arts, the Standards are also listed by Grade Level and Domain.   There are three Appendices for English Language Arts on the official CCSSI website.  Of these, Appendix B gives Exemplar Texts.   According to the Oxford Dictionaries, exemplar is a person or thing serving as a typical example or excellent model.   The list is not meant to be comprehensive.  Some companies have already produced packs of these books for high school classes.   This is where controversy can develop.   Lists of suggested texts always bring about controversy.   How many parents were aware of suggested reading lists or official reading lists associated with their state's existing curriculums before the CCSS were adopted?   There are one or two high school Exemplars which I do not see a place for,  but keep in mind that though these texts are called Exemplars, they are not required to be used.   The CCSSI has no enforcement arm, requiring teachers to use only/all the texts listed and prosecuting those districts who don't do so.   In the past, under previous standards/objectives, some districts had official lists of texts from which teachers could choose.   They were under no obligation to use all of the books and if they wanted to use a text not on the list, they had to seek approval.  

Parents always have to be vigilant when it comes to the books being read aloud or read by students in classrooms.   No matter the curriculum, any individual teacher could bring a book into the classroom which parents may find unsuitable or inappropriate.   It is a parent's duty and right to examine the books used in a classroom.   Teachers should know at the beginning of the year the books they will use in their classroom, but in the case of books being read aloud, particularly in lower grades, a book may not be planned for weeks in advance.   Ask your children about stories they've heard in class, just as a means of discussion, not interrogation.   If our children were attending a fantasy "perfect" school, we should still ask about stories they are reading and hearing.   If you object, you should first consult the official documents of the school district and state education department or agency.   Look to see if the work is part of a list of suggested or approved texts.   If there is a list of approved books and that book is not on the list, your job has just become easier.   If there is no list, or the book is on the list, you still should voice your concerns with the teacher first.   An alternative text should be an option for your student.  In most cases, teachers are happy to oblige, if only to avoid problems.  

Here is an example of the process teachers/districts should be going through as they try to create and select instructional materials and strategies to help their students achieve mastery of the standards as they are stated in the Common Core Standards:


The process would be the same for any standards and yes, the process really is this involved and time-consuming for a good teacher.   They really do analyze each standard and usually have to search for supplemental materials or make them, using their own time and money.   I have a closet that is full of supplemental materials purchased with my own money.   It makes me ill to think of the total amount, so I tend to not do so.  



Just part of my "hoard": I'd estimate $8 per book, except for publishers' workbooks and others I found at garage sales and swap meets.


How Do the Standards Compare to Existing State Standards/Objectives?

Since I am in the state of Texas, I will link to their Standards, or TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), as an example of a state's existing Standards for comparison (Texas did not choose to adopt the Common Core Standards):

Mathematics:  http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/tac/chapter111/index.html

Language Arts: http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/tac/chapter110/index.html

There is nothing in our state standards that I wouldn't want my children to meet.   Our state standards are more numerous than those in the CCSSI and I would love every student to meet them at the end of the year, but teachers sometimes feel rushed to "cover" them all before the state test and there is not always enough time left for the through instruction or adequate student practice teachers really feel is necessary.    Many people hold up math instruction in Asian countries such as Singapore, as an example that we should follow.   A key part of their approach to instruction, though, is to teach fewer topics each year and teach them better, with much more breadth and depth.   The result is better understanding, which creates a firmer foundation of knowledge to be built upon each year.   However, if the number of Texas standards were decreased, it would not guarantee that every teacher would expand instruction and experiences.    It is individual teachers and the decisions they make which ultimately determine instruction in the classroom.   I give the Asian mathematics approach as an example in case someone compares the Texas TEKS to the CCSSI and considers the former to be superior based only on quantity.   Fewer standards does not automatically mean "dumbing down" has occurred and I find it humorous that some of the same talking heads who say CCSSI has dumbed down curriculum, just on the basis of the number of concepts will also say that American schools should teach math like it's taught in Asian countries.   There is simply more than just the number of standards to consider when making a judgment.

Also, in the case of Texas, the TEKS are the guidelines, but then each district uses them to develop and write its own curriculum.   At this point, individual states and districts who have adopted CCSSI will have to use the CC Standards to develop their own curriculums.   State lawmakers who wish to have also taken steps to pull out of their adoption of the CCSSI, as is within their legislative capacity.



My first classroom in the school district where I developed a curriculum.


Final Thoughts

This post is not intended to endorse or oppose the Common Core Standards.  I'm no curriculum expert, but I have actually developed my own curriculum for an Exploratory Mathematics course in Louisiana and I helped write elementary math curriculum for my district in Texas.   I can look at any approved Standards, from CCSSI or from individual states, and find flaws.   I can find even more flaws as to how the Standards are attempted to be met in individual classrooms.  I am just aggravated, to an abnormal degree probably, by all the circulated articles and commentary I've seen which oppose the standards, but never list specific examples from the Standards themselves as part of their argument.   I am also puzzled where all the concern has been over the many decades as states have been writing and approving standards as part of their curriculums.  The Standards will be a part of standardized testing for the states who have adopted it, but an emphasis on testing OVER instruction is already firmly entrenched in our schools as part of the existing No Child Left Behind or NCLB.   In terms of high-stakes testing, the Standards will only affect the test questions and I am sure there are alliances in terms of money and contracts for things such as the tests themselves.   There are always political and monetary alliances formed.   Instead of each state having its own test, the CCSSI sets the stage for tests that can be used by all the states involved.  

     Things to keep in mind:

1.  The Common Core Standards, at this point, like other state standards, or objectives, which existed before, do NOT tell teachers how to teach or what materials they must use.   There is no enforcement arm.  The examples of "horrible Common Core Curriculum proof that education is going to hell in a hand basket" worksheets and activities I've seen posted on-line were a matter of teacher or school district choice of materials, not the Standards themselves.   When I have seen my fellow Texans post poorly-written (or downright incorrect) questions from their children's homework on Facebook, the questions usually involve multiple-choice questions that have been written to resemble the type students will see on the standardized tests.   The test keeps changing, in an attempt to get ahead of teachers who might have "figured out" the test.   This results in convoluted questions which ultimately test a student's ability to take the test, rather than determining what he has learned during the year.    Plus, it is hard for districts to find and buy enough workbooks or question generators so teachers have good examples to share with students.  I really wish every person involved with decisions about curriculum and every parent of a school child had to take the tests so they could get a better idea of what is happening in our educational system.   

2.  The Standards are available on-line.   Do your own reading and make your own informed opinions.   Leave the politics and party-line-towing out of the process.   Don't let hatred or distrust of a party or politicians cloud judgment.   Be led by your own thorough research, not the drum-beaters who are stirring up controversy in the name of increased viewers or readers or those who stand to profit from the Standards.   And trust me, in any governmental decision, at any level, someone stands to profit.   Then, use your voice for true problems you have found and verified.

3.  Teachers are overburdened and stressed with pressure to make students perform on a one-day-snapshot-view-test, due to the No Child Left Behind law.  NCLB tries to quantify teaching and learning.   I would like to see a quantification of the number of good teachers who have left the classroom because of the way NCLB has changed education.   Good teachers don't mind assessment; they just want it to be fair and comprehensive.   I've been in the classroom.   Tests are written in such a way that a teacher must teach the students to take the test.   We just try to minimize the amount of time we spend on that.   For those who think teachers should just teach and their students will do well on the test without special test instruction, I submit for their consideration to big business of SAT, ACT, LSAT, etc., etc. test preparation.   Most people have to learn a standardized test and understand how it works to do their best on it.  

Most troubling for me, though, is that a teacher can work hard, but if a student doesn't perform at a certain level, his teaching is viewed as nothing.   If a student begins the year several grade levels behind, but improves by a grade level or two, it is possible he could still not meet the minimum standard on the test and the teacher's work is viewed as failure.   I didn't experience that as a teacher, but I know of schools where teachers are facing tough situations and they are working hard, in the belief that their students can learn.   Their effort should be judged several factors, including student improvement over the course of the year.   NCLB has been going on through two different administrations--one Republican, one Democrat--now.   Where is the same level of concern that we're seeing over Common Core?   NCLB is a law, passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush.   Due process does not necessarily a great law make.   

4.   School districts and state education departments are not autonomous agencies and they haven't been for a long time.   Textbook companies control much of what is done in classrooms.   In the past, they have geared production to the largest states, since they were their largest markets.   So, Texas, New York, and California state standards were influencing textbooks around the nation.   It was profitable to make textbooks which were aligned to their state standards.    The decisions of state and federal judges affect school district decisions for everything from districting to discipline.   School districts, like businesses, make many decisions based on avoiding lawsuits.   On the other hand, students with special needs are protected by federal law and are offered more guaranteed services than they were before federal intervention.   As for the claim that states were bribed to adopt the Core Curriculum Standards with the lure of federal funds for implementation, how do citizens think services such as special education and school meals work?   In general, how is the political wheel always greased?   We have to look carefully at individual cases of influence and involvement of an outside or federal entity and not make hasty generalizations.  

5.  There are always flaws in the way standards--from any source--are implemented.   As I stated before, parents must stay vigilant and try to be aware of the materials, methods, and resources being used in their children's classrooms.   Look at the worksheets coming home.    You have every right to ask to see any being filed in the classroom.   Schools and teachers are meant to be partners in education.   Heck, if your child attends a Title I school, parent/community involvement is legally required and must be proved by documentation each year as part of an assessment so funding may continue.    Even if your child's school is not designated Title I, parent contact and involvement is such an important trend in education theory and policy right now that many districts require all teachers to document contacts and involvement opportunities.   Those math and reading nights at your school?   Yep, there's a reason all those pictures are being taken.   Those notes, e-mails and phone calls outside of standard parent conferences you're getting just to let you know Mrs. Smith is happy little Johnny is in her class and that he is making good progress?    They are usually heart-felt and genuine, but they're probably being recorded on a chart or saved as documentation that such contact occurred.   

Parent conferences and progress reports, intervention meetings for any child who appears to have some sort of learning difficulty or medical situation that could affect learning, lunchroom managers who spend their spare time calling homes or delivering notes to help families sign up for free or reduced lunches: schools aren't horrible, hateful places out to devour little children or rip them from our collective parental clutches.   The majority of administrators and teachers are putting in large amounts of hours outside the classroom to best meet the needs of students and their families.   It is the rare case of a "bad" teacher, administrator or poorly- informed school board which always gets the attention.   Most teachers aren't unionized and those who do belong to actual unions  or teacher support organizations, only do so because they live in a union state or district or to be protected by liability insurance offered by the organization.   In today's litigious society, teachers often have a fear of being sued and losing their reputations or jobs.  Yes, problems exist, but not always as they are portrayed in the media.   Talk to teachers and administrators.   Do your research and get involved.   In most cases, you are truly welcome to do so.   In the rare cases that you're not, claim your rights to do so.  

 
Common Core: love it or hate it?   There is support for both sides in a morally-neutral topic such as this one.   Let's just all back up our opinions with facts and evidence and keep children's best interests as our focus.



Teacher Mama, Administrator Papa, 2 public school, formerly home-schooled students, and 1 future public school student, feeling very welcome at their open-door-policy school



3 comments:

  1. Thank you, Terri. I have always been confused by those posts when everything I see coming home is so far beyond awesome... I know that my children's education will not be perfect but public school has exceeded my expectations thus far and the STAAR test has actually led to an improvement in curriculum in some areas, just IMHO.

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    1. You're welcome, Elizabeth. I think most teachers agree there must be testing and STAAR has led to some good developments. There are attempts to reform the system and most states seem to be moving toward something similar to the TAP system used by most (I think) of Bryan's schools recently. There, test results are only part of the picture, but data such as student improvement is also taken into account. Title I schools, though, are completely under the rules established for NCLB and there are prescribed steps they must take if they receive unacceptable rankings. I think both of our local districts are ahead of the curve when it comes to curriculum development and implementation. The presence of Texas A & M helps, for sure.

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  2. Thank you Terri for laying this all out on the table for us as an educator and a mother. I always appreciate your ability to analyze things objectively and thoroughly!

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