Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Common Core Debunked

I received an email from one of my students' parents yesterday and it caused me quite a bit of alarm.  It must be said that I adore the parents of my students.  They are so supportive and are willing to work so hard for their children.
She was concerned about her son's understanding of math, but that's not what alarmed me (though I'm definitely concerned that he understand math, don't get me wrong).  She told me that the new common core program has done nothing to help her son understand his homework.
This is the third time in the last month someone has spoken about the common core in a way that shows a misunderstanding, and I thought it could be helpful for my friends and family to shed some light on this somewhat mysterious matter.
First off, let me set forth my credentials (for those who might read this who don't know me).  I'm a 5th grade teacher and I have taught for 10 years.  I consider myself a qualified educator, with the students' best interests at heart.  I don't profess to be an expert at anything in particular (other than awesomeness!), nor am I a doctor of education.  I am simply a teacher.
That having been said, the common core is a list of mathematical and language arts skills that must be introduced/mastered at a certain grade level.  Teachers are expected to teach only things that are in their grade's core curriculum, and their students are expected to master those topics.
A lot of people are angry about this idea.  "Is this communism?" they ask.
Ever since I started teaching, I've had a grade-specific core curriculum to teach.  Literally, that first week of teaching I was given a paper list of all the ideas in all the subjects I was expected to help my students master.  And that's a good thing.  Several years later, in 2007, the Utah core curriculum changed (as it has several times over the last 25 years).  I went through all my materials and found out what was still relevant in my grade level curriculum, what was now given to another grade, and what new ideas I would be teaching.
So when the Common Core came out, and Utah accepted it, it was just another day in the life of.  I got out all my lesson plans and teaching tools, decided what I would be keeping and what I would be storing away for the next time the core changed (because it is inevitable it will change at some point in the future).
In my world, the Common Core is just another adjustment to what we've already been doing.  It just means that now, other states have the same guidelines we do.  That's all.  There's still just as much pressure to get kids to perform on standardized tests as there always has been for me.  Let's face it, that's never going to change.
In Utah, the state is focusing on not just learning how to solve problems, but how to represent those problems using pictures, objects and real life situations.  The focus is now not teaching a million things that the student was technically taught in the previous grade and will be taught again in the future grades, but on each grade level having their own "slice of the pie" that they are responsible for.  There are fewer ideas taught in each grade level, giving us more time to spend on the mastery of those ideas.  This is a good thing.  In the past, I was maybe able to squeeze the idea of multiplying fractions into one week (couldn't spend too long on any one idea because I had so many others I had to get to in a limited amount of time), but now I can devote an entire unit of time (3-4 weeks) on making sure my students have mastered not only how to solve a problem presented to them, but they can solve it in several different ways and represent it with a handful of pictures.
However, this scares the poo out of a lot of parents.  Where are the days when there was ONE strategy and ONE way of doing things? ONE textbook with ONE solution shown in the back for each problem? I understand, parents want to be able to help their children, but the point in all this is to make mathematical thinker/problem solvers, not just machines who spit out the answer (if they were lucky enough to memorize the formula correctly).  If a student learns to represent what's happening in a problem, they will be able to solve it, regardless of whether they remember the formula or not.

But if it makes you feel better, I still know of a lot of teachers at a lot of schools in a lot of states who haven't changed anything about what they teach or how they teach it (possibly for the past 20 years).

Moral of the story: let's not blame a Common Core for our problems.  Out of all the flaws in the public education system, it's not even a blip on my radar.

Do I still love being a public school educator?
Do I feel the Common Core is changing education and possibly bringing about the end of the world?
Nope, not really at all.
Is it nice to know that 5th grade teachers in other states are teaching the same things as I am?
Yeah, actually.  Now I can get and share ideas with teachers all over the nation to provide an even better education for your child.
Do I still think that public education is the best bet for the majority of school aged children in America?
Without a doubt.

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