I’m an educator with a decade of experience working with all types of students — from inner city, impoverished kids to those from wealthy Silicon Valley. I have read the Common Core Standards. And I absolutely love them. I’ve been shocked by the number of parents and teachers who have said negative things about the new standards. I asked myself, are we reading the same document? And what I’ve found is, no — many aren’t reading the standards at all; they’re reading ABOUT them. And like so many things, the Common Core Standards are being misrepresented, often out of fear, misunderstanding and political motive.
Just to be clear, though, this is why they’re so amazing:
1. They teach kids to THINK critically.
Common Core has been designed to teach students to think critically and understand concepts, NOT just spout out the right answer. I can teach a parrot to tell me the correct answer, but that doesn’t mean the bird has any idea what he’s saying.
Far too often in the classroom, I would encounter elementary students who could spout off their times tables or solve a multiple-digit subtraction problem using the algorithm. But when I asked them WHY their answer was correct, they’d look at me dumb-founded. They couldn’t explain what borrowing was — it was just a magic trick that got them the right answer. They couldn’t explain why 6 x 6 was 36. It just was.
Why is that a problem? For three reasons: first, if they make a small error in their magic trick, they don’t realize it. If they spout that 6 x 6 is 46, they have no reason to doubt their answer because it makes just as much sense to them as any other rhyming number. Second, students need to understand HOW something works in order to build upon those skills at higher levels. Why do so many students struggle with algebra and trigonometry? Because they never really understood subtraction or multiplication. Third, these magic “right answers” have no application in the real world. When have you ever been in the grocery store and seen the problem “6 x 6”? What you see is six frozen dinners, each costing $6, and you need to figure out if you have the money to pay for them. So many students struggle with story problems because they don’t understand that those times tables they memorized actually represent multiple groups of objects. We shouldn’t have to each kids “code” words so they figure out what math operation a test question wants them to do. Instead, we should start kids off with story problems and have them come up with their own solutions that make sense to them (like repeated addition or tally marks or number lines). Then, we’re able to build students up to the algorithm as an important, efficient step. But it’s a step students shouldn’t take until they understand WHY it works.
2. They teach fewer concepts more deeply.
The Common Core Standards are designed to help students fully understand concepts that are integral for their future success. Past standards were a bit haphazard and had students learning a mile wide and an inch deep. As a teacher, in each subject, I would have to cover at least one standard per day to hit them all. If a student didn’t get it or was absent, too bad.
The Common Core, however, expects deeper understanding of more difficult concepts. It also builds upon concepts, so students can see how all their learning is connected, rather than seeing their curriculum as a series of random concepts.
3. They prepare students for the 21st century.
Throughout the Common Core reading and writing standards, students are expected to produce writing pieces online, to create multi-media to accompany their presentations and to collaborate with peers online. Students will be assessed using computer-based tests, where they will have to type entire paragraphs starting in third grade.
These are skills that, first off, help students learn. But also prepare students for a technology-focused world. A world where viral videos are one of the best ways to have your message heard, a world where people from three different countries collaborate to analyze their data and create a report.
4. They’re research-based and designed by education experts.
We know how kids learn best. We know what skills will help students succeed in future careers. We know what’s developmentally appropriate for students to know at their age. We have research to back this up. Not conjecture.
EDIT: I’ve been asked, rightly so, to cite some of this research. “Helping Children Learn Mathematics” and “A Research Companion to the Principles and Standards for School Mathematics” offer some insight into the changes in math expectations. “How People Learn” also supports much of what we see in CCSS, as compared to earlier standards.
Education, more than most professions, is one that’s critiqued constantly by people who don’t have any background in the field. Would any taxpayer feel comfortable telling a surgeon how to transplant a heart? No. But because we all went to elementary school, we all feel we know what should be taught there.
The fact is, though, we don’t. We aren’t all experts in this field. We might have ideas about what worked for us, personally, but every student learns differently. And there’s data to tell us what works best for most kids. Let’s be smart and listen to the experts who have spent years analyzing that data.
WARNING: They’re hard. (And that’s a good thing.)
Kids will complain. It’s hard to think critically. It’s much easier to just memorize stuff, spout it out on the test and move on. Teachers will complain. It is MUCH more difficult to teach students to think critically. It’s not traditional drill-and-kill teaching. Teachers need to understand more difficult concepts in order prepare students to learn them in later grades. And they need to be creative in how they teach (this is the fun part!).
Test scores are going to drop dramatically. Expect it. But that’s okay — we’ve been asking kids to run a block for the past decade, and we’ve been cheering when they finished in under a minute. Now, we’re asking them to complete a mile-long obstacle course. They’re going to take more time. It’s not because they’re dumber or because the new standards are terrible. It’s because we have been expecting them to do far too little for far too long. Now, we’ll have a clearer picture of what they’re capable of and how we can help them become successful in the long-term.
I think we can all agree that our current education system is failing a lot of students. Just look at American students’ scores compared to those of the global market. Our expectations need to be higher. Our tests need to be tougher. This is how we improve our education system. Our kids aren’t just going to suddenly be brilliant. We all (teachers, kids, parents) have to put in the work to make it so. And the Common Core provides us with a great map to get there.