Is The Common Core Just Misunderstood?

commoncorelogo-color2Please forgive me if you hate the words Common Core. I don’t try to go out of my way to write about something controversial, but I know the potential firestorm for this topic. My first question to all those that abhor the Common Core is:  Do you every wonder why the Common Core came to light? Although I have background knowledge, I quickly did an Internet search to see what explanations abounded. Terms popped up like, ‘college ready’, ‘consistent expectations for all regardless of zip code,’ ‘national standards,’ etc.

There are a lot of people, both in and out of the education field that hate that explanation, so it is not one that I will support in this entry. Preparing students for the real world, yes, obviously that is something that we focus on as much as possible, but what does that even mean? The meaning probably depends on whom you are speaking with. All I can offer is my interpretation. I want to prepare students to think critically and deeply about any problem, whether numbers are involved or not. My hope is that students analyze problems carefully and reflect seriously about all options before trying to attack any problems in the “real world.” I think the Common Core actually helps with that objective.

Please allow me to offer my classroom perspective. I have been teaching math to students for 15 years. 10 years was in an elementary setting, and the last 5 have been in the middle school.  Within that 15 year span, teaching philosophies (as well as several math programs) have come and gone. Throughout all of the math trials and tribulations, one consistency remained; students were not retaining the math. I know this is not just a phenomenon I have witnessed, because if it were, there would be no Common Core. The traditional way of teaching math would involve students learning an isolated concept. After learning it, students would study it for several weeks with lots of practice examples. The examples might be peppered with some derived textbook problems and culminate with a test. This is how I was taught and I know how many of you were taught as well.

Immediately after the test, many students would promptly forget about the past concept(s) and move on to another topic. Some of the details would re-emerge as necessary, but many students would notice that previously learned concepts drifted out of their minds after moving on to another topic. There was little transfer of knowledge from the temporary memory to long-term memory storage in the brain. Some students would retain rote procedures, and be promptly labeled as math people. Those who were unable to remember were labeled another way.

This was and continues to be a huge problem. Math concepts build on one another. They only have the opportunity to do so when students actively make connections from one concept to another in experiences where they witness the fluidity. For those who label The Common Core as fluff and not real math, please allow me to assure you that it was not designed to eliminate the algorithms. In everything I have studied, the algorithm (procedures we all learned growing up) is still the goal.  The difference between direct procedural teaching and problem based learning is that students receive the opportunity to investigate the why first.  The investigation allows students the chance to actively make mathematical connections with the ‘why’ to the procedure. Often, when students are given a problem, it creates the interest in the procedure that would never have been there if it were the only teaching point. What does this mean for our students? Instead of promptly forgetting procedural math, visual and problem based learning allows students to double down on their understanding and have the option to not only solve a specific problem in a unit, but provides students with tools to figure out how to solve all problems as efficiently as possible.

One of the largest obstacles of this philosophy is the incredible push back against it. This does not just come from parents, but also from fellow teachers. Change is hard, no doubt about it, but I have seen with my own eyes the difference between students memorizing a procedure versus deeply understanding why they are using it. The difference is stark. The reality is that the transition has not been easy and we all feel the growing pains together. But fear not…

I truly believe that I am a much better math teacher today than I was 5 years ago. I can imagine and hope I will be that much more effective in 5 years compared with the way I teach today. This means my students will be better prepared for that scary real world we love to discuss. I credit my continued improvement to the Common Core because of my virtual colleagues. Math superstars like Jo Boaler, Dan Meyer, Robert Kaplinsky, Fawn Nguyen, Yeap Ban Har, and Andrew Stadel were likely brought together by The Common Core initiative. Thanks to social media and passion, we now have resources that allow us to collectively and positively impact our students’ minds.

I accept that challenge. The question is…do all of you? If the answer is yes, please stop picking apart The Common Core or shuddering at the mere mention of the term as if it were ‘Voldemort’ from Harry Potter. The Common Core’s evolution came from student necessity. It is time that we work together to address the ongoing needs of our students, parent communities, and even the frustrations when we fall short. Two words should not undermine our purpose nor our passion that were actually developed to ignite them both.

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3 thoughts on “Is The Common Core Just Misunderstood?

  1. Hi – It is my understanding that “compliance” with the new standards changed the sequence of math in the middle school and HS. Today, you no longer have geometry taught in our middle schools meaning that good math students can no longer take calc as juniors. Do you have an opinion on that?

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    1. I understand your point clearly. Personally, I applaud fewer topics more deeply explored in each grade. If it were up to me, I would definitely do some topic swapping in my curriculum, so I hear you. I understand why aligning with the Common Core is unpopular in this regard. My point was that the manner in which we teach because of the Common Core initiative has a lot of merit, which I do not think is highlighted by much of what I have come across in my personal and professional experiences.

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  2. As a middle school math teacher, I’m very partial to the shift in math standards in grade 6-8. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a great start. One of the biggest advantages to Common Core are the 8 Standards for Mathematical Practice. As my wife (an elementary teacher) and I always say to each other, “Good teaching is good teaching.” I believe the 8 SMPs have helped many teachers rethink why, how, and what they are teaching their students. The 8 SMPs also provide us with purposeful instruction.

    We’d be foolish to think that Common Core would solve all of our math learning issues in education. We’d be even more foolish to think there will be something that solves all of our issues. We’d be wise to continue having civil and productive conversations like this that allow us to assess the progress of Common Core standards with the intention to continually refine and enhance what we do as teachers of mathematics.

    When faced with a hard conversation between parents and/or colleagues, I would you to look for what you both agree on. Chances are really good that both parents and teachers agree that it’s important for students to learn mathematics, be better critical thinkers, and improve at number sense and problem-solving. If you find yourself in a conversation where a parent/teacher does not value students learning mathematics, then they’re not ready for a productive conversation. Find that common ground. That common ground will produce a much richer and productive conversation. Structure how students learn mathematics and what you will use to learn mathematics based on that common ground.

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