The Common Core is Not The Problem

Before getting into the heart of today’s topic, if you are new to this blog please take a few minutes to go back and read our introductory post, Introducing the Unrealized Maine Classroom.  It will give you an idea of where we are going with this endeavor.  It ends with a helpful series of bullets that serves as a sort of preview of future blog posts, including this one.  

Ultimately, in The Unrealized Maine Classroom, we will be discussing what it takes in 2016 for public school teachers to plan and execute magnificent lessons in their classrooms, as well as follow up those lessons with meaningful feedback and revision of future instruction.  We’ll hear about lessons that teachers are really proud of, that excited their students and resulted in a visible net gain in understanding, knowledge or both.  If you teach, you’ll want to hear what these successful teachers are doing in their classrooms to inspire their students and ignite their hunger for learning.  If you are a parent or interested in public education for any reason, it will be important for you to see what kind of great things can happen in our schools, what it takes to allow these great things to happen, and what kinds of conditions keep them from happening.

But first, we need to put one important idea to bed.  While there exist roadblocks in public schools today that prevent teachers from using their own creative energy to put forth their best lessons every day, the Common Core is not one of them.  

Let’s have a little background first.  The Common Core, formally known as the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and English Language Arts, is nothing more than a set of math and literacy standards.  Standards is the word we use to describe specific learning objectives, such as this third grade Common Core math standard: Students will express whole numbers as fractions, and recognize fractions that are equivalent to whole numbers.  The Common Core is not a curriculum, which would be a set of lessons organized into units designed to be delivered to students with the hope that they learn the standards inherent in the lessons.  Nor is it a federal mandate (all states had the option to opt in or out).  The Common Core was a project of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers launched in 2009 as a way for states to be able to adopt consistent standards in order to encourage academic equity from state to state.  It was an effort primarily to help states who perform poorly in academic assessments catch up to the leading states, like Massachusetts and Minnesota.  Standards from these states were used as model standards when the Common Core standards were developed.  Despite all this, the Common Core is portrayed by some as a national curriculum forced upon our schools by the federal government.  

The math standards, which emphasize critical thinking and multiple avenues of mathematical thinking, have taken the brunt of the heat and have been criticized for being too hard to understand.  Social media exaggerated this by circulating memes and photos depicting seemingly meaningless and stupefying math problems brought home by children for homework.  “This is what the Common Core is doing to your children,” and “Can you solve this Common Core math problem?” were captions intended to make assume the authors, or the federal government, are evidently out to ruin the brains of American children.  As mentioned above, four states have retracted Common Core standards since 2014, with petitions to drop Common Core happening in several other states as well.  Even worse, the assessment consortia contracted to create online tests for these standards were writhe with glitches and confusion, leading Maine and other states to abandon them even before test results were released.  We’ll see how that works out, but I digress.  Let’s talk about tests another time.

Maine considered a bill recently to revoke the Common Core as well.  I attended a public hearing this January in front of the Legislative Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs to testify in opposition of the bill, which turned out to be a fascinating experience.  Without getting into too many specifics, one of my biggest fears was confirmed at the hearing, which is that many of the folks supporting this piece of legislation to repeal the Common Core really knew very little, if anything, about the Common Core standards themselves.  Kudos to the legislative committee, who did all of their homework and pressed the bill’s supporters for specific evidence that the standards were inappropriate for our state’s students or ineffective as content standards.  The evidence was sorely lacking.  Some of the supporters claimed the standards are too rigorous, and others claimed they were not rigorous enough, citing few examples.  Others referred to it as a “national curriculum,” and a “federal mandate,” neither of which the Common Core is.  The bill was rejected and the standards will remain in place in Maine, thankfully.

While most states adopted the Common Core in 2010, many school districts are still familiarizing themselves with the actual standards a half decade later.  Every time a new set of standards is adopted, it takes years for schools to become acquainted with them and adjust curriculum materials accordingly.  In the case of the Common Core math standards, there are some significant instructional shifts toward teaching for understanding and communicating mathematical thinking.  This means in addition to fact fluency and skill practice, today’s math classes involve more use of concrete models and student collaboration.  A math class today is likely to involve groups of students working together to solve problems, thinking out loud together.  Much like in the real world, problems are often best solved collaboratively.  There is still homework and independent math practice, but the emphasis on understanding and communicating one’s thinking is prominent.  

In my personal opinion, the Common Core mathematics standards are solid.  They are designed to shift the mathematics learning experience toward understanding and applying concepts, rather than merely demonstrating mastery of operations and use of procedural formulae.  These math standards emphasize exploring multiple avenues of problem solving, using hands-on and visual tools, collaborative learning, and communicating mathematical thinking.   

The delivery of the standards, however, has been less than solid, and not consistent.

As is sometimes the case when schools implement new programs, a lack of quality professional development leading up to the adoption of the Common Core standards contributed to a sense of bewilderment and frustration for many.  Admittedly, the math standards are different than anything we have seen before, in that they go deeper into the cognitive meaning of mathematics concepts; every teacher of mathematics could have benefitted from a full semester length, three-credit college course devoted to the instructional shifts inherent in the Common Core math standards.   In my state and elsewhere, nothing like that happened.  Training was abbreviated and scattered over time, often during afternoon sessions and release days in the middle of the school year.  As we will see in upcoming posts, time is precious in this profession.

The Common Core math standards, authored by both teachers and mathematics scholars, emphasize the greater depth and understanding that colleges and employers are looking for in future generations.  In my opinion, having taught mathematics before the Common Core, they are a substantial improvement over previous standards.  Unfortunately, they have stumbled somewhat in their implementation.  The same is true of the Common Core literacy standards.  But even if these standards had turned out to be less than stellar, they should never be to blame for lackluster lessons in the classroom.  The word, core, is intentionally used in the title of these standards so that schools, in choosing or designing their curriculums, can have a core set of learning targets to build those curriculums around.  An experienced, knowledgeable teacher should be able to look at a standard (like Students will express whole numbers as fractions, and recognize fractions that are equivalent to whole numbers) and build a beautiful lesson or series of lessons around that standard.  It is my goal with The Unrealized Maine Classroom to share with readers examples of teachers, or groups of teachers, that have done just that.  It is also completely my intention to showcase just how much time and effort goes into that kind of lesson, and how incredibly difficult it is for teachers to pull that off in today’s public school climate.

But let us be clear; the Common Core is not the issue.  In the next few blog posts, we’ll identify some of the real issues, and what needs to happen in order to address them.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for eleven years, and a passionate writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a certificate in math leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife and dog in Bowdoinham.