Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Common Core: Benefits

I have had a lot of people ask me about the Common Core standards, inasmuch as they are becoming the education law of the land and I'm a teacher in the most affected areas and some state legislatures have been trying to outlaw them and all that. So today, I'm going to explain them to you as best as possible and also offer some thoughts on their good elements. I'll offer another post on their less good elements soon.

First of all, the idea of universal standards across state lines is a very good idea. It is centralizing, a little bit fascist (because it imposes one standard everywhere), and dictatorial--yes, all those things. But if you live near a state border, as I do, and if your school serves students from low-income backgrounds, as mine does, the concept of shared standards is marvelous. I have students that move in for three months, move back across the border, return a couple weeks later, then leave to finish the year somewhere else. Of course, every school they attend is doing something completely different. Kids experiencing this kind of transience would benefit enormously from some continuity between their educational experiences. Not that common standards ensure this, but they help.

Secondarily, the Common Core standards do not represent a federal takeover of education. The Obama administration did encourage their adoption by making them a factor in the odious "Race to the Top" (aka No Child Left Behind, but more insulting coming from a Democrat who was supposed to support teachers). But the National Governors' Association, not the department of education, called for their development, and states decided whether or not to implement them. Forty-five states elected to use them; four elected to use state-developed standards; Minnesota opted to use the English but not the math standards. Of those forty-five, Indiana recently outlawed them. The Kansas legislature attempted to outlaw them but fell a few votes short. Concerned parties cited the "federal takeover" as the motivation. I am still not exactly sure how you "outlaw" standards.

The standards certainly represent education reform in the sense that all education should be based on essential skills and objectives, but this is basically the only kind of "reform" from the current movements that I actually support. My own experience has reinforced my belief in standards-based education, and thinking about the essential content my students need to be successful (in personal finance, in further education, in careers) has transformed my teaching. In my math department discussions of the Common Core, we have analyzed the essential skills from our course content extensively. Those conversations have been productive and useful in classroom praxis. They also represent a kind of equality in that we are supposed to make sure all students are mastering these standards, not just the "best" students. I appreciate the Common Core inasmuch as, if it works, I will have a much better idea of what students entering my classroom have mastered in the past.

The Common Core insists that students at all schools are exposed to rigorous content, and this is a great development. I had a student transfer in from a severely under-resourced school, and s/he told me that our school was amazing because the teachers would stop and answer questions when you asked them, and help you until you understood the material. Also, we have science labs! That this represented a break in this student's educational experience horrified me. If the common core makes sure every school teaches real content to every student, that would be a wonderful thing. That is a massive "if," but more on that tomorrow.

The standards are split into two parts, English/Language Arts and Math. I have been teaching math for four years, and next year (big happy dance) I will be teaching English--all to 9th graders. I have only read the English language arts standards a couple of times, but so far I am very impressed with them. Many people have critiqued them for their focus on non-fiction and informational texts as opposed to literature, but I believe the ability to decipher written information is crucial to student and community liberation. There's a lot of great non-fiction out there, and I look forward to teaching it. Also, a lot of people (especially male people) who identify as non-readers actually consume a great deal of non-fiction text, and I want to help those people reclaim their reading identity (and if, by declaring themselves readers, they work up the courage to read a novel or poem sometime, I won't be disappointed). The ELA standards are broad enough to adapt to local contexts and, in general, provide a good base for literacy education. I say that now but will revisit the theme after teaching under them for a year!

The math standards, alternatively, are a mess. But today I am focusing on the upsides of the Common Core. The focus on "mathematical habits of mind" could be revolutionary. They are great, and as teachers reorient their classes to focus on them, students will find their math education applicable across other disciplines and contexts.

One of the features I really like about these "habits of mind" is that they are easy to extend into the world of people who think they "don't do math." Most people do look for structure and patterns, even if they do not conceive of that as a mathematical task. Most people, eventually, must learn to persevere in problem solving, or they will not experience a lot of success in careers, community organizing, parenting (I hear), or a host of other necessary roles.Math habits of mind
Mathematical habits of mind

The math standards themselves, when we understand what they mean, include a needed focus on functions (i.e. what variables are related, and how they are related), and an emphasis on knowing how mathematical processes operate.

But everything else I think about the math common core belongs in another post.

Anyway, my professional opinion is this: if you have a kid in the school system (or are a kid in the school system), you should be cautiously optimistic about the changes the common core standard will bring to you or your child's education. Potentially, the classes you or child takes will be more focused on important ideas, and there will be more connections across disciplines. If you should move during your K-12 education, you may experience more continuity in learning because of these standards. The goal of these standards IS to make a high school diploma communicate mastery of a good set of skills, and if you or child does master those skills, s/he will be more equipped for success in post-secondary schooling and careers. These benefits are more likely to apply to students with average to excellent ability in math and English (not necessarily with low or exceptional ability in those particular topics--again, more on that tomorrow).

If you are a teacher, you already have a long and complicated relationship with the Common Core and I do not presume to tell you what to think. As a teacher, I think there are really good possibilities to improve my teaching and boost student learning through the common core. If all stated goals are the genuine goals, I can mostly get behind the English standards and the comprehensible parts of the math standards. Inasmuch as they can guide education, the standards might do more good than harm.


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