Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Common Core - It's NOT the devil

I am very tired of all the negative things I read and hear about the Common Core. As a math teacher and teacher trainer, I applauded the Common Core when they came out because FINALLY, here were some standards that focused on helping students think, become problem solvers, communicate - so many things that unfortunately standardized testing and NCLB have forced out of learning.

The Common Core themselves are NOT the problem - the problem is our culture of standardized testing and need for immediate results and improvement, when change, particularly quality change, takes time. Having been involved in the education arena for the last 24 years and having seen it from many perspectives - teacher, administrator, student, PD provider, publishing, etc., I realize that one of the biggest downfalls of our education system is the need for immediate results and unrealistic expectations for a quick turn-around. True change in the system will take a long time, but unfortunately, we are not willing to wait - and we are not willing to truly change.

I jumped for joy when I saw the Common Core Math Standards mostly because of the eight standards of Mathematical Practice, which I believe are the key to successful math teaching, REGARDLESS OF WHICH STANDARDS YOU FOLLOW!  All my career I've tried to create learning environments where students were engaged, talking, problem-solving, connecting to the real-world, and using the right tools (including technology).  It's one of the reasons I became an administrator and one of the reasons I went to work for Key Curriculum, a company whose products focused on inquiry math learning and were resources that I had used in my own classroom as much as I could. So seeing these practices written down and adopted by so many states gave my little math-teacher heart great joy.

But - these practices are in fact part of the problem and why things are so politicized because the practices force a different way of learning, teaching and assessing students, and that, my friends, is the problem.  In this world of constant standardized testing it's hard to assess multiple approaches, and so, even with broad standards, we are trying to force students towards the right answer or the right model, ruining the whole idea behind the Common Core.

I could go on and on, but I think an example is best. One that I believe shows how the major textbook/digital learning companies & test creators are making the Common Core seem evil and hard and this is what parents and politicians are hanging their hat on to 'unadopt' the CC.  It's NOT the standards themselves, but rather the interpretation of them, the politicization of them, the misunderstanding of them, and the business (i.e. large publishers/elearning companies) that are making the Common Core seem horrible to many.

My example:  My 12 year old niece, who lives in CA, had a math problem from a textbook published from one of the big publishers (who shall remain nameless). They had a "Common Core" problem, where she was to model how to find 40% more than $80. This is Common Core because, in Mathematical Practice #4: Model with Mathematics:
Mathematically proficient students can apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace. In early grades, this might be as simple as writing an addition equation to describe a situation. In middle grades, a student might apply proportional reasoning to plan a school event or analyze a problem in the community. By high school, a student might use geometry to solve a design problem or use a function to describe how one quantity of interest depends on another. Mathematically proficient students who can apply what they know are comfortable making assumptions and approximations to simplify a complicated situation, realizing that these may need revision later. They are able to identify important quantities in a practical situation and map their relationships using such tools as diagrams, two-way tables, graphs, flowcharts and formulas. They can analyze those relationships mathematically to draw conclusions. They routinely interpret their mathematical results in the context of the situation and reflect on whether the results make sense, possibly improving the model if it has not served its purpose.

My niece, who I was helping via Facetime, showed me the problem in the textbook where she was given the model she was suppose to use. She could explain to me exactly how she figured out the problem (thinking of it as a sales tax problem - which, is in itself modeling and connecting to the real world!), could justify her answer, etc.. However....she did not at all understand how to show it using the model (rectangular bars) that the problem required her to use.  The textbook was forcing her to model in a specific way, not in a way that made sense to her, but a way that could then be graded since all students would have the same model.  SIGH. This to me is NOT COMMON CORE! It is the source of much of the bad vibes about Common Core because textbooks and testing claiming to be CC are in fact FORCING students into a specific way of thinking that can be easily graded and/or where everyone ends up with the same result.  Ridiculous. My niece was able to problem solve, connect the problem to the real world & everyday life, was able to model with a picture of sales tax, but was completely confused by the "model" she was forced to use, ending up frustrated and lost.  (And hating math, I might add).

The whole idea behind the Common Core is that students can apply what they know in a way that makes sense to them and communicate that understanding to reach a solution that they can justify. BUT - that's hard to test if all the students are approaching the problems different ways (as in the real world) - therefore, textbooks, teachers, & test creators are forcing ways of thinking that can be tested and claiming this is Common Core.  This then freaks out parents, administrators, and the public because it appears that these standards are confusing and hard (just ask my niece). NCLB was bad enough because it changed the focus of learning to memorization and rote skills. I see this happening with the Common Core, which, if taken in the spirit of how it was intended, should be helping students become communicators, problem solvers and able to use multiple methods to reach a viable solution, but instead, I see the Common Core going down the same standardization path - thanks to politicians, big-money publishers & test creators.  Nothing will change if we try to force the Common Core into the standardization model that defined NCLB,

Change takes time, change takes modeling and training and practice, and change is tough.  I have seen some schools and districts around the country really taking that to heart with the Common Core, and showing an impact on teaching and student learning - albeit slow and steady progress. Unfortunately, I have also seen some give up before they even got started because they want results NOW - so they revert back to the same old patterns because it's easier and results can be shown quicker, even if the results are exactly the same and there is no progress.  It's a shame....I feel we will never break free, which makes me sad as there is so much potential if we would just allow the time.