What are We Talking About, Anyway?

Angie MillerBy Angie Miller, New Hampshire STOY 2014

As  part of "STOYs on CCSS Video Series"

I remember the first time I read through the Common Core State Standards: I was invited to a small gathering of teachers and administrators from across the state of New Hampshire to examine what the final standards looked like and how they compared with our current standards. I was hesitant. Nervous about the change. A bit cynical.

But as I sat, crosswalking the two sets of standards, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. Gone were the complicated lists of “ands” and “ors” and semicolons. The language was simple. Clear. The expectations were high—what I strived for in the classroom. And some true tenets of reading and writing instruction were included: choice, variety, writing across the curriculum, narrative elements in nonfiction, supporting statements with evidence, thorough research, and the importance of audience and publication of student writing. As I read through the reading and writing standards that night, I remember excitedly thinking, “Now, this is just good teaching.”

So I was surprised at the negativity the standards began to receive. And then I was even more surprised at how quickly the issue became politicized. And then was even more surprised at how many fallacies I began to hear. And now, four years later, I continue to be surprised at the complicated, hot-topic web this issue has become.

What surprises me most when I hear people voice concerns about the Common Core Standards is that they are rarely discussing the actual standards--they are addressing implementation, textbooks, instructional practices, and assessments. And all too often, they are confusing curriculum with standards. In order to discuss the CCSS effectively, we need to talk about what is what.

Implementation--How a state or district or building has implemented the CCSS varies from location to location. Some schools have given fixed, administrative-approved curricula; some have given hours of PD; some have let it be teacher-driven. Having worked within two school districts during this transitional time, and listening to teachers talk from across the country, I have come to realize that the more teachers are part of implementation decisions, the more successful the adoption has been. Buildings where teachers are given time to analyze the standards, look at their curriculum, and make faculty-wide decisions after conversation and debate are shifting more easily than schools that have opted for canned programs with “CCSS Stickers” on them.

Textbooks/programs--Recently somebody told me that he didn’t like the Common Core Standards because they changed the language of the Second Amendment. A quick Google search brought an onslaught of similar complaints. But when I went to the CCSS appendices and compared the language to the actual Bill of Rights’ language, I found that the language was identical. So where was this concern rooted? A textbook that had a CCSS sticker on it had published altered language. Now, whether you agree with the Second Amendment or not, changing the language of a primary document is not scholastic in any form. Headlines announce that a “Common Core approved” textbook had changed the Bill of Rights. In fact, the CCSS do not approve any textbook. One recent study showed that many textbooks did not even change their content before sticking a “CCSS” sticker on it. Another examined Florida-adopted math textbooks to discover that only 27%-38% of the material was aligned with the actual standards.

Instructional practices--We’ve all seen the math problems that have circulated over social media, denouncing “Common Core Math.” In fact, there is no Common Core Math. There are, however, instructional practices that do not facilitate efficient learning. The CCSS do not prescribe a method of teaching in any subject matter, but districts have taken on programs that push teachers into uncomfortable teaching practices, often without proper training or clear vision. There are a multitude of ways to approach a standard, and again, teachers who are empowered within their districts, are able to develop successful methodologies alongside their colleagues in order to meet student needs.

Testing--I do not want to spend a great deal of time talking about the Smarter Balanced and PARCC tests that are standing on our front doorstep as we speak, because the amount of time we already spend on testing is too great. This is an issue that has plagued us since No Child Left Behind--and no matter what the standards are, we will have the testing to meet federal requirements. Many states have tied their test results to teacher efficacy, many districts require state-test-prepping in their classrooms. I think these things are tragedies, and I also believe parents should be upset. But again, testing is not standards.

And finally, there is a huge difference between a standard and a curriculum. Standards say what a student should be able to do. So, in grade 4, the CCSS says students should be able to, “Classify two-dimensional figures based on the presence or absence of parallel or perpendicular lines, or the presence or absence of angles of a specified size. Recognize right triangles as a category, and identify right triangles”  (CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.4.G.A.2). Curriculum says how a teacher should present that knowledge--through a specified textbook or program, manipulatives, etc. Nowhere in the CCSS does it say how a teacher should approach this.

An 9-10 ELA writing standard states that students should be able to, “Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.4). Nowhere does the standard tell teachers or districts which materials to use in order to do this. There are not book or materials lists.

Ultimately, when we discuss the Common Core, we need to ask, What are we talking about anyway? Are we actually talking about the standards themselves? Or are we talking about other issues? Let’s be sure to keep the conversation straight.

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