Round Pegs in Square Holes: The Common Core Standards in American Schools
My brother used to tell me that the road to Hell was paved with good intentions. It is something that I have always kept filed in my memory when I careful weigh pros and cons of things. It is the only way I can describe the implementation of the new school curriculum, the Common Core Standards, in 45 of 50 states in the United States. Personally, I have always been my daughter’s advocate when it comes to her education; I feel sorry for the kids whose parents don’t pay attention to what is going on in the classroom. My opinion may be biased– my daughter is an intelligent, well-behaved, empathetic, articulate and inquisitive child and I would not want her any other way. From her first day of Kindergarten, I was the mom who addressed issues with her teachers. I made sure to have an open line of communication with them because I saw the benefits of doing so. In first grade, I volunteered every Tuesday with her class to review vocabulary words with each of them. So when my daughter reached second grade in the 2009-2010 school year, I admit I felt slighted when the teacher requested no help from parents. I felt shut out when I wrote notes which accompanied her homework with questions that received no answers. My hurt feelings erupted into pure frustration when my daughter came home upset over a wrong answer on her logic homework (yes, I said logic homework in second grade). My husband and I approached the teacher and asked her to please explain the correct answer to us, to which she replied, “I don’t know. It’s what the answer key tells me it is.” Of course the issue at that point was if she couldn’t explain it to adults then how did we know she was explaining it to a class full of seven- and eight-year-olds. Then I began to notice patterns emerging with her in-class work. Her teacher and her two assistants were marking wrong answers right. I imagine that because my daughter is a good and easy kid, they were letting her slide on things, but it’s clearly not an effective way for a child to learn, or for a teacher to teach.
The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was a simple timed math test on addition. Not only were there more “math facts” on each test, but the time limit for taking the test was decreased, too. For months, my daughter had been stuck on the “lily pad.” Kids who achieved a certain number of math facts were allowed to move their frog off the lily pad that hung on a back wall in the classroom. I believe all but 3 kids were stuck on the lily pad when I was in there in May– towards the end of the school year. To make a long story short, I became the thorn that protected someone from carelessly plucking the petals of confidence off my rose.
By the end of her second grade school year, the principal knew me well; he also knew that I was going to have none of the nonsense that accompanied the course of her second grade school year. My demands were clear and succinct: I would hold him personally responsible for her third grade teacher and I did not want her in an inclusive classroom. My reasoning for removing her from an inclusive classroom is that my daughter gets bored and shuts down if things are reviewed frequently in class. Her first grade teacher approached me about it and I explained and then said, “When you’re done reviewing, just get her attention and say ‘We’re moving on to something new.’” Mrs B. never had an issue with her not paying attention after that.
My daughter’s third grade teacher was amazing. She was of the opinion that kids should be kids and that play was an important part of being a kid. She understood that all children do not learn the same way and somehow managed to run a classroom full of 26 students by herself flawlessly and like clockwork. I was grateful that my daughter had such a positive experience after the trauma of her second grade school year. My daughter excelled in every single subject, mastering her multiplication tables effortlessly.
Fourth grade found us in a peculiar situation. Looking back at it now, I realize the school district was in the beginning stages of implementing the Common Core Standards. Her teacher wasn’t in class regularly, which led to a number of substitute teachers who all seemed to teach math a different way. I called the principal expressing my concern at her teacher’s absence and suggested that if the school knew she was going to be out for an extended period of time, perhaps they should find a regular substitute teacher. My suggestion went unheard. I had meetings with her fourth grade teacher expressing my concern that she was not taking the children out of the classroom for recess. I was told simply by her that the district didn’t mandate it. I expressed my concerns about math, explaining that the way my daughter was being taught was not the way I was taught and I felt helpless while she whittled away at mounds of homework. The teacher acknowledged that the district had changed the way math was to be taught (again) and that children who will graduate in 2020 are at a severe disadvantage because the concepts that the state expects the children to know were never taught to them. In New York state, 4th grade testing is key– all schools are graded on the results of fourth grade standardized testing. Despite the odds, my daughter received all G+ and Os for grades.
Luckily, for fifth grade my daughter had her third grade teacher again. However, I was dismayed when my daughter came home from school in early September devastated that they were taking library away from grades 3-5. Again, I called the principal. I was told that budget cuts had forced the elementary librarian to split duties with the high school library. I explained to him that reading to my daughter was like breathing and it was inconceivable that the school district would cut off the oxygen supply. I worried about the students whose parents weren’t aware of this. I even quipped that when I was in elementary school, the lunch lady would supervise us in the library. I offered to chaperone children in the library after school once a week, but was dismissed. The principal assured me that teachers would take the children to the library at their convenience.
All was going well in fifth grade until the end of the year when I received a phone call from my daughter, who was crying hysterically. Through her hyperventilated sobs, I learned that she had been taking a standardized math test and did all of the work on the worksheet and answered all of the questions, except when she realized she was supposed to fill in the bubbles, it was too late and when the proctor called time, she had managed to fill in just two answers. I told her that the exam was not a reflection on her but on the teacher because that was how it was explained to me. Still she cried that she was going to fail. After I hung up, I received a call from her teacher who seemed to be just as distraught as my daughter. She apologized profusely and told me that she had quarantined my daughter and her test while the principal made a phone call to the Board of Education in Albany. That call was followed by an apologetic call from her principal who explained to me that not all tests required the children to tediously fill in the bubble sheets, but he was instructed to send in my daughter’s bubble sheet as is– no exceptions. I asked how this would affect her chances of being in an Honors Math class for sixth grade and was told they would grade her score in-house and place her accordingly. I wanted to be sure that the proctor of the exam would not be in any trouble for an innocent misunderstanding and I also wanted to be sure that her grade on this standardized test would not reflect poorly on her math teacher. If either would happen, I told the principal that I wanted to opt my daughter out of the standardized testing. I never heard back about the teachers, but my daughter was, in fact, accepted into the Honors Math program for sixth grade.
I’m sorry to be so detailed about the first five years of my daughter’s public education, but I think it helps to explain how poor implementation and lack of communication can impact a child’s life. Even for an on-the-ball mother, like me, this whole system slipped in unnoticed. Not once, even to this day, have I received any literature from our school district acknowledging Common Core Standards. In fact, I never even knew that these standards had a name until late last summer. As you can see, I gave my daughter’s principal and teachers numerous opportunities to open the dialogue on Common Core Standards, yet they failed to grasp them every single time. The closest I came was her middle school orientation in which I noticed a creepy, almost Orwellian emphasis on “jobs of the future.” My brain was screaming, “Holy smokes!! Let’s just make it out of middle school alive first!!” I also noted a marked shift in her middle school principal referring to the children as “citizens” rather than “students–” it all felt terribly uncomfortable.
The Common Core Standards Initiative
In the 1990s an “Accountability Movement” began in the United States Education System and called for mandatory tests of student achievement. There have been several similar initiatives throughout the years– most notably the American Diploma Project (1996 and 2005) and the “No Child Left Behind ACT of 2001,” which was a reauthorization of “The Elementary and Secondary Education Act” and was signed into law by President G.W. Bush. The No Child Left Behind Act included Title 1 (Act of 1965), the government’s flagship program for disadvantage students, which was part of President L.B. Johnson’s war on poverty. In 2009, the Obama Administration created “Race to the Top,” which was an incentive in the form of federal grants for participation in the program. To be eligible to collect state and federal grants, states had to adopt the Common Core Standards Initiative. To date 45 of 50 states are members of the Core.
The Common Core Standards is a United States initiative that seeks to bring widely diverse state curricula into alignment with each other by participating and following the principles of standards-based education reform. Standards are copyrighted to ensure they are the same throughout the nation. The Common Core Standards Initiative is sponsored by the Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Offices. Announced on June 1, 2009, the initiative’s stated purpose is to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.” Contrary to what many people believe, the funding for the Common Core Standards Initiative is not primarily federally; 90% of the funding is at the state and private levels. The National Governors Association, The Council of Chief State School Officers, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation The Pearson Publishing Company and The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation are the largest donors.
The Core of the Common Core
The Common Core Curricula consists of two parts: English and Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics. There are five components of ELA: 1. Reading 2. Writing 3. Speaking and Listening 4. Language 5. Media and Technology. The most common complaint about the ELA portion while researching was that some schools are replacing classic literature with dry, manual-like reading. This is not necessarily a standard in the Common Core curricula as school districts nationwide have the option of implementing the Common Core into their own curriculum. So it is important to note that changes such as these are not reflective of the Common Core, but rather of the school district itself. I have also read that the “dry, manual-like” literature was actually writings from Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson– clearly classic literature at its best. Some critics of the ELA portion cite poorly written word problems that ask children to explain abstract concepts as a problem; abstract thinking is developed with age, not something that can be taught. What the ELA doesn’t mandate, however, is that students learn cursive writing. Incomprehensible, right? In my opinion, a shame since penmanship seems to be a dying art. In today’s classrooms, teachers are more focused on teaching children keyboarding skills rather than the fine-tuned motor skills of handwriting.
The Common Core Standards for math is probably the most frustrating portion. While its stated goal “to achieve greater focus and coherence in math curriculum” is a good intention, it discounts the gender gap in learning and induces great amounts of frustration and anxiety in children. Early Development Psychology has long acknowledged that when children reach middle school age, the learning curve in math diverges widely between boys and girls; girls tend to be more right-brained, while their male counterparts tend to be more left-brained. Opponents warn that poorly written word problems that ask the child to explain an abstract concept will have consequences because abstract thinking is something which is developed, not taught.
While school districts have the option of implementing the Common Core into their own curriculum, time constraints were so tight that most districts were forced to adopt what the state gave them. With the adoption of the new standards, states are required to adopt new assessment benchmarks to measure student achievement; formal assessment is slated for the 2014-2015 school year. States which are planning to implement the new initiative by 2015 will base approximately 85% of curricula on the standards. Critics argue that its implementation was flawed and test times for 3rd-8th graders were shorter which caused more frustration (such is the case of my daughter). Standardized Testing is a “one size fits all” approach that just doesn’t work well; in fact nearly 70% of the students in New York State failed the standardized test in 2013.
Teachers will begin feeling an impact of all the changes being made; the testing on the Common Core subjects will be factored into the new state evaluation system that will ultimately affect teachers. The major problem is that the standardized testing in the Common Core Curriculum is not the reform that is needed; the reform should be contained in the teachers’ instruction. Many critics fear that the Common Core is taking the creativity out of the classrooms. They fear that they are not adequately preparing teachers how to teach the curriculum under considerable time constraints. Many educators feel that the Common Core Standards promotes tedious regurgitation of memorization, rather than promoting critical thinking skills and real problem solving skills. In a survey conducted by Education Week in February 2013, nearly half of the 600 teachers polled said they felt unprepared to teach the standards– especially to disadvantaged kids. An alarming red flag of poor implementation is that nearly 30% of respondents had not had any training on the Common Core Standards. They fear that high achievers, late bloomers, hands-on-learners are not done any justice performing to the rigid standards of the Common Core. The benefits of the Common Core Standards are aimed at boosting college and career readiness in students are outweighed by states focusing so intensively on preparing students for standardized testing that other important subjects (i.e. art, music and recess) are largely being ignored. In fact, as of this year, my daughter no longer has an art class available to her. Recall my concerns in my daughter’s fourth grade class that her teacher wasn’t taking the children outside for recess? Research has shown that children who are encouraged to read and learn through play are more likely to graduate high school and less likely to end up in jail. In fact, it is projected that every $1 invested in early childhood learning will save almost $7 in the future. Finally, the Common Core Standards do not provide for ongoing research or review of the outcomes of their adoption. In effect, teachers will be assessed by the Common Core but review of the process will not be considered.
Holding degrees in both Psychology and Sociology and knowing the important research that has been done over decades in the child development field, I find it not only incomprehensible but also worrisome that noted professional opinions have not been asked for during the implementation of these standards. It would be like not consulting with an archaeologist before unearthing the Pyramids of Egypt. A joint statement by Early Childhood Health and Education and Education Professionals regarding the Common Core sums it up best: “We have grave concerns about Core Standards for young children. The proposed standards conflict with compelling new research in cognitive science, neuroscience, child development and early childhood education about how young children learn, what they need to learn, and how to best teach them in Kindergarten and the early grades.”
I understand the good intentions of the Common Core. In an ideal world no child would be left behind, and I do not believe that any educator has deliberately done so. The fact is that we are a complex society, and there are many advantages and disadvantages in everyday life. I am a firm believer in justice. I am also keenly aware of the regional differences. I remember moving from New York to Mississippi when I was twenty years old. The first place I filled a job application out at hired me on the spot as soon as they heard me talk– my “Yankee” accent was a giveaway and I was told they considered Northern people to be very hard, fast and dependable workers. As simple as that sounds and as true as it is, that’s life. Life experiences are not found in standardized tests. While I agree to an extent that the material should be the same nationwide, I have reservations about standardizing the way it is taught. I have learned and benefited from numerous points of view by a beautiful rainbow of people at different stages in my lifetime. I can never remember, not once, saying to myself, “That timed standardized test made all the difference in my life.”
If you’re interested in ways to have your voice heard about The Common Core Standards, write your Assemblyman, Congressman, Senator and Governor.