Reflections on the Common Core
On Monday, December 30, New York State Commissioner of Education, Dr. King, issued a document entitled “Reflection on the Common Core”. The document was emailed to all superintendents in New York State and was a self-described “meaningful and comprehensive approach” to implementation of the Common Core. Dr. King outlined five main areas in his approach: Increase Understanding, Professional Development, Ensure Adequate Funding, Concerns with Testing, and Review and Refinement. In each case he describes the approach going forward without acknowledging the past. As I was reading the document, I paused to reflect on our local shift to the Common Core and its impact on our students and families. The past is an important part of the equation.
It is difficult to argue against preparing our children for college or a career. The sound byte employed by the Commissioner from the start touts the Common Core as a “set of learning standards back-mapped grade by grade from what students need to know and be able to do in college and the workforce.” In other words, each set of learning standards in each grade level sets a foundation for success necessary for the next grade level up to and including college and careers. As an administrator and a parent of two children in middle school, I support preparing our children to the greatest degree. Who wouldn’t?
My impression of the Common Core as I observe classrooms is less about learning standards and more about great teaching and instruction. Our teachers always asked our students to give their best effort. They always mastered their grade level content and taught their lessons with enthusiasm. They always cared deeply for the students in their classes. None of that has changed. The observable difference is found in the questions we are asking our students and how they respond. We are requiring our students to find evidence to support their answers. Children are being asked to think creatively and formulate opinions while using the text to as a basis for their assertions.
New York State has always had learning standards. Our teachers have always addressed those standards in their instruction. The Common Core is asking us to expand the lesson. We are no longer asking for simple regurgitation of information. We are asking for deeper understanding of the content. In mathematics, we are exploring multiple methods of solving a problem so every student can unlock the answer in the way that suits them the best. Whenever there is change, it takes some time to review the change and refine it. We were initially under the impression the state tests would require multiple methods of solving a problem so we attempted to teach mastery of multiple methods. In reality, we found the Common Core learning standards in math are similar to the former learning standards, but our instruction provides opportunities for more students to understand the content. Our goal is to eradicate the idea that some students “aren’t numbers people” or “can’t do math”. Everyone, given proper instruction and unique strategies, can become proficient at math.
The Commissioner of Education is steadfast in his support of the Common Core. Locally, we are still observing outstanding instruction and our students are rising to the challenges of the Common Core. We are reviewing our homework policies on all grade levels to ensure homework is, in fact, informing instruction. Homework is a method of reinforcing the lessons taught during the day as well as an opportunity for the teachers to determine if the students understood the lesson. As a parent, it can be frustrating to try to help my children with their homework because it doesn’t look like the homework I had as a student. Nobody taught me to do math with the unique strategies mentioned earlier. However, I remind myself, homework is assigned partially to let the teacher know if my child understood the content taught during the day. A poor homework grade indicates to the teacher that my son or daughter needs additional assistance to understand the content. Great teachers will use the homework to inform their instruction for the individual student as well as the class as a whole. Some teachers will also use homework as a pre-assessment to see how much time they need to spend in whole group instruction on a particular topic. If you have heard you child say, “We were never taught this in class,” you can be sure the teacher is using homework as a pre-assessment of the content to be taught in the next lesson. If the vast majority of the students already understand the content based on their homework, then the teacher can devote valuable class time to another discipline.
As an administrator and a parent, my main criticism of the Common Core is not specific to the learning standards. The Common Core as a stand alone set of standards is worth the time to explore. Our children will be better prepared for college and careers with great teaching aligned to the Common Core learning standards. Upon reflection, we should have spent more time and energy in professional development for our teachers before we implemented the Common Core. We should have provided sample practice tests for our students so they knew why we were asking them to support their answers differently. We should have avoided tying teacher and principal evaluations to student exams as we shifted to the Common Core. All of these missteps contributed to the angst associated with the Common Core.
The Commissioner of Education provided a roadmap for the future. He promised additional professional development opportunities. They are petitioning the federal government to reduce testing requirements for children with special needs and English language learners. The Commissioner pledged to review testing at the local level as a function of teacher evaluations. All of this is a good beginning……but it should have happened at the beginning. In the meantime, we cannot dwell on the past. We can learn from it and move forward. New York State standardized test scores do not tell the whole story about our students. In fact, those tests give us very little information about our students and our staff. The real story is going on inside our classrooms every day. It is told through the story of your child. It is told by the Pre-K child who knows what a sphere looks like or the 6th grade class sharing their opinions during a Socratic seminar. High quality, valuable instruction remains the core of our work. Learning standards simply help us refine that work. The Common Core forced us to review our instructional practices and improve upon them. It is another tool in our continuous improvement model designed to offer the best education possible to the students of Franklin Square.
Superintendent of Schools
Franklin Square UFSD