Blog: The Educated Reporter

The Common Core: What Educators Say About the Standards

Educators discuss the Common Core during an EWA seminar at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill on Jan. 12, 2015. (EWA)

When education analyst Maria Ferguson looks at data from across the country, she sees record-setting confidence levels among school district leaders that the Common Core State Standards are more rigorous than what states had in place before. At the same time, Ferguson told reporters at a recent Education Writers Association seminar, these new expectations are barreling down on educators faster than they are able to prepare.

The executive director of the Center on Education Policy at The George Washington University also glimpses a landscape in which teachers and districts are writing their own instructional materials rather than buying them pre-packaged – a trend she suggests “will put the textbook writers on notice.”

Ferguson, who outlined this data landscape in a teleconference for reporters from across the South gathered Jan. 12 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is now keeping an eye out for what she expects to be growing pushback on the issue of testing.

But what the Common Core standards mean must also be parsed inside the classroom.

“One of the first things I saw when we started shifting [to the Common Core] was the request for furniture. The first request was for more tables,” said Vicki Kirk, the superintendent for Greene County schools in Tennessee, a rural system that serves about 7,000 students.

The tables reflected the change in instruction that moved from students listening to a teacher to students talking among themselves, she explained. Tables, Kirk told the audience, provided a place for them “to ask each other how they arrived at their answers.”

An emphasis on simply getting the right answer has become “How did you get the answer?” agreed Stefanie Buckner, a high school math coach in Buncombe County, N.C., who also spoke at the EWA seminar.

“Math used to be about memorization or memorization of procedure, and we’ve changed the ballgame,” Buckner said.  “Don’t just do it, but make sense of it.”.

Some of the most commonly reported parent complaints about the Common Core come from those who rail in meetings or on Facebook that despite college degrees they are stumped by elementary math problems their children bring home.

Principal Sandy Chambers, who heads Brier Creek Elementary in Raleigh, N.C., said she hasn’t seen that pushback, but she has had to tell parents that if they are struggling to help their children with homework in the Common Core era, rather than fret they should call or email the teacher. “If you can’t help them, that’s OK,” Chambers said.

Superintendent Kirk agreed. “We haven’t seen a lot of pushback either.” (In both Tennessee and North Carolina, policymakers have launched reviews of the standards in response to criticism.)

As for a parent who is frustrated by elementary math: “At some point most parents say, ‘I can’t help my child with math’. It may now be a little earlier,” Kirk said.

Math homework has changed as well, she noted “It’s not working the odd problems and checking the back of the book anymore,” Kirk said.

The transition is hitting hardest the students for who spent half their school careers learning methods and skills that have been set aside in an effort to have them master a different approach to math, reading and writing, the superintendent explained.

“You can’t flip the switch. You can’t go completely, especially in high school,” Kirk said. “For students who have been taking multiple choice type tests for all their career, this is going to be a challenge. … We have to be judicious in what we expect from our teachers and our students.”

That said, Buckner said the ninth grade math teachers she knows are seeing improvements in students’ incoming knowledge of linear math now that “eighth grade is really about linear functions. …The more the teachers see that, the more they become believers. “

She added: “The true Common Core kids are sitting in second grade.”

The hope is that those second-graders will be better equipped for the new demands once they become high schoolers and are required to conquer higher levels of math – levels that in the past were compulsory in some schools, districts or states, but not in others, she said.

“Before it was highly dependent on your zip code or your income,” math coach Buckner said.

The Common Core also places new demands on reading and writing. Kirk said she took the writing assessment designed by one of the two state coalitions designing Common Core assessments, PARCC, “and it was very difficult. We will be very happy if our students can master this writing curriculum.”

While Common Core-ready students are making their way up through elementary school, teachers are racing to get up to speed as well.

In a review of recent polls, EWA’s deputy director Erik Robelen said one survey indicated that elementary teachers are most positive about the changes; high school teachers the most negative (with about half having an unfavorable view of the standards).

Also, some research indicates familiarity breeds approval. The number of teachers who say they are fully implementing the standards is up to 65 percent, but only one third said they were “very prepared” to teach them.