Being that I am a father of a ten year old daughter, and run an after school program at a library, two words have haunted me more than any other. If you had guessed Donald Trump, orange hair, or Steel Magnolias, your were close… really close. Truthfully those two words have been Common Core.
When I first heard that phrase in the educational lexicon, I asked myself what they considered core, and who was going to determine what was common? It made me question what they were going to do. Why create a new educational system wholesale, leaving parents in the dust? What were they correcting with the old educational system that they were somehow fixing here? And why do packages of hot dogs have ten and yet there are only eight in a hot dog bun pack? I mean seriously, it’s like a math problem. When they came out with the No Child Left Behind initiative under President Bush, I didn’t realize that they weren’t taking about parents. I thought parents and children were a package deal. To the government, evidently not. This travesty can not stand!!! I was going to have to do some research on what Common Core was if I hoped to help my child.
At first I was going to have to figure out the why’s before I figured out the what. Why was Common Core created in the first place? Why was the older system considered inadequate? This story began in the 1990’s, as standardized testing revealed that many students were not able to grasp some of the basic functions of math and writing. They found these students were trapped in substandard schools, whose dropout rate would make even a prostitute blush. The government decided that too many schools were substandard and so decided to come up with an accountability project that would standardize what everyone needed to know at every grade level. The thinking was that they would hold the teachers responsible for failing students.
There had been surveys taken among employers who would hire high school students and these students were determined to be woefully inadequate to handle the tasks that they were given. Whether through a system that was declining or whether employers expected more from their students, people decided they needed to do something. So they started to develop the common core methodology.
So based on the belief that the system was failing them, a need to hold someone accountable for those failures, and a society that was telling them that their students were spectacularly unprepared for life, people went about changing things. But here is the problem. Everyone is interested in maintaining power, and those in power are excellent at shifting blame. So instead of taking a better look at the teachers who are phoning in a paycheck, the administrators who have allowed their students to run wild for fear of lawsuits, or the lives of the students going to these failing schools who have living situations not unlike war zones, the blame was shifted to the set of standards that were previously in place.
Now when anyone tells you that you have to do something because you can’t not do something, be afraid, very afraid. It’s not a question of whether something needs to be done. You should be afraid of these people because it’s most likely not your best interests they have when they want to do something. They have ulterior motives! What a shock right? And even if they plan on dealing with a situation, they over correct. Imagine an apple grower who finds one bad apple on a tree. The grower decides to not just take out the apple, or just the tree. He burns the whole orchard completely so he can start fresh. One might consider that apple grower crazy. One might even have a straight jacket and anti-psychotic pills waiting for him. This is Common Core.
But as a parent, and as a practical matter, why they decided to go about doing that doesn’t help you with your child. And it certainly doesn’t help me with my ten year old. I needed to find out the what part of my question. What had they started teaching my daughter and when?
I remember the two scary words being uttered when my daughter was four, but I think it wasn’t until she was seven that they started to implement these standards. I started to take notice and ask my daughter questions about what she was learning and how she was being taught. Then the students I was helping in the after school homework help program started showing me questions that made me have to think for a while before I could even answer. I knew I needed to investigate further. (Another side effect of this is it made my tutors who had come to help these kids stressed because they had not been taught mathematics or English that way. They felt unprepared.)
While I suppose that there was no great way for changing a whole system of standards and making everyone happy, the real issue for me is the application of those standards and their practical effects. As an English major I wasn’t too troubled by the direction of the standards. Arguments over what is classic literature and what should be taught has been going on for eons. It didn’t start yesterday. And it won’t end tomorrow.
How they teach spelling I’m a little less comfortable with. I realize that more reading gives you more exposure to words, which should help ones spelling skills. (Auto-correct and spell check are not good spelling teachers. But they do make for hilarious sentences.) Having students continue to write out sentences when their spelling is atrocious does not assist them in the process. And watching people leave elementary school now having to be taught basic spelling lessons is a consequence.
The way they teach reading and argumentation is not a bad thing. It promotes, at an early age, students being able to develop their critical thinking skills. Teachers focus more on the ability to defend ones position than on whether they believe the argument to be right or wrong. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Whether these teachers then add their own political beliefs that they impart on our children and make them come up with critical defenses for those beliefs is another matter entirely. Developing critical thinking does stretch the student, and for that I’m pleasantly surprised they might have done something right there.
But for every praise you might heap upon this newly created mess, there is a Frankenstein monster looking for people to hurt. Mathematics curriculum is that monster. I call it integrated mathematics. They integrate multiple principles within every new concept. It’s a little complicated but let me try to explain.
My first foray into this new Math occurred when my daughter reached the fourth grade. When my daughter’s school first started implementing Common Core they did it slowly, and the teachers were not necessarily big fans. But when my daughter reached the fourth grade, I met its first big proponent.
This teacher, who I will leave nameless, went into a whole lesson with the parents on back to school night about why it was important to her. She felt that it gave explanations for all the different questions she had when she was growing up. She encouraged math like it was a critical thinking course. I sat there pondering whether she would correct me if I had stated two plus two equals five, or would she ask me to give a defense for my answer. And if I gave a good defense would she then consider me to be right? The world may never know. (Just like tootsie pops and how many licks.)
What she really reminded me of was all the students who had been in my high school classes with their hands raised all day long. If they could ask 100 questions every class they wouldn’t be satisfied. Half the time you thought it was to get out of work. Half the time you wondered if they really could not understand something. And if they couldn’t, why?
My daughter had been in class for a little while by this point and I started to watch how she learned multiplication, especially numbers longer than one digit. I watched as she drew Mendelian diagram’s to solve a problem. (Take a look at a biology textbook if you don’t remember.) Slowly but surely it dawned on me what they were learning. They were learning the distributive property of mathematics through this instruction. But why were they learning it here? And isn’t there a simpler way of teaching them multiplying large numbers. I thought there must be an easier way. But this teacher was convinced that this method of instruction would answer all the why’s her students would want to ask. I was not sure.
To demonstrate my trepidation about her misplaced confidence I will take you back to my senior year in high school. I was in a mathematics course for Calculus. We were doing summer school work because the teacher felt like we wouldn’t have enough time to cover the materials if we had to cover those first three chapters during the school year. I’d come in once or twice a week to do the work and get credit. Problems we had to solve for those first three chapters were a ton of work, multiple steps, and would go on for three pages in length. But I was happy I understood how to do them and felt pride in my work. And then the school started and we reached chapter four. What did the first lesson in chapter four teach me? That all of the work in the first three chapters only took one step. This means I could have written the answer on the next line, not three pages later.
I understand that with those three pages I was learning a larger concept. Analytic Geometry was like a revelation for me understanding the basis for the theorems and postulates of regular geometry, expressed in algebraic terms. But did I feel happy that I wasted my time learning those three pages of background, let alone those crazy theorems in geometry? No! No! And let me think . . . Heck no! I felt like it was a big waste of time.
I think that when these students are exposed to an alternative method to solving some of these problems, and they will be, they will be frustrated by a system they felt like had wasted their time. Yes, they may have learned concepts that they will apply later. But will they even care? What they will feel is that you wasted their time.
While I didn’t like this methodology of instruction, I could understand it. But I didn’t realize it’s insidiousness until later that year when the teacher started teaching the kids long division. That understanding would come with an email.
One afternoon, while at work, I received an email from my daughter’s teacher about her intentions to teach my daughter’s class division. Normally I wouldn’t have cared. But the email had an addendum. Do not teach my child to solve the division problems the way I had learned or it will screw her up. And I will have a messed up child on my hands. This intimation that helping my child would screw my child was bad enough. But the real fun came later.
My ex, whose penchant was always to fight, wanted to fight the teacher after receiving this email. After talking her off the ledge I told her she needed to tell the teacher that she needed to understand how to do division this new way or she wouldn’t be able to help our daughter. She agreed that was better, and did so. The teachers response was less than kind. She intimated that it would be a waste of time to do so, and that the kids would be learning in class anyway.
I now noticed the house of cards that Common Core was built on. And it needed to be kicked down. Common Core wasn’t about a new methodology per say. It did protect some inadequate teacher’s behinds from firing; because how could you know whether a teacher was qualified enough to help your child if you couldn’t explain what was going on in the classroom? It was about control over your child. If the parent can’t help, the school and by proxy the government steps in.
I couldn’t let that stand. So we got parents together to complain to the administrator about the instruction given. I knew that once my ex was on the war path, there was no letting up until success. And success came in an email with video instructions how to do these division problems. We could be parents to our children once more. But this is not what happens for many.
So unless you have a state that has ditched the standard, and 42 haven’t, you as a parent are stuck with this crazy system. What do you do? I suggest two things. Supplement your child’s education where you need to, like with the spelling and reading curriculum. Try to appreciate the things it does right, like developing argumentation skills. And finally, fight the administration and organize when it tries to supplement their parenting abilities for your own. They are not your child’s parents. And they aren’t invested in your child’s success the way you are. It may take a lot of time but it’s worth it.
Tell me your own experiences of teaching your children. Or share horror stories about fighting the system. I’d love to know your thoughts. So this is me, closing another chapter and signing off.
David Elliott, Single Dad’s Guide to Life