Causes of Common Core Controvesy

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At least once a week I see another news article about important public education stakeholders who are either struggling with or downright battling against the implementation of the new Common Core State Standards.  In my article defining what Common Core Standards (CCS) are, I explained that the new standards are an educational blueprint of what literacy and math skills to teach at each grade level, resulting in children all across the US who have the same solid set of skills in each grade level.


So then, what is all the fuss about if the new standards are nothing more than a common blueprint to ensure that all children have been taught the same basic skills at each grade level?  There are several causes behind the angst about CCS in various communities.  Taking a moment to look at each one can help parents to understand the CCS debate, and in turn, advocate for their child's education more effectively.

1) Fear Of Losing Local Oversight - The US public school system originated from a single room, locally developed, and controlled schools.  This important root of our educational system means that each region of our large and diverse country can tailor what is taught in schools to each communities unique needs.  Some groups fear that CCS will lead to a nationwide dictate that forces all schools across the country to teach exactly the same all the time, regardless of whether or not the local community believes children need to know this same information.

Reality - Each state and local district still maintain choice in what children will learn.  Each state chooses whether or not to adopt the standards as their own.  Each state may adopt the standards as written, or they can create their own set of rigorous standards. 

2) Confusing Standards With Curriculum, Materials or Instructional Methods Standards tell what skills and knowledge a student should have at each grade level.

  The curriculum is different from standards in that curriculum may describe how teachers present the material, or what materials they use to do so.  For example, in Grades 11-12 the CCS talk about students reading a Shakespearean play and comparing it to an American play, but the standards do not say which plays must be used.  The local school district or individual teacher would decide which plays to use to teach the knowledge of how a Shakespearean play compares to an American play.

There is no one "Common Core method" to solving a math problem.  There is no single "Common Core teaching style" that must be used as part of the common core.  New materials and teaching strategies are being developed to meet the new standards.  There are numerous textbooks and materials available that align with CCS.  These materials vary in quality - just like materials that were available twenty years ago.  

Reality- By having standards rather than dictated curriculum, states and school districts can decide how to teach the standards.

 For example, many of the higher grade literacy standards have recommended texts, yet the local level can choose to use something completely different to teach knowledge and skill of CCS, assuming that the state or local area is adopting the particular Common Core State Standard.  It is important that parents support their schools in finding high-quality materials that work for any standards - CCS or otherwise- that are adopted. 

3) Change Itself Is Hard  The development and implementation of CCS is a huge nationwide reform.  That means this is a large and sweeping change that is occurring throughout all levels of our school system.  Have you ever had to go through a big, system-wide change in your workplace?  Do you remember the frustration and initial confusion you felt when you switched a computer operating system or had to learn how to perform a new job at work?  This type of change is occurring throughout our school system.  There are parents, administrators, teachers and more who are used to teaching to previous grade level expectations.  Curriculum guides are being rewritten to match the newly defined skill sets for each grade level.  The biggest difference for most states is that Common Core teaches the most important skills that children will need to a deeper level - we will come back to this in the next point.

Teachers and administrators are having to familiarize themselves with the differences between  the old and the new.  There will be some confusion about what is expected now compared to the past.  Classroom teachers are having to get familiar with the new standards and the new materials that the individual districts are adopting.  Veteran teachers are having to find new ways to explain the new material that they are teaching in school.  All of this change leads to frustration - it is easy to blame CCS.  It is important to look at the source of the frustration - a new textbook that is unfamiliar?  Perhaps a lesson that could be improved? 

As parents, we need to look closely at what problems arise when new standards are being implemented in our children's schools.  Many local news writers may not be familiar enough with education to understand the difference between the new standards versus the curriculum being used to implement it.  Is the problem really the CCS or is it the new textbook, material, or lesson? 

4)  Changing Expectations For Children in School Is Also Hard  Children are going through a system as it is changing.  This means that when your child returns to school in the fall and a new curriculum has been adopted to align with the new standards, your child is still coming from the old system.  New materials are being created that assume that the previous year your child learned what is in the Common core for the previous grade level  The CCS were designed to build up skills sequentially.  Most likely your child's teacher will know what your local school taught previously, and will know about any gaps between the old and new skills being taught.  The teacher now has to fill in these knowledge gaps, which take extra time in an already very busy school year schedule. 

Another challenge is the emphasis CCS places on critical thinking and problem-solving skills.  In many states, the previous expectations focused more on math computation and reading comprehension.  CCS takes math and literacy deeper, getting children to think more.  This is a positive benefit of today's children will develop the ability to think through changes and have the critical thinking skills necessary for the rapidly changing technology-based society we are becoming.

The shift from computation to problem solving is most easily seen by the increase in word problems in math.  The math problems that focus on real-life problem-solving strategies were often the most challenging problems that today's parents had on their math homework when they were in school.  Different strategies are needed to solve these problems.  Children can no longer just learn an algorithm.  children today must understand what the numbers actually mean and how they relate.

Likewise, critical thinking through increasingly complex texts in reading means that children in high grades won't just be answering a question by spitting back out a sentence they found in the reading.  Instead, those challenging questions that ask the reader about the author's intent and how different readings relate are now part of the homework.  Again, the idea is to develop better thinkers and problem solvers. 

This is a challenging shift for children.  This school year the district in which I work adopted a common core based math curriculum for our middle school students.  At the beginning of the year, many children sat and looked baffled by the word problems - they were used to simple computation worksheets.  By the end of the first quarter, these same students were able to read a story problem and decide what strategy they would need to use to solve for a particular variable.   With thoughtful guidance and good instruction these children were able to make the shift to the deeper problem-solving skills in CCS math. 

5) Available Resources and Training - All of this change requires new materials, new trainings, and professional development for teachers and school staff.  Training and materials cost money and time.  This extra challenge can be especially burdensome in school districts that struggle with funding and staff resources.  If teachers do not receive adequate training and support, they will have a very difficult time overcoming the challenges already mentioned.

Schools that have a high number of students that are already struggling under the old guidelines will find the added pressure of raising the standards difficult.   The CCS were developed to fit the development of children at each grade level. Students who are already struggling will find it even harder to reach these new levels without additional support at school and at home.  Teachers who work with struggling students will need additional support and new skills to support struggling students learn to think critically and problem solve. 

6) Fear of Losing Federal Funding  There has been a great deal of misinformation in the news media about federal funding to each state depending upon whether or not a state adopts CCS as its own standards.  The first thing I would like to point out is that according to the US Department of Education in 2010 only about 12% of the education budget on average was paid for by federal dollars.  The rest of the funding came from individual states and local districts.  Federal money simply does not make up the bulk of education funding in the United States. 

States that wish to waive NCLB requirements can do so if they adopt CCS.  The Race to the Top funds favored districts that used CCS.  Yet many states that did not adopt CCS were awarded Race to the Top funds, according to the Common Core State Standards Initiative website.  Each state and district can still examine its own needs and the requirements of various federal grants and funding.  Not every state must adopt CCS in order to receive funds.

7)  Fear That Some States and Districts Will Be Brought Down By CCS  This fear stems from the idea that if a set of standards is implemented across the nation, that our existing top performing areas will have to lower their standards in order to align with CCS.

In reality, CCS is a rigorous set of standards that strongly aligns with the expectations our nation's top performing areas.  Many of the top performers already have expectations that are almost identical to CCS. These areas are making very few changes.  CCS is trying to bring all of our nation's schools up to these high standards, so that all children can receive a top notch education, not bring the best down to a mediocre level.

We parents are an important piece in the success of this latest reform.  The new standards are trying to bring all of our children up to a high level of learning.  Parents can help by thinking through each of these points, and addressing the challenges being raised by CCS.  Whether it is calming fears over a misunderstanding of CCS in our communities or ensuring that our children get the best-trained teachers and educational support, involved school parents are the critical piece to the success of this huge educational reform.

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