Common Core State Standards: Brilliant or Insane?

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photo credit: krissen via photopin cc

photo credit: krissen via photopin cc

Yes, I’m going there. Yes, someone else is probably going to follow this post up very shortly with one titled, “Gerald Aungst: Brilliant or Insane” for even being willing to wade into the miasma that is the debate over the Common Core. So be it.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were introduced innocently (some would say insidiously) about four years ago, and at the time, they were generally praised as a step in the right direction, quickly getting adopted by 45 states. More recently, though, the tone has become more critical (some would say paranoid), and now, just the mention of “Common Core” or even “The Core” is likely to cause listeners to cringe as they await the coming torrent of passionate support or vehement opposition to the standards.

And today, that’s what you get: a polarized, emotional debate that is often devoid of any nuanced or evidence-based argument. Which is kind of ironic, given that such an argument is precisely what the CCSS tells us students should be able to formulate by the time they graduate from high school. If you did a poll, you’d probably find that CCSS is either going to save education, or it’s evil incarnate.

I’m not going to lay out the pros and cons of the standards and all of the associated baggage that comes with it. Others have done a better job of that than I could, including Diane Ravitch and Tim Shanahan. NPR has a growing list of FAQs which is clear and does a balanced job of explaining not only the facts but the controversy. For perspectives from educators, I recommend this article by Starr Sackstein and this one by Mark Barnes.

What I will add to the mix are three observations from my own work with teachers as they understand the standards and adjust their instruction accordingly.

Standards and testing are not the source of teachers’ anxiety

In most states, including mine, we have had state standards and state-mandated high-stakes testing for more than two decades. Common Core doesn’t change that fact. Critics who lament the loss of local control with Common Core forget that states have been driving the bus for a long time. My district has no more or less control over our curriculum and instruction than we did previously. And anyone who thinks state control is the same as local control hasn’t taught recently.

When teachers spend focused time really examining the standards, which 250 teachers in my district did last spring and summer, the response to the content is strongly positive. Anxiety arises when teachers realize that the changed expectations mean they have some work to do and they probably can’t continue to rely on the same lesson plans they’ve been using for several years.

We, not the CCSS, have created the market for corporate intrusion

Over many years, teachers have allowed our instructional design muscles to atrophy. While we outwardly grumble when a new reading program or math textbook is introduced and complain about how it is taking away our creativity in teaching, we inwardly cling to the book as our source of security. During my first year of teaching, my principal noted during an observation that I spent the entire math period with my arms wrapped around the teacher’s edition as if I were hugging it. Perhaps I thought it would protect me from rocks, tomatoes, and spitballs from my fourth graders who realized I really had no idea what I was doing.

This point was driven home for me last week when I received an email from a teacher who was reviewing the district’s curriculum map for October and saw that she was expected to teach this standard:

CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.6.G.A.3 Draw polygons in the coordinate plane given coordinates for the vertices; use coordinates to find the length of a side joining points with the same first coordinate or the same second coordinate. Apply these techniques in the context of solving real-world and mathematical problems.National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, Common Core State Standards (2010)

Our existing math program materials do not address this particular skill. “I DO NOT have anything to teach this standard,” she said. I offered to help locate more resources, but also suggested that graph paper and a straight edge were really the only materials needed to help students learn how to do this. If we are so reliant on a corporate-written lesson plan to teach students how to find the length of a line segment, then whose fault is it really that those corporations drive the conversation about curriculum?

Deep reflection on our curriculum and instruction is not a bad thing

All of this anxiety about Common Core has caused a lot of commotion in my district. But it has also caused motion. Fifty teachers spent almost two weeks working on writing a district curriculum map aligned with the standards. When we started, several people questioned why we needed to do this work, since other districts around us had already done it. “Why can’t we just use their maps if they are already aligned to the standards?”

When we got into the work, however, our teachers realized two benefits of doing it ourselves. First, the maps were really ours, and they were designed to take into account the special qualities of our community, our students, and our values. We were able to incorporate a lot of the unique and wonderful signatures of our program which may have been lost or sidelined if we used someone else’s map.

But perhaps more important, the teachers at the end of the process thoroughly understood not only how curriculum was constructed, but why it was put together the way it was. Teachers who were the most reluctant at the start, and who were the most negative during the work, became the most passionate cheerleaders for the curriculum when they shared it with their grade level colleagues in August. They literally owned it. (And I mean literally as in actually, not literally as in figuratively.)

So what do you think? What has your experience been, either as a teacher, a parent, or a student? Are the Common Core State Standards brilliant? Or are they insane? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Gerald Aungst

Supervisor of Gifted and Elementary Math at School District of Cheltenham Township
Gerald Aungst has more than 20 years experience as a professional educator, specializing in digital technology, mathematics, and gifted education. In his various roles as a classroom teacher, gifted support specialist, administrator, curriculum designer, and professional developer, he has worked to create a rich and vibrant learning culture. He is also passionate about improving learning opportunities for all students. Gerald is a founder of and
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