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In 2012 I moved from Mississippi to New York City to teach at a charter elementary school in Harlem. My 27 fifth grade students had reading levels ranging from third to eighth grade. They grew up speaking 14 different languages in their homes, which were scattered from the far reaches of Brooklyn to the South Bronx. I had spoken word poets, Lego masters, dancers, and chess fiends. One gave me a hug every hour, on the hour. Others had to be coaxed into speaking.

Each of these students learned at a different pace. Some needed specialized attention, some needed to be challenged. One student could compute multiplication with 4-digit products in his head, while others still counted on their fingers.

The job of differentiating instruction to meet the needs of the variety of learners in my class belonged to me, their teacher. I did so by designing a rich curriculum and managing my classroom in ways that kept my students engaged — never bored. My students designed architectural renderings of cityscapes as part of a unit on volume. They explored literary devices by writing “Where I’m From” poems in the style of George Ella Lyon. As part of a unit on data analysis, they used Google Maps to help calculate the range, mean, and median for their morning commutes. They learned how bias influences history by reading a biography of Claudette Colvin, the teenage girl who refused to stand on a Montgomery bus months before Rosa Parks.

Common Core vs state standards
The author, teaching in his classroom in Harlem.

All of these lessons were grounded in the Common Core, the standards for math and English that will go into full effect in Mississippi next school year. Common Core gave me the flexibility to teach to my students’ individual needs without compromising essential learning goals that ensured they would be ready for college or careers upon graduation.

New York was an early adopter of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and is one of two states that have been using CCSS-aligned state tests since the 2012-2013 school year. After teaching with the CCSS for two years, I am confident they will make a positive difference in Mississippi, where flimsy, ambiguous standards have long allowed schools to skate by on what George W. Bush famously called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Therefore, it disturbed me when Gov. Phil Bryant recently joined a small chorus of Republican governors in announcing his dissatisfaction with the Common Core standards. This is what he saidin a statement last month (from the AP):

Common Core is a failed program and many are realizing that these standards are not what many believed them to be. Mississippi has the responsibility and authority to manage its own education system and not delegate that control to Washington, D.C.

Besides the illogicality of calling a program “failed” before it has been fully implemented, Bryant’s implication that the Common Core represents an educational outsourcing to the feds calls into question how well he actually understands this issue. He’s not alone. Almost all of the political opposition to the CCSS I have seen and heard echoes Bryant’s misinformed hyperbole. Meanwhile, polls show that about 75 percent of teachers support the Common Core.

Common Core’s purpose

The truth is, education experts have been calling for more rigorous educational standards since 1983, when the sweeping report A Nation at Risk first warned that “the rising tide of mediocrity” in our schools threatened America’s global preeminence. In the 11-year span from 1995 to 2006, for instance, the U.S. fell from first to 14th in college and university graduation rates.

Standards-based education seeks to hold American students to the same expectations as international counterparts. It was a major tenet of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s education reforms that culminated in the No Child Left Behind Act, signed in 2001. The law required all states, for the first time, to have sets of standards outlining what all students should know and be able to do in each subject. Mississippi developed the Math and Language Arts Curriculum Frameworks, complemented with a series of end-of-year standardized tests.

Common Core vs state standards

Soon after the standards-based reforms went into effect, the bottom 10 percent of America’s students began making learning gains that outpaced overall averages. Still, the U.S. failed to make up ground on international competitors, which led many to believe that states hadn’t set their bars high enough. Furthermore, the state-by-state patchwork of standards offered little relevance for comparisons across state lines. Upon evaluation by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute in 2010,Mississippi’s standards received a C for math and D for English Language Arts, which received this unsparing critique:

The Mississippi standards are mysterious, as if they were constructed to obfuscate rather than clarify student expectations. They are organized under just two headings: Reading and Writing.

Exams pegged to state standards also varied in difficulty. While most Mississippi students passed the state tests with ease, they scored near the bottom on national assessments.

In 2008, frustrated by years of education stagnation, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, a nonpartisan, nonprofit education reform group began the process of developing the math and language arts standards that eventually became the Common Core State Standards. While those three groups spearheaded the effort, consultants from the nation’s two largest teachers unions, members from ACT and the College Board, education experts from 48 states (including Mississippi), and 10,000 public comments all played a role in the final standards, published in 2009.

In August 2010, Mississippi’s state Board of Education joined 44 other states and Washington, D.C., when it replaced the previous standards with the new Common Core standards – described by the Fordham Insitute as “significantly superior to what the Magnolia State has in place today.” Districts have been gradually implementing the standards since. Full implementation, complete with new CCSS-aligned math and language arts state tests, is set to occur during the 2014-15 school year.

The Common Core difference

Common Core vs state standards
Student work in the hallway of Eastside Elementary in Madison County shows the “partial product” method of solving a multiplication problem. The new Common Core standards emphasize multiple ways of solving problems. (Photo: Jackie Mader, The Hechinger Report)

The CCSS are far more detailed than the outgoing Mississippi Frameworks. They make it abundantly clear to teachers what their responsibilities are.

The CCSS for language arts prioritize reading and analyzing a variety of texts, writing with evidence, and thinking inferentially. They encourage informational texts in earlier grades and emphasize the importance of closely reading specific words and phrases to understand “author’s craft.” My students read as much nonfiction as fiction this year, which built vocabulary and background knowledge — key components of comprehension. By carefully studying authors’ choices, my students quickly became better writers.

The CCSS for math diverge significantly from the current state standards because they require an altered teaching approach. Instead of focusing on the ability to compute and solve, Common Core standards stress the understanding of underlying mathematical concepts. It’s not just about getting the right answer, but the ability to explain how you got there. The standards do not dictate particular strategies or approaches, but they do encourage students to solve problems in a variety of ways — not simply using standard algorithms like long division or stacked multiplication.

As the math curriculum planner for my grade, I studied math standards and student work especially closely. Students who followed strict procedures to solve problems struggled when questions were presented differently. Those who understood the underlying concepts were much more adaptive. This is the biggest change ushered in by Common Core: assessments do not merely test students’ ability to find right answers; they target conceptual understanding with the types of problems students will encounter in the real world.

Let me show you how it works. Below is an example of a basic fifth grade problem involving division of a fraction: 4 divided by ⅓  =  x. If you are like me, you were taught to “multiply by the inverse” whenever presented with a fraction divisor. This procedural approach (left) is highlighted next to a more conceptual approach that Common Core urges (right).

Common Core vs state standards

Multiplying 4 by the 3, the inverse of ⅓, on the left will get you the correct answer (12, 0f course). But you will notice that the visual strategy shows why that operation works. There are 3 thirds in every whole, so there will be 4 times as many thirds in 4 wholes; thus 4 x 3 = 12. It may seem like extraneous steps on these basic computations, but my students who understood the concepts behind the operations were more successful when questions were presented in the context of real-word problems. For instance:

Benny is running a 4-mile race. He stops for water every 1/3 of a mile. How many total times will Benny stop during the race (including at the finish line)?

Students who relied on procedures had trouble accessing this type of problem because they did not necessarily recognize it as division. Procedural fluency is important, and the Common Core doesn’t dismiss it, but research shows that students who also have strong conceptual foundations are far more successful in math than their peers who do not. To examine exactly how the Common Core treats the skill of dividing by fractions differently than the Mississippi Math Framework, take a look at the two excerpts below.

Common Core vs state standards

As with anything, changing to the new standards will cause a bit of natural friction. Training the Mississippi’s 21,000 teachers to understand the new standards is no small task. In aggregate, the state has already held more than 100 training seminars, and many districts have slowly been phasing the new standards into existing curriculum –– but there is a long road ahead, and implementation will be bumpy. Frustrations are sure to mount among groups of educators and parents as the CCSS take full effect in the fall, but as I often tell my students, we will get there if we are patient. The beauty of the CCSS is that they allow curriculum to progress at a pace conducive to student inquiry, exploration, and eventually, enduring understanding. I know it can be done. In my first year of teaching, 96 percent of my students passed the toughest state math test in New York’s history, and two-thirds achieved the highest possible score.

Gov. Bryant and others who are skeptical of the Common Core need to understand that different is not such a bad word when it comes to education in Mississippi, consistently the nations’s lowest-performing state. The Common Core standards are irrefutably more rigorous than current state standards and represent a shift that schools must make in order to prepare students for the increasingly competitive global workforce. Standards alone cannot do it, but paired with strong leaders and committed educators, they will lead us toward a brighter educational future.

This story appears courtesy Rethink Mississippi. Reproduction is not permitted.

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5 Letters

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  1. Thank you for teaching, in Mississippi, in New York, and thank you for teaching math to your students effectively. It is vital to have many tools in the tool box for teaching a math concept like adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing using whole numbers including unit fractions.

    However, I don’t think the comparison of the two standards shown here means what you think it means.

    The Mississippi standard would be clear standard – statement of what should be mastered at a grade level – with the addition of a few more words such as “unit fractions”.

    The Common Core Standard shown here would be a clear standard if it removed everything after “for example” in 5.NF.7B and everything after “eg.” in 5 NF.7C. The ‘everything after’ – the ‘story context’ and the ‘by using visual fraction models’ is curriculum. That part is the ‘exactly how you shall teach it’ part. That is mandating particular tools to come out of the teacher toolbox and be used to teach all children a standard – dividing whole numbers by unit fractions.

    CCSS supporters keep saying “CCSS is rigorous standards ONLY.” No. Clearly, here we see that CCSS contains within it mandatory curricula; specific teaching techniques.

    There is nothing wrong with the visual fraction model. It’s great. There are many tools needed in the teacher toolbox to teach children how to divide a whole number by a unit fraction in 5th grade at the age of 9 or 10 or 11. Some Children may need manipulatives, a set of solid circles: whole, and divided in two, three, four, five, and six pieces. This way they can manipulate objects and see how two-sixths equals one-third, and otherwise make operations concrete. Some children would be fine with an explanation and demonstration of reciprocals – pleased with the procedural approach you call ‘keep, change, flip’ and would quickly understand the reciprocal concept. Many would appreciate the now mandated by CCSS ‘visual fraction method’, before they were ready to learn about reciprocals and the procedure for dividing whole numbers by a unit fraction. Some would not be ready to understand the abstract concept of reciprocals until later. Some would have a difficult time working with fractions and would need every tool in the toolbox – including some ingenious and novel ones. That’s what Teaching is! Meeting each child where she is, to build the skills needed to grasp each concept.

    As a teacher you need to know the standard. “Add, subtract, multiply and divide (with and without remainders) using non-negative rational number, including unit fractions. NOTE: Assessment will include word problems.” would be an ideal standard. Tell me what to teach, not how to teach it. Use every tool, including ‘visual fraction models’. But do not mandate a teaching technique – which is curricula, and call it a standard.

  2. For the life of me, I can’t understand why people turn a blind eye to conceptual math. It just makes sense. I understand it may not be the way they were taught (though I would have gone a lot farther with help conceptually), but different doesn’t mean flawed.

    Why is understanding so scary?

  3. If I were these opposition Red States I desperately wouldn’t want my poor education system easily compared to the nations grade A schools either.

  4. I agree with Ms. Burruss. I also take exception to the notion that understanding is scary. There have been MANY things that have been presented differently over time that have been embraced. There were some aspects of the “whole language” movement that helped certain students, just as the “conceptual math” method will help some students. The trick is to have UNLIMITED resources to help students to understand concepts. Teachers spend many additional hours reading about and attending workshops to learn different ways to present ideas so that they can use whatever works for each student. Common core and the tests associated with it basically says do it this way. English class no longer is focused on novels, poetry and short stories. Its emphasis is close reading nonfiction from the other disciplines. Math is all about conceptual figuring. The list goes on. Overall, teachers need to be trusted to do what is best for students. Outside companies, groups, whatever can put materials out there, but teachers should decide how to educate the children they have.

  5. I have my teaching license, but cannot find a job in High School Social Studies because as a woman, I can’t coach football. But I’m following this CCSS debate because I still think that our education system is horribly broken and those most at fault are the educators of educators – education faculty in higher education. They suffer from the classic “ivory tower” syndrome where they propose new and wonderful theories based on data (a four letter word if ever there was one). If they ever had any actual classroom experience, they are far, far removed from it. Their ideas range anywhere from Utopian to Dystopian, but they are never, ever grounded in reality. CCSS is another one of these “plans” dreamed up by these academics.

    First, I am solidly a liberal, blue-stater and actually believe very strongly in Common Standards across the board. Just because a student lives in state X, should not mean that he will receive an inferior education. But there is a difference between common standards and CCSS. Standards are broad guidelines that allow for diversification, experimentation, personalization and adaptation.

    The major problem with CCSS isn’t the standards – it’s the implementation of those standards. Education programs are filled with academics who come up with theories that everyone jumps into with both feet. Remember the experiment with not teaching children to spell correctly, allowing them to spell cat, KAT because phonetically, it sounded correct? Those students are graduating from college and can’t write a coherent sentence.

    We have to stop all of this broad-scale experimentation with learning styles. When it comes to the basics that kids learn, our educational system worked for a long time. Fundamentals and repetition. Boring? Possibly with a bad teacher, but so unbelievably foundational to all other learning that by sacrificing it, we have sacrificed generations of students. Catering education to the students’ preferences is pure lunacy. Children don’t get to make the rules because their brains aren’t developed sufficiently to understand the consequences of their choices. That’s why we supposedly have teachers.

    Go back 50 years in our educational history and see what percentages of students passed or failed core classes. What were they taught in those classes? Fundamentals have not changed and will not change. Should kids be reading The Hardy Boys instead of Harry Potter? Of course not, but THEY STILL HAVE TO READ!!! The standard is still the same, how today’s teachers get students to meet those standards is where the personalization and adaptation matters.

    Of course students want to do fun things. When I was a teenager, I complained to my mother about having to take algebra. Who uses algebra in real life? My mother’s response has stayed with me throughout my life. Surviving algebra, teaches you how to learn something difficult, even when you don’t want to. It teaches you that much of life is doing stuff you hate. It teaches you to “suck it up” and “put on your big girl panties” to quote a current phrase. What better lesson for the adult world do our students need than that? Ask your boss if you can write your report in crayon because it is more fun to color than to type on a keyboard. Ask your boss if you can just not do that report because you don’t like working with numbers. Nothing in life works that way.

    Which brings me back to the CCSS and their sole reliance upon multiple choice test results to determine academic achievement. Multiple choice tests are the least effective method for testing student knowledge. Sure they’re easier for everyone – mostly the students, but let’s be honest, for the teachers, too. Grading short answer and essay exams takes a long time. A high school teacher with 5 classes of 30 students each will grade 150 exams. That is a huge time commitment. But it is the only way to assess students’ true knowledge acquisition.

    With texting and Twitter pervading our students worlds, educators must stand up and fight to make sure that students can read and write. Nothing else matters until those two fundamentals are secure. Math is very important, but without a sufficient vocabulary, students cannot reason their way through calculations. Reading and writing are key. But how do you test that on a multiple choice exam? You can’t. All the statisticians in the world can try to parse it down, but it cannot be done.

    Common Core is no better than the latest fad in education. Common standards are unfortunately much like common sense – rare and not used in education.

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