Just Thinking

Common Core Standards Beg A Common Approach

by Richard Gilman

Those youngsters who just graduated from first grade are in for it.

In a couple of years they’ll be sitting down as third-graders to take what will be the first test of the new Common Core Standards for reading and math.

Source: PARCC

They’ll contend, for instance, with Julia’s garden.  The puzzle pieces are a series of tiles, each one containing a different fraction of flowers.  Okay kids, figure out the number and the right combination of tiles to cover half of the garden with flowers.

The exercise would stump a few adults.  Solving it is a multi-step process.  And the little test-takers will have to put aside one tile that looks like it has to be part of the answer.

The question may be tougher than most that third-graders will face, but it clearly illustrates the new demands made by the new Common Core Standards that some hope will provide a sea change in education.

Several third-grade teachers who looked at the problem believe their top students will sort out the solution, but what about the rest of the class?

One teacher who really knows her stuff plans to take a hands-on approach.  Assign students first to solve the problem with cutout paper tiles, from there translate the pieces into written fractions, then practice explaining to each other why the solution works the way it does.

She believes the latter step will be essential in the new world of the Common Core Standards.  With the new expectations, students will have to figure out how to solve such problems on their own rather than being told how to do everything.  They need to learn to think on their seats.

The emphasis of the past 10 years has been on memorizing a wide array of facts and techniques, which are usually tested one at a time with one-dimensional questions.  Learning, as the saying goes, has been a mile wide and an inch deep.

The new learning is intended to be narrower and deeper.  Students will be asked to think their way through not-so-easy, real-world problems. They will need to develop reasoning and logic, and use combinations of math skills.

The new protocol stems from an ambitious attempt to lay out uniform guidelines for what schoolchildren across the land are expected to learn – and be tested on – at every grade level.  Most states, Arizona included, are voluntarily putting aside their own standards in favor of the common standards.

Students won’t be tested on them for the first time until the spring of 2015 but educators are already scrambling to get ready.  School districts are choosing curriculums, starting to train their teachers.  Each of them is making very important decisions, on their own.

In this they are continuing the forever practice of school districts and charter school organizations.  They each invent the wheel . . . their own wheel.

It shouldn’t be this way.

The garden problem represents just one small example of why.  Is the one teacher’s hands-on method for teaching that particular lesson the best?   If her approach isn’t the most effective, she’s hurting her kids.  If it is, shouldn’t everyone be using it?

Our best hope for helping the greatest number of students master the common standards is for educators to join together – across districts across schools across classrooms – to master a set of common practices that over time they will continue to hone and perfect.  This will give the most students the best chance at passing the new tests . . . and in so doing, perhaps elevate Arizona out of the dregs of test performance.

To we laypersons, this proposal may seem so obvious, so simple that it should go almost without saying.   Except educators will tell you it’s neither obvious nor simple.

The debate won’t be over the effect on student achievement but rather about the impact the proposal will have on the local autonomy that educators have long enjoyed.  Superintendents zealously protect their own prerogatives.  The refrain goes like this: “Don’t tell us what to do.  We know what our community needs!”

That argument obviously loses a little weight when one considers that the new standards extend well beyond local boundaries.  Julia’s garden will be tested in Ajo, Amphitheater and Alhambra, not to mention Atlanta and Annapolis.   What’s more, the results for all will be readily comparable.

Nonetheless, the idea of common cause amounts to fighting words. Each of the state’s many school districts and charter school organizations traditionally has been a tub on its own bottom, free to operate as it sees fit. Educators need to be assured that their independent fiefdoms are not threatened, that programs such as this are not being forced down their throats by some governmental authority.

That’s a fair concern.  This proposal will accomplish little if it is mandated.  Educators need to be self-motivated, because it will take real work to make this work.  We need them to voluntarily make common cause because they believe in what it stands to accomplish.

The Common Core Standards present an uncommon opportunity.  They are, by their very design, common to everyone.  They almost beg for collaboration and cooperation.

Arizona has a choice.  To borrow from a familiar adage: United we stand.  Divided we fail.

The state can continue to ride unbending autonomy to the bottom of the tub.  Or we can make an exception in this one instance by coming together to field the best possible common practices to teach a set of standards that are common to all.

We’d be doing ourselves, and our first-graders, a big favor if we did.





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