There has been a lot said about Common Core and it has become a political football for folks regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum.  Coming off a political campaign, I got to see how issues like this get used as a proxy for many other ideas, and the reality of the situation gets lost.  Since I will be returning to my volunteer role working as a community manager with Edutopia, and I thought I would take a moment here on my personal blog to try to demystify Common Core.  (Disclaimer: Edutopia does not take a position one way or another on Common Core, so this piece is mine and mine alone.)

The Common Core is a set of academic standards that is meant to make sure kids in every grade have a common set of skills in place before advancing to the next grade.  For example, the Common Core writing standards for the fourth grade includes the following:

Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.
Introduce a topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which related ideas are grouped to support the writer’s purpose.
Provide reasons that are supported by facts and details.
Link opinion and reasons using words and phrases (e.g., for instance, in order to, in addition).
Provide a concluding statement or section related to the opinion presented.

So by the end of fourth grade, kids should be able to write an essay expressing their opinion, that is organized and is supported by relevant facts and details.  This is the standard format of almost every 5 paragraph essay and/or blog post.  What’s wrong with this?  By meeting these standards, kids in fourth grade in New York or Florida or Utah will all be expected to have the same skills.  Even if their families move across the Country, kids will be able to pick up at the same place at the beginning of the 5th grade school year, regardless of whether they read the same novels the previous year or not.  It won’t matter as much whether or not your teacher got all the way through Chapter 10 in the reading book, as long as you have these skills in place, everything is great.  The fifth grade teachers know what kids should be capable of doing, and there’s less time spent re-teaching material kids forgot over the summer.    It sounds great on paper.

Now we get to implementation.  Teaching kids these skills will require them to do more than memorize or recognize the right answer on a multiple choice test.  It requires deeper learning, and deeper teaching.  It’s going to take some time to transition existing curriculum and lesson plans to meet these new standards, and this will require additional professional development.  It’s going to be bumpy, as most changes are.

But wait!  An administrator goes to a conference.  There’s a shiny new box of books and computer programs produced by Company ABC which promises each lesson is Common Core Aligned.  Which is easier- buying the new books or actually training your teachers to teach differently in the classroom?  Those new books are looking like a great short cut.

Let’s talk about all those crazy math problems posted on Facebook that are attributed to Common Core. ( I will also remind those of us who were in grade school in the 70’s about the way we had to learn how to solve problems in Base 8 or Base 3 as well as Base 10, and to remember this before getting bent out of shape about not understanding your child’s math homework.)  The point of the math standards is to begin to make kids as fluent in Math as they are in reading.  We want them to understand more than how to calculate, but how to think in “math”- learning logic, a sense of measurement and proportion, and to be able to reason with numbers as well as words, and be able to combine the two as needed.  The standards are asking kids to show their work more and articulate how they are thinking about the problem.  This is a big change and is often difficult for kids who have stronger analytical skills but weaker verbal skills.  My kids can’t stand it, because they have a very intuitive sense of numbers and can do calculations in their head, but explaining how they got to a solution is absolute torture for them.  However, it doesn’t mean that they should not be able to explain their thinking and also have any mistakes corrected along the way, to prevent issues later on down the road when algebra and calculus come along, and mere calculation may not be enough.

So let’s examine a standard up close. The math standards for Fourth grade say:

Use the four operations with whole numbers to solve problems.

Interpret a multiplication equation as a comparison, e.g., interpret 35 = 5 × 7 as a statement that 35 is 5 times as many as 7 and 7 times as many as 5. Represent verbal statements of multiplicative comparisons as multiplication equations.
Multiply or divide to solve word problems involving multiplicative comparison, e.g., by using drawings and equations with a symbol for the unknown number to represent the problem, distinguishing multiplicative comparison from additive comparison.1
Solve multistep word problems posed with whole numbers and having whole-number answers using the four operations, including problems in which remainders must be interpreted. Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity. Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding.

This means there’s a lot more language and word problems in math.  I would love it if we actually connected this up by doing real world projects that required using math skills, such as designing and then building something like a birdhouse.  It would start by calculating dimensions on paper and then actually building it according to the plans, to see whether the math “checked out” in the real world.  Even learning where the math did or did not work would be a valuable lesson in translating paper instructions and logic into real life.  This would help teach kids to look over a set of instructions, or even a recipe, and decide on whether the proportions seemed right before making it.

The point of all of this is that when we make any changes in a curriculum or in the way a subject is taught and learned, it’s going to confuse folks who learned it another way.  Each way may not be inherently wrong or right, and they each have their plusses and minuses.  But if we understand why changes are being made and what their long term benefits might be, maybe we could stop making teaching of courses in school such a political football, and get back to the important stuff, teaching kids the skills they are going to need to navigate an increasingly complicated world.

I love the idea of much of common core, especially where it focuses on building skill sets rather than rote memorization.  I think there’s great potential to do cross curricular inquiry-driven projects that will help learning come alive to kids, and put it in context, so it doesn’t always seem so abstract and pointless.  That’s exciting.  But when I see or hear of implementation that is essentially just reading a new script out of a new teacher’s guide, I go cold.  At that point, all we are doing is swapping one one-size-fits-all program for another, and the chance that teachers might actually start to customize the learning to the kids they have in their classroom goes right out the window.

Many folks have gotten upset because as the new “accountability” tests have rolled out, it’s become clear many kids were relying on recognizing the right answer rather than understanding why it was right, and that’s something that becomes apparent with the Common Core.  We’re now asking both teachers and students to work harder than before, be more engaged with their learning, and tackle harder problems.  It’s the right thing to do.  But it won’t be an easy transition for anyone, and we might find out, as many college professors will already tell you, students haven’t been as prepared for the rigors of college as they once were, and these changes are necessary to make sure kids are ready for college and career.

Yes, seeing test scores go down causes panic and worry.  But making a test easier so we can brag everyone got all A’s doesn’t automatically make them smarter and more successful- that’s just grade inflation.  Common Core is essentially asking more of everyone, and there will be some grade deflation until everyone is comfortable with the increased expectations.  Harder tests will mean having to work harder to achieve, and that’s not a bad thing.  Letting people skate by with minimal skills and a false sense of achievement is far more dangerous and damaging.

In the end, I think the essence and goals of common core are great.  I think their implementation and explanation to parents, kids and teachers alike has been, at best, ham handed and poorly communicated.  I don’t think we need to give up on Common Core, but much like the issues with the website around the Affordable Care Act, we have to retool and make sure everyone sees the map we’re using and where it’s headed so they can be more patient during the trip itself.  But until that happens, everyone will be sitting in the proverbial backseat, second guessing the driver and asking for the 400th time, “Are we there yet?  When are we going to get there?”

If we decide it’s too hard and turn the car around, we’ll never get to the destination. And that destination just might be the preparation of our kids for a more complex future where critical thinking and flexibility in approaches to problem solving will be key skills.  I want our kids prepared for that future.