The Truth About the Common Core

*The following is completely my opinion based on my experience as a teacher and mother. I do not claim to know what the Common Core means to a teacher or parent in a different situation from my own.

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When I started teaching over a decade ago, I was handed a red binder that held all our district’s English Language Arts Standards (ELA). I was told to make sure I incorporated them all somehow before the end of the year. At the time I was teaching 9th grade and 10th grade English. I didn’t have to do what the other 9th and 10th grade English teachers did to meet the standards, I just had to meet them.

There was no test at the end to see if my students met the standards, just the grades I gave them.

Back then, students in Michigan took the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test. The test changed in my first couple years for 11th graders to be the Michigan Merit Exam (MME). This was the test the state of Michigan gave to make sure students were making progress.  Our school standards were created completely independent of these tests.

Later, Michigan rolled out standards that every district had to adopt.  There were over 90 for ELA alone.

That was just Michigan; each state had a different set of standards and a different definition of what “proficient” meant for courses and standards.

Now we are being introduced to the Common Core State Standards. The concept behind these standards is to unify the nations standards and to make common what all students at each grade level will master.  The idea is that a fifth grader in Michigan will master the same set of standards as a fifth grader in Maine.

Eventually, all students will also take the same test, the Smarter Balanced Assessment, to assess how well they have mastered the Common Core State Standards.

As a teacher and a parent, I totally support this entire program.

Everywhere I look on social media, however, there are parents bemoaning the Common Core and what it will mean for their child’s education.  Many are under the false impression that the Common Core will somehow mean their students won’t learn as much or that the federal government is dictating how and what teachers teach.  From what I have experienced so far, this is untrue.

First of all, they are very accessible. If you “heard” something about them, you can simply look to see if it’s true; The English Language Arts Common Core Standards can be found online for grades K-12. Gone are the days of having to go to your child’s school to ask to see a copy of the standards; now you can view them any time you want. This is awesome for parents because it helps you to be better prepared going into parent/teacher conferences if you have any concerns about how standards are being taught, how one of your child’s assignments fits the standards, etc.

I had heard differing things about the Kindergarten standards, so since Eddie will be in Kindergarten next year, I looked them up. I started with the writing standards for K. From there it was easy to navigate through all the ELA standards and then jump over to the Math standards.

One area I made sure to check was the Language area. I had heard Kindergartners were no longer being taught to write their last name. This sounded ridiculous, but I thought I should check. The standards in Language read:

Neither of these specifically says that Kindergarteners will write their last name, but that is an activity the teacher could use to teach upper and lowercase letters as well as when to capitalize letters.

My point is, not every activity that students need to do is in the standards.  The standards are broad skills that students need to master. They are STANDARDS, not curriculum.  The curriculum itself is still up to the local districts/teachers.

Let me give you an example from my class.

Here is one of the writing standards for 11th and 12th grade:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

Under it are five sub-standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3a Engage and orient the reader by setting out a problem, situation, or observation and its significance, establishing one or multiple point(s) of view, and introducing a narrator and/or characters; create a smooth progression of experiences or events.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3b Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3c Use a variety of techniques to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole and build toward a particular tone and outcome (e.g., a sense of mystery, suspense, growth, or resolution).

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3d Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3e Provide a conclusion that follows from and reflects on what is experienced, observed, or resolved over the course of the narrative.

As many of you know, I started the school year having my 12th grade students write personal narratives. While I used the above standards to guide my instruction of how to write a narrative, no where does the standard tell me what activities I need to do to help my students master the standards.

We read a TON of personal essays. We analysed them for the above stuff. We wrote and wrote and wrote. In fact, we wrote every day. We analyzed our own writing for the above stuff. We revised. We edited. And we did it all on Google Docs.

(If you clicked on each of those links you would see that I also hit the standards from Reading and Language in my three-week unit).

My point is this: this was my lesson regardless of the Common Core Standards. I changed nothing based on the fact that we are now implementing the Common Core.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t done some tweaking to other units, but it’s mostly about how I assess/test rather than how/what I teach.

We have always taught Beowulf, for example. But now, instead of giving a multiple choice test after reading it, my students are working in groups to compare/contrast the values that Anglo-Saxons had of what a hero should be and the values we say heroes have today. They are creating a poster that they will present to the class in an appropriate manner.  Then they will write an in-class essay comparing these ideals in writing and using support from the literature.

Whew. There are more standards I hit in there, but I quit linking.

My point is that even if not every high school senior in the country reads Beowulf, they WILL be taught all the same standards that I am covering in my Beowulf unit–it will just be in a different way.

If you feel like your student’s teachers are sacrificing content for the standards, you can always ask. If Eddie wasn’t learning to write “Sluiter” in Kindergarten, I would bring the standards to the principal and ask why.  If my high school student wasn’t writing a LOT, I would bring this standard to the teacher and ask why. If my middle schooler wasn’t reading any poetry, I would bring this standard with me to the English department head and ask why.

Currently the Common Core has ELA and Math for grades K-12, History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects for grades 6-12.

Be informed. Be proactive. Be involved.

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