The Common Core: Too Much, Too Fast?

The short answer: no and maybe.

Now to the long answer.

As a new teacher, one of the first concepts you learn is “scaffolding.”  Like the scaffolds beside a building, scaffolding in teaching is about building a supportive structure piece by piece so a student can get somewhere he or she couldn’t get by themselves.  A teacher might model with a “think aloud” of how to read for tone or teach symbolism with an easy text as a scaffold for analyzing symbolism in a more difficult text.  However, with a scaffold, a teacher doesn’t let the student off the hook, settling on an easier task the student can easily accomplish.  The student also isn’t just thrown into the deep end, urged to master a complex skill with no support.  The student is supported until he or she achieves a challenging goal independently. 

It struck me that just like teachers have to scaffold for students, we might think about scaffolding districts’ implementation of the Common Core and the bevy of high stakes tests that accompany the new standards. Just this month, students in New York City public schools took their first round of Common Core aligned exams, and the results were not pretty .  Teachers, parents, students, and principals reported the test elicited a number of responses, from humorous, to ludicrous, to heartbreaking:     

  • A child waking up from a nightmare where he was murmuring about bubbling in an exam
  • Weekend and after school test prep classes
  • Teachers teaching students yoga to help students relax during testing
  • Pep rallies to encourage students before exams
  • Rampant student stress and anxiety
  • Students crying at the end of the exams

In response, many have begun to question adoption of the Common Core, period.  Several parents have even decided to opt their children out of testing all together.  To some degree, one can certainly understand their frustration. 

Common Core implementation (which is soon to be met in many places with rigorous exams aligned with the more rigorous standards which are tied to high-stakes decisions like a teacher’s employment) is coming at an exceptionally fast pace.  Right before the start of the 2010-2011 school year, many states decided to adopt the Common Core.  However, after adoption, states had to coordinate their own roll out of the standards, and districts likewise had to process and design approaches to the new standards.  In the midst of all of this, classroom teachers had to learn a new curriculum and rewrite their own curriculums, learning and mastering new ways to teach in response to the Core. For teachers in New York, (assuming the most generous timeline where time for realigning the curriculum was given to teachers immediately upon state adoption) teachers would have had a maximum of two years before being held to high stakes tests aligned to the Core.  For anyone whose ever written the curriculum for a course within the time constraints of a public school teacher’s job, you know this is not enough.

In fact, that’s exactly the argument that’s been coming out of New York.  New York Times journalist, Kyle Spencer characterized the rapid pace of adoption in New York:

The standards are so new that many New York schools have yet to fully adopt new curriculums—including reading material, lesson plans, and exercises—to match.  And the textbook industry had not completely caught up either. State and city officials have urged teachers over the last year to begin working in some elements of new curriculums, and have offered lesson plans and tutorials on official Web sites.  But they acknowledge that scores will most likely fall from last year’s levels.

There’s a frenetic, sink or swim approach to implementing these reforms, and in that rush, policy makers are risking losing the Core altogether as backlash builds.

However, while the frustration of parents, students, and school faculty is valid, the answer is not to completely get rid of the Common Core.  The Common Core is a step forward in making schools locations of critical thought.  Consider some of the criticism of the Common Core coming from the New York area.  After taking a Common Core aligned test, a sixth grade student noted that, “When they ask, ‘What’s the main idea?’ and you have to put it in your own words, it’s a lot harder.”  Another student felt like she didn’t have enough time to fully complete her written essay on the exam.  Both of these tasks ask students to do things that we as a society want citizens to do, read something, comprehend it, and then respond with one’s own ideas.  After all, isn’t this the heart of a democracy—being able to understand ideas and express your own? Of course, this would certainly be less difficult for students if they weren’t asked to write, and instead only had to fill in multiple choice bubbles based on easier readings.  However, is reverting back to these easier tasks really the answer?   

Though getting rid of the Common Core isn’t the answer, districts and teachers (just like students learning new, complex concepts) do need scaffolds to transform classroom instruction to align with the Common Core.  Modeling a skilled teacher, policy makers could and should give teachers and schools support and time as they learn to raise instruction to the level of rigor the Core demands, delaying implementation or offering the tests first as low-stakes assessments so teachers can learn from them.  After all, a teacher doesn’t merely tell a student, “balance this chemical equation or else.”  The teacher also doesn’t let the student simply not balance the equation, but instead a great teacher gives supports and time for the student as he or she learns to balance the equations independently.

In our debates about the Common Core, let’s parse through what part of the policy we really disagree with.  Is asking our students to think, read, and write more the problem, or is it the rapid, breakneck speed by which the Core has been implemented?  I think for many of us it’s the latter rather than the former.  The good news is that thoughtful policy makers can craft solutions to create scaffolds for Common Core implementation, such as making the first two years of testing low stakes instead of high stakes, giving teachers more time to work collaboratively to rewrite the school’s curriculum, or lowering the percentage of teacher evaluations based on test scores as teachers get to know the standards more.  Hopefully what we won’t do, though, is throw the baby out with the bathwater by getting rid of the Common Core altogether.  -Allison Gulamhussein

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