Stay the course on Common Core standards

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent Gardner62,000 New York registered voters signed a petition supporting a “Stop Common Core” ballot line in November. I wonder how many signed with knowledge of the Common Core (CC) standards, not because of overheated rhetoric from opponents?

Yes, CC’s introduction in NYS schools has been a mess. CC is more rigorous than the prior standards—harder is the point, after all. If you’re a gym rat who can bench 200 pounds, you don’t just jump to 275, you work up to it. Nor can students jump right into a tougher curriculum. Teachers can’t be expected to learn a new approach overnight. State Ed gets a “D” in CC Implementation.

Why do we need harder? The 2012 Programme for International Students Assessment, run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development, found that U.S. students ranked 27 of 34 participating nations in math. Shanghai’s students scored about 2 full years ahead of students in Massachusetts, one of the highest scoring states. We did better in reading and science, managing to reach “average” by ranking 17th and 21st, respectively. Our nation and our children deserve better.

Must the standards be prescriptive? In our mobile society, consistency in “scope and sequence”—what is studied when—has significant value for students who move from school to school, district to district or state to state. And if our grads are going to be globally competitive, they need to go further by the time they graduate. Common Core standards are designed to help get them there.

commoncoreWhy the uproar? The speedy rollout made some quick enemies. CC introduction in New York coincided with more rigorous teacher evaluation. Perhaps unavoidable, but this was a significant tactical error. None of us like to be under a microscope—and teachers are no different. Their reflexive pushback against the evaluation process was amplified by the change in the student achievement “yardstick” as the state assessments shifted to CC. So the state alienated professional educators, exactly the group needed to manage the transition to a new curriculum and student assessment platform.

Disaffection is a snowball rolling downhill. Opposition to CC gathered standardized test opponents, others who fear the imposition of “national” standards, parents befuddled by their child’s math homework, and populist politicians looking for a platform. There is a constituency for making school harder for students and teachers but they don’t stage rallies at the Capitol.

Is CC better? PLEASE take a few minutes to read what is embodied in the standards before you form a position or sign a petition.

On the literacy front, CC makes an overdue shift from an emphasis on literature to general literacy and affirms the role of reasoning in our analysis of text. We don’t teach reading in 1st and 2nd grades just so students can read Moby Dick or Hamlet. Nor do we teach reading just to decode individual words. Proficient readers can extract meaning from the sentences and paragraphs and pages. Here’s an extract from the standards for 5th grade English Language Arts:

  • Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text
  • Describe how a narrator’s or speaker’s point of view influences how events are described
  • Literature: Analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text (e.g., graphic novel, multimedia presentation of fiction, folktale, myth, poem)
  • Informational text: Integrate information from several texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably

There’s nothing subversive or inappropriate about these expectations. And they apply particularly to nonfiction. Public education is partly about educating citizens, voters who have the tools to read critically and make informed decisions about complex issues.

NYS Education contracted with well-regarded Expeditionary Learning to develop a Grade 3-8 curriculum, including daily lessons for 160 days of instruction, all available free at

Math under CC is controversial as it introduces a new approach for teaching math, not just the “scope and sequence” of content. We keep reinventing how we teach math because we don’t seem to do it well. We’re not replacing a system that has reliably produced math wizards.

And the new approach isn’t that new. There is a renewed emphasis on understanding why the math is right, not just on getting to the right answer. That’s a good thing. In our work at CGR, the first rule of quality control is our “gut sense” of what the answer ought to be. If we add a handful of 4 digit numbers and get a 7 digit answer, we should know instinctively that we made a mistake. Accurate computation is essential, but math “intuition” is also important.

The focus in the early grades, Montessori-like, is on number sense, using manipulatives, physical objects that illustrate addition and subtraction. New tools carry this concept forward into the later grades—but it’s a foreign language to many of us. A 5th grade NYS lesson plan refers to the “Sprint routine.” Teachers are to encourage students use an “area model” or a “tape diagram” to solve a multiplication problem. Unfamiliar to some teachers, they’ll certainly be new to most parents. When Isabella or Noah brings home a worksheet, the parents may say, “What’s an area model? I can’t help you with this.”

The actual problems sound familiar, however:
areamodelFarmer Jim keeps 12 hens in every coop. If Farmer Jim has 20 coops, how many hens does he have in all? If every hen lays 9 eggs on Monday, how many eggs will Farmer Jim collect on Monday? Explain your reasoning using words, numbers, or pictures. The problem is solved with an area model in the adjacent graphic.

The standards for 5th grade say that students should:

  • Write and interpret numerical expressions.
  • Analyze patterns and relationships.
  • Understand the place value system.
  • Perform operations with multi-digit whole numbers and with decimals to hundredths.
  • Use equivalent fractions as a strategy to add and subtract fractions.
  • Multiply and divide fractions.
  • Convert like measurement units within a given measurement system.
  • Understand concepts of volume and relate volume to multiplication and to addition.
  • Graph points on the coordinate plane to solve real-world and mathematical problems.
  • Classify two-dimensional figures into categories based on their properties.

As a layman I’m not qualified to judge whether multiplying and dividing fractions ought to be introduced in the 4th, 5th, or 6th grades. Common Core standards were developed collaboratively by the states under the leadership of the National Governor’s Association. NGA engaged armies of professional educators to develop the standards. This doesn’t make them perfect, but they are neither random nor seditious.

In my next column I’ll tackle the NYS Common Core-based tests themselves. Much as I support the standards, New York stumbled when it rushed the tests and incorporated CC throughout all at once.