Fixing Today’s Education System: A look into the new Common Core Standards

12 Apr

Fixing Today’s Education System

Part 1:  Introduction

If you look at reports that compare the United States education to other developed countries, you will find that the U.S. is not highly ranked.  In mathematics, in particular, the U.S. is only ranked around 25th according to the Program for International Student Assessment that ranked 70 countries.  Why is our country failing our students in education?  What can we do to improve the future of education in the United States?

Although, I will address things broadly, I will put much of the focus on mathematics for two reasons.  First, it is the area that we are the worst at and it is the area that I am most qualified to address.  If you look at the most recent mathematical reform you see some general trends.  Schools were teaching math but decided that students were lacking concepts and thus changed the curriculum to a generation who learned under New Math.  New Math was supposed to do a better job at presenting concepts to students.  However, New Math seemed to fail and so the educators in high places deemed a new approach called, “Back to Basics.”  Back to Basics was an attempt at not confusing students too much with all these concepts New Math unleashed upon the children that were unsuccessful and instead encouraged students to focus on the basics of math – adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing.  However, after a while on this new approach, a new group of educators, yet again realized that students could do the procedural math but were again not really understanding the concepts and able to problem solve.  After Back to Basics was deemed a failure, the new push was to create a new curriculum of standards that was created by a group of math teachers from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics who would write out specific goals that included both procedural and conceptual knowledge for students to grasp mathematics.  From the NCTM standards, states developed their own “Standard Course of Study” that would meet the NCTM standards and this was the new plan of action to make students successful in mathematics.  However, we continued to see problems with students in math and no real improvement in grades.  The educators now decided that there were too many differences across the states and again not enough conceptual understanding was being taught.  One state had one curriculum and another state had something completely different.  We needed a more cohesive curriculum across all states.  Not only that, we needed to get teachers to go back to making sure students can actually explain every math step they perform, being sure they understand the concept – in other words, more of a focus on conceptual understanding rather than procedural understanding (read New Math here.)  So, they created the Common Core Standards.  These new standards show each grade level what they should learn and give examples to those who read them about how to interpret different mathematical concepts that the standards want students to learn.  This is where we are at today.

If you look at the history and the big picture, you can see that we just keep doing the same thing.  Pushing our focus back and forth between procedural and conceptual knowledge.  Each time our plan doesn’t work, so we switch to the other focus and forget that we already tried this “idea” just in a different way.  The idea of having a common core for all states may sound “different,” but this common core has not been providing the common curriculum among schools in the same county, never mind within the same state as intended. I can only give examples from schools that I know but I would like to provide these as a way of illustrating how the idea of providing a document of “common core,” delivering it to each school provide an insufficient execution of the same content even within the same county..  I run a learning center and tutor children from many different schools.  This is the first semester our school system has offered Common Core Mathematics to students in its public schools.  Here is what I am observing.


School A:

Prior to common core, the course was Algebra 1 – it has since “changed” and now teachers should be implementing this new curriculum for Common Core 1.

Last Year in Algebra 1:  Students worked out of an old Algebra 1 textbook, teacher shows examples, students do homework, teacher gives tests, students are not allowed to use calculators, technology is not encouraged at all or used to teach concepts in Algebra.

This Year in Common Core 1:  NOTHING has changed, except, teachers are working at a slightly faster pace so they can add a couple new sections (worksheets) that are covered in common core during the last couple weeks of school relating to Geometry.  There is nothing different in how Common Core is being taught this year than the way they taught Algebra 1 last year.   Basically, it is the same course with 1-2 lessons of Geometry added in.


School B:

Prior to common core, the course was Algebra Part 1 and Part 2 – the teachers used an Algebra book and students worked through problems, took quizzes and tests often.  They used calculators as often as they wanted.  Students were often given 40 problems a night to reinforce the algebra concepts they were learning.  The topics fell in a nice sequencial pattern.  Teachers taught some technology but kids were allowed to use technology as much as they wanted to if they learned more on their own.

This year as Common Core 1:  Students are being taught out of worksheet packets that cover topics that more closely fit the Common Core topics.  The overall coverage of material is moving much slower and although students are getting taught material that better fits the curriculum, they are still not being encouraged to build concepts or practice as much as one would expect given the intent of the common core class.  However, overall School B has taken on the spirit much better than School A.  Students will often get homework with 3-4 problems to solve and this is insufficent to help them internilze the material and even work enough of a variety of different types of problems.  The glasses are very disorganzized and do a lot of discovery learning.  For some students who are smart, they may learn this way but the average student and definately the struggling student does not do well with discovery learning.  These students need examples, explanations, links and connections to things they already know, and sufficient practice on these topics.  This is not happening at this school.  Some times the students get tests and have to tell the teacher that the questions are asking things that he forgot to teach them.  There are no study guides, no direction, and not enough problems to prepare you for what is expected of you.

 You can see how different these two schools are and yet these students are taking the same course. Which is better?  Well, there are things that School A does better since it teaches math in an orderly fashion and gives enough homework for students to get the content.  However, they don’t spend time linking concepts (which the other school does).  They also don’t allow technology and the tests assume 60% calculative active, so students need to be strong in their ability to use calculators.  Overall, the kids are learning more but there areas of improvement – pulling out some wasted time on certain topics and use that time to cover other topics mentioned in the CCM1 standards.

 However, there are some things that school B does better.  They show students a lot of applications of linear, quadratic, and exponential models.  They spend a lot of time creating equations with various given information.  They ask thinking questions.  But, they do too much and the procedural knowledge gets lost and the student only ‘kind of” gets the conceptual knowledge being presented because it isn’t being linked to something they already knew.  They don’t have enough repetition and don’t do enough procedural knowledge.  The order of the material does not fit will which also impedes their ability to link key ideas for students.  They also will waste a week on a very easy topic but then rush through a hard topic in 2-3 days.  Students, overall, in school B are struggling more than in school A.

Here is another example.


4th grade School C:

Fourth graders in math at this school are being taught the topics stated in the common core curriculum.  Each week, they have to write journal entries that explain reasons behind what they do.  They have to be able to explain things like why a square is a rectangle but a rectangle is not a square in words.  They explore multiple ways to do different types of problems and then have to explain how they used their approach to get their answer.  The teachers ask, “why?” questions on tests and homework.  The teachers anticipate that the new End of Course tests will also be asking students open ended questions.


4th grade School D:

Students at this school, in the same town, are using the same homework book they used last year before common core.  They never get asked to explain any reasoning behind their work.  They simply do calculations and word problems.  The new thing the teacher added was word problems from an online web site the students log into at home.  Overall, there appears to be very little to no change in how this year’s material is taught compared to last year even though there is a whole new curriculum.


Another example of how much schools differ within the county goes even outside the common core concept.  Schools don’t even have the same grading rules, some schools are significantly harder than other schools, and some schools inflate grades.  All of this leads to the fact that an A, B, C – they have no meaning.  I had one student in Honors Geometry at this school that I think is a very harsh school for grading, get a C. He was very bright, he knew the concepts very well.  At any other school, he would have gotten an A.  His teachers just graded hard and gave really hard tests.  I had another student who got an A+ in Algebra 2 at one school who grades very easily and the classes in general are very easy.  It is a private school and I find this to be a trend.  It is almost as if you pay to get your child good grades.  Her knowledge in Algebra was poor but her grade was an A+.  All the children I know who struggle with grades in public school and then switch to these private schools start getting A’s and B’s.  I am not in the classroom and don’t see the tests, so I can’t judge but my point here is the overall inequity among grades in these schools.  Here is another example:  School A gives 0’s when a student doesn’t hand in work, this brings down grades significantly causing students to get poor grades.  Right down the road, School B says, “it is too hard to recover from a 0, so we will turn all 0’s to 50’s.”  Right there, is a huge difference in what a student’s score at School A and School B will be if they miss some assignments.  All of these grades are meaningless.  The only ones that count are on tests such as the AP exams or SAT’s where everyone takes the same test, however, I am not a fan on SAT questions as they don’t match up with what students actually learn in high school.  The math SAT questions are not traditional Algebra and Geometry questions, they are novel problem solving questions and some students who are good students, may just not have success on that type of test.  Additionally, the SAT verbal requires memorization of hundreds of vocabulary words to do well.  Many of these words are words that are very obscure and do not predict the success of a student. 

It isn’t just math where we see these large variations among school.  I was at an IEP meeting the other day and the first grade teacher told me how the child, a young boy, in her class needed help with writing.  I asked her about her expectations for writing in the first grade.  She told me they were writing persuasive essays and handed me a sheet that said he would need to have a topic sentence, use at least once complex sentence, have a sentence that uses some level of complex punctuation such as commas in a list of items, have descriptive words in his sentences in addition to correct spelling, punctuation, grammar, and there had to be an overall flow in the essay that showed one event following the other.  This is the very beginning of the second quarter of FIRST grade and he is a boy!  This was so developmentally inappropriate for this child to be expected to write a persuasive essay with all these expectations.  If a child of age 5 or 6 can even understand the concept of a persuasive essay, that would be an achievement!  Although, she was the most extreme example I have seen, many of the children who come to my center come in with 2’s (the grading system in our state is 1,2,3,4 and a 2 is that you are not performing at the expected level) because the expectations in writing in our state are just too high.  The children might have a chance of reaching these goals if teachers actually spent time teaching students grammar but they don’t.  Children come in expected to write complete essays with perfect sentences and with all these specific goals, however, they can’t tell me what a noun or a verb is.  Teachers, at least in my state, are just ignoring grammar altogether.  They don’t seem to think it is relevant to writing.  On top of that, the teachers have no idea how to teach writing.  They just have “expectations” that the students will do it.  So, the smart ones learn to figure it out on their own or get outside help and the others just crash and burn.  When my son was in fifth grade, the teachers were so focused on the enormous amount of social studies the state / school required they present to students that although my son couldn’t yet write a sentence, they felt that taking the time to do so was not as important as the time they needed for social studies.  I mentioned, at an IEP meeting, that he couldn’t spell either, and they told me that it didn’t matter because that is what spell checkers on computers were for.  It was appalling.  How many teachers give spelling tests to students and don’t care about the results?  When your child gets a word wrong on a spelling test, is anything ever done about it?  Do they revisit the word so that the child eventually learns to spell the word or is it just marked in a book and on they go?  How much time does the teacher put into picking out the words for a spelling list?  Again, I saw the difference between schools in this aspect.  I had my child at one school where the teacher picked completely random words that had no relationship to each other and weren’t even words that my child might use at his age.  Another school, the words were more appropriate, although still weren’t related to each other so that they helped teach a phonetic pattern to a child, although I have seen (through my center) a few good teachers give spelling lists with words that were well thought out, grouped according to sound patterns and age appropriate.  The variation, however, among spelling words is so inconsistent just as everything else.  My own daughter is very advanced in spelling and was doing 6th grade spelling words in 3rd grade.  When passed onto 4th grade, her new teacher had her repeat all the lessons she did in 3rd grade from the 6th grade spelling book (even though she got all 100’s in 3rd grade on the words), saying that review was good.  Actually, my feeling is that she was just too lazy to find lessons for her even though I offered to provide them.  So, I ask, what about the good spellers?  What about the weak spellers?  Shouldn’t we assess a child accurately (and do teachers know how to do this) and match their spelling lists to their actual level so they are learning appropriate information?

Children learn from building on what they already know.  If you jump too far ahead of what they know, they can’t make that leap and you will waste your time and their precious time teaching them things they aren’t ready for.  When children get behind in school but we fail to acknowledge that or make adjustments and just keep them with the rest of the class, they will only get further and further behind.  You can’t go from adding one digit numbers to subtraction with borrowing across zero.  You won’t make it.  You can’t take a reader who is comprehending at grade 2 and expect them to be successful in grade 3 or 4 just because you passed them along.  What does this do to our children?  The biggest problem I run across in my center is a students sense of themselves as a learner.  I call it their educational self-esteem.  When a child fails all the time, sees that 2 on their report card, or is the one who “just doesn’t get it” over and over, they begin to bring those thoughts into their sense of self.  They see themselves as a dumb person and this stays with them for life and impacts their future education because they will always figure, “they just can’t do it.”  When I taught undergraduate and graduate students, I would often ask them to write a math biographical essay about themselves.  I wanted them to tell me how they saw themselves as a learner in mathematics and what molded them to feel they way they do.  The majority of students who were non-math majors had negative math self-esteem.  They felt they weren’t good in math and never would be.  They often relayed stories of terrible events that happened such as teachers telling them they were stupid in front of the class and belittling them.  Others just got beaten down by the system of poor teaching and bad experiences.  After teaching my math classes with a “everyone can do this attitude,” and presenting material in a way that always leads to the “why couldn’t anyone have showed me this before?” question, my student’s attitude would change.  They would be shocked to learn that it was in them all along and they just needed someone to believe in them and teach in less traditional ways that allow for greater learning to take place.  We will talk about teaching techniques later on.  The point here is that all of these inappropriate expectations, all of these failing grades, and having teachers who don’t really want to be in the classroom for the right reasons provide children with negative educational self-esteem.  We need to break this cycle.


Next Blog:  How Do We Fix It?

Future Blogs:  Looking at the common core grade by grade


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