Common Core standards: What four teachers actually think about them.

“At First We Felt Angry”: Four Teachers Explain How Common Core Changed Their Jobs

“At First We Felt Angry”: Four Teachers Explain How Common Core Changed Their Jobs

Schooled
With Columbia Journalism School’s Teacher Project.
Sept. 9 2015 2:05 PM

“At First We Felt Angry”: Four Teachers Explain How Common Core Changed Their Jobs

shutterstock_174265457
At a moment when the standards are quickly becoming a punching bag on the campaign trail, the teachers whose jobs are affected by Common Core take a very different view than the one we hear most on cable news.

Areipa.lt/Shutterstock.com

One teacher says she’s reading harder books with her students. A second is asking them to provide more evidence to support their answers. A third is now pushing students to find the solutions to math problems on their own. Last month, I spoke with eight actual teachers with actual classrooms about how the Common Core curriculum standards have actually affected their teaching in recent years. The results of my highly informal survey of educators in Massachusetts, Colorado, Hawaii, and elsewhere? The answers, like the teachers, were all over the map.

The teachers were much more consistent on my second question: What’s the single biggest misconception about the Common Core? At a moment when the standards are quickly becoming a punching bag on the campaign trail, the teachers whose jobs are affected by Common Core take a very different view than the one we hear most on cable news. Read what four of them said below—and come back on Friday for the rest. Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Advertisement

* * *

Valerie Lake, eighth-grade English teacher and literacy coach, Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, New York City

What has been the biggest change to your work as a result of the Common Core?

The complexity of the texts that are chosen is one of the biggest changes. In seventh grade we used to teach this [fiction] book by Sharon G. Flake called The Skin I'm In. Now in seven grade, they're reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which is a complex piece of nonfiction. The difference between the two pieces is enormous, and what the students are expected to do is quite different.

Advertisement

At first we felt angry, thinking, Students can't do this; this is too difficult and this is not a seventh-grade text. I think it just comes from these deep-seated beliefs about what students should be doing at that age, or what you read at that age. But in actuality they can do more than we often think they can.

Not only is it the complexity of the text, but with Common Core they've been asked to do this deep reading; we call it “close reading.” And that means that they read it a number of times. It really changes the way that you interact with the text and it changes the amount of time you spend with it. You are asked to look at complex texts more deeply and for a longer period of time.

What’s the single biggest public or political misconception about the Common Core?

The idea that the standardized tests the students take are the same thing as the standards themselves. The Common Core standards are what teachers are required to teach and what students should be able to do independently. The standardized tests are supposed to evaluate the Common Core standards. When people are protesting against standardized tests, I 100 percent support that. I don't think they effectively evaluate a student’s ability to independently demonstrate that they've mastered these standards for a number of reasons. But those are not the Common Core standards. The Common Core standards themselves are actually a great tool for teachers to get students to where they need to be to go to college. Some people say, I hate the Common Core. I think they mean, I hate the Common Core standardized tests. That's different.

Advertisement

* * *

Sharon Look, curriculum coordinator, Pāʻia Elementary School, Pāʻia, Hawaii

What has been the biggest change to your work as a result of the Common Core?

Teachers are asking, and students are providing, evidence to support their answers. That ties in to both the anchor standard for ELA [English language arts] as well as the standards for mathematical practice. Today I ran a small group of students. When I asked them questions they immediately went back to the text to find evidence to support their answer. I see a lot more of that. They are able to answer the question: Why? Where do you find the evidence to support your answer?

Advertisement

We're also asking kids to critique each other's responses, and I see more student-to-student interaction where they are saying things like, “I agree with you, because …” and giving a reason why they agree. 

It's amazing to see students building the skills that we clearly need as adults, but we are starting them much younger.

What’s the single biggest public or political misconception about the Common Core?

I think the biggest misconception is that this can happen overnight. In general, students won't be able to make that jump immediately. Anecdotally, in my conversation with teachers, we're seeing those changes. We're seeing, slowly, students are being able to get closer and closer to meeting the Common Core state standards. I think we need to set appropriate expectations. While we would love to have kids there tomorrow, and that is the ultimate goal, it might not happen immediately. Let's focus on the positive movement forward that we are seeing. In no way am I saying we're lowering our goals, but just setting realistic expectations. It’s important that we, as teachers, don’t beat ourselves up if the students don’t meet the standards immediately. I am inspired by the teachers’ dedication and commitment to having their students meet these standards as soon as possible. I see teachers working on weekends. When I get together with teachers, it's the focus of our conversation. I see teachers going outside and using different forms of information to find ways to meet the needs of their students. I see my younger teachers going to Pinterest and coming up with these great ideas. I'm constantly on different blogs to see what suggestions other affected educators might have to offer.

Advertisement

* * *

Karen Babbitt, literacy coach, Dartmouth Middle School, Dartmouth, Massachusetts

What has been the biggest change to your work as a result of the Common Core?

With the Common Core we are asking our students to read more carefully and think more deeply about our text. The old Massachusetts standards primarily asked students to identify story elements. Let’s take the story of Cinderella. The old questions might have been, What color was Cinderella’s dress? or Which animal was chained to the coach driver? The kinds of questions where you can literally go back in the text and point your finger and say, Here's the answer to that. With the Common Core, we're asking students to really take what the text says and really think about it. So with the Cinderella example again, a new question would be, How does the main character change over time? Or, Give concrete evidence from the text to demonstrate these specific changes. Then we ask students to take those changes and say, So what is the author telling us? What's the universal message? What's the theme as it relates to how the characters change?

In the past, students would be able to read really quickly. We just had kids speed through stories or speed through books and answer, Who are the characters? What's the setting? What are the plot events? They didn’t have to dig deeper and really think about authors’ purpose or how it was carefully crafted. So I love the Common Core for what it asks our students to do.

What’s the single biggest public or political misconception about the Common Core?

I think the biggest issue that causes the political hullabaloo about the Common Core is that people think that testing mechanisms are the Common Core. I think people are upset about the PARCC test and the Smarter Balanced test and they don't understand that these two tests are someone else's interpretation of the Common Core. They are not the Common Core.

I understand that parents are upset at the amount of testing, but the testing is just one part of the Common Core. I think if people really understood how rich the literacy classrooms have become because of the Common Core, and how much kids are reading on their own, then they would be all for it.

* * *

Jose Vilson, eighth-grade math teacher, Inwood Intermediate School 52, New York City

What has been the biggest change to your work as a result of the Common Core?

As a result of Common Core I've tried to think more about what the students learned prior to getting to my classroom. I then think about what they have to do to get to the next level. The [math] problems are more complex, and you still have to do a healthy mix of direct instruction and more implicit instruction. We're trying to get students to figure it out for themselves.

Every day, I'm trying to find different ways of approaching the material so they can actually get it. It's a mix for me. I do find that students feel more confident when I find techniques to get them to do it on their own. If they're empowered to learn the math, then they do a much better job then if I'm telling them directly what it means.

What’s the single biggest public or political misconception about the Common Core?

I think it’s about teacher voice. There's a lot of advertisement on the part of Student Achievement Partners (a nonprofit organization that helps teachers implement the Common Core) claiming that there was a lot of teacher voice from the beginning. I don't believe that was the case. It was very top-down and ultimately that caused some of the resistance, even from people who would otherwise be allies to this work. Some of us have always wanted a national curriculum so wherever people went, especially as students, they would still be learning similar material to where they were before. But you need to have teachers’ voice at the heart of this work, along with students and parents and community stakeholders. It can’t be driven by some aloof Ivory Tower so-and-sos, who come in and tell us what to do.

Miriam Hall is a fellow for the Teacher Project, an education reporting initiative at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.