Common Core standards: How four teachers are dealing with the new standards.

“It’s Not Like a Switch That You Can Flick on Overnight”: Four Teachers on Adapting to Common Core

“It’s Not Like a Switch That You Can Flick on Overnight”: Four Teachers on Adapting to Common Core

Schooled
With Columbia Journalism School’s Teacher Project.
Sept. 11 2015 7:59 AM

“It’s Not Like a Switch That You Can Flick on Overnight”: Four Teachers on Adapting to Common Core

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“A lot of the day-to-day lessons may feel similar in structure. But ultimately there are a lot more lessons where we're trying to have the kids explore a math problem more deeply.”

Whether you like the idea of the national academic standards or not, Common Core is undoubtedly causing big changes in classrooms across America. Lots of politicians, pundits, and everyday people have lots of opinions—some informed, others wildly misinformed—about whether those changes are worthwhile. To find out what actual educators think, I spoke to eight teachers about the concrete, practical ways Common Core has changed their jobs and teaching techniques. The first four of those interviews ran on Wednesday; here are the rest.

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Jonathon Medeiros, ninth- to 12th-grade language arts teacher, Kauai High School, Lihue, Hawaii*

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

Early in my career, prior to learning about Common Core and getting deep into the standards, I would have a book in mind that I wanted us to read. And that was my goal, really, just to read the book. Later on, I would plan out units and lessons. That was kind of a mistake. That was poor teaching. Now I focus from the start on the question: What skill do I want them to practice? The specific book is more irrelevant. So I plan in the other direction now, starting with skills and then deciding what book can best teach them that skill.

Previously, I'd be like, OK this is Shakespeare month, and we'd just read Shakespeare. But they’d just think they were having fun reading a play or a book. Now the students know, Oh, I'm supposed to be learning skill x. And then they can see that skill when it comes up outside my classroom.

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

Politicians or policymakers talk about Common Core as if it’s the same thing as standardized testing. There's a conflation of the standards and standardized testing. There's a lot out there in the last few years pushing back against Common Core, but when I read all that information, what they're really pushing back against is an increase in standardized testing, which is not in the Common Core at all. Common Core is a set of standards.

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Anne Brown, math coach, Dartmouth Middle School, Dartmouth, Massachusetts

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

As a math coach, I’ve had to work with teachers to help them re-educate themselves and get used to the standards that are different. Prior to the introduction of Common Core standards in Massachusetts, ratio and proportional thinking were introduced in seventh grade. Now, it is introduced in sixth grade. So my sixth-grade teachers had to get used to teaching a topic that they hadn't taught before that was a year ahead of them.

The changes in the instruction have been good and the children are doing well with it. It's not like a switch that you can flick on overnight. When you do something like this, it takes years. The shift is gradual.  

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

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I think that people are confused. They think that the Smarter Balanced test or the PARCC test is the Common Core, and that is absolutely not true. That's a totally different thing, and it’s created in an attempt to test how students are doing at acquiring the skills or the thinking that the Common Core is addressing. It’s a completely different thing than the set of standards.

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Ben Reed, resource teacher, Jefferson County Public Schools, Colorado

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

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In the high school level I think that it's been a lot more talk than it has been action. So far I haven't seen a great deal of change other than the talk that goes on in staff meetings. And the professional development handed down from on high. I think what is actually happening in the classroom looks pretty similar.

People made a big stink over it a couple of years ago, saying the Common Core doesn't require as much literature, that it’s more focused on nonfiction reading versus more of the classic books. But nothing really has changed yet. Principals are so busy with meetings figuring out what Common Core is going to do, there aren't actual changes going on in the classroom for us, at least that I see. Now people are talking a lot more about what kids should be learning and what's the purpose behind the book I'm teaching. So if I'm going to be teaching Catcher in the Rye I need to be thinking about: What's my goal here? What's my objective here for my students to learn? What kind of outcome am I expecting to get out of it? And that's probably a positive change that's come from Common Core; it’s forcing people to have those conversations.

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

That it's a left conspiracy takeover trying to brainwash our kids into Obama's socialist America? I think that people think that Common Core's evil. Or that Common Core is trying to brainwash every kid into thinking the same way. I don't think that it's doing that. In its heart it's just trying to elevate the standards across the U.S. I don't think the government's trying to take over our lives and rule who we are through the world of education. That’s not how education really works. It’s still done on a school-by-school basis. That said, I'd be remiss to not talk about the testing. And the testing is the worst thing ever.

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Cara Smith, eighth-grade math and science teacher, Wheeler Middle School, Wahiawa, Hawaii

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

I think the biggest change is looking at what we're trying to get the kids to do in the end. We want them to be able to think about the problems a little more holistically. I think it is also about creating opportunities for kids to apply the skills at a deeper level. A lot of the day-to-day lessons may feel similar in structure. But ultimately there are a lot more lessons where we're trying to have the kids explore a math problem more deeply.

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

I think people feel like Common Core is a new way of doing math. And I don't think that it's new. I think that it’s based off of the same math principles that have allowed people to be successful at math for a long time. It's just actually expecting students to understand underlying principles. It's based on this idea that if kids are able to understand concepts underneath—underlying the math—then when they get to more challenging concepts they have a strong conceptual foundation. It's the same math but it's just trying to connect it in a different way.

*Correction, Sept. 11: Due to an editor's error, this post originally misspelled the first and last names of Jonathon Medeiros.

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