June 22, 2012 by

Five Questions for Common Core

There is much talk, and a lot of confusion, about the new Common Core State Standards among frontline educators in the classroom. 

Here are five big questions on my mind: 

1. Why do we need Common Core State Standards? 

Advocates say we need common college- and career-readiness standards across the country that are internationally benchmarked so that when we give our students computer-scored writing tests, we can compare them to places like, say, Finland, that don’t have standardized tests. You can see why I’m still confused.

Frankly, I don’t think these standards are all that different from my state’s (California’s) current standards, which already emphasized “informational text” in upper elementary. Common Core standards are a little thinner, and they’ve “renamed” things a bit (“persuasive writing” is called “opinion”). 

Impressions of the standards will vary state-to-state, but these blog posts have helped clarify my thinking: 

2. Where’s the content?

Common Core English language arts (ELA) standards are advertised as ELA standards for science, technology, and social studies, but I don’t see the content—where’s the meat? My own guess is that Common Core standards ducked the controversies inherent in science and social studies standards (did slavery cause the Civil War? How about evolution? You get the picture). You still need content standards. Without them, even in elementary grades, your lessons will be weak at best and meaningless at worst.

I  strongly reccommend using a unit or big-picture planning tool like the Understanding by Design framework. Here’s an example of a unit plan I started (on the Revolutionary War) that combines ELA and social studies content standards.

3. What about next-generation assessments?

The new assessments reportedly will include more writing. This is a good step, but not without areas of concern, like “machine scoring” essays. Bud Hunt says it best on his blog. Writing for machines to score is not writing for an authentic audience, which is what students need to practice. In fact, it’s in the totally opposite direction. With machine-scoring, kids’ audiences will shrink from being read by at least one human being (their teacher) to zero.

That’s the fear I have about what is happening at the top of the education pyramid. I’m less worried about what’s happening at my school site, or even at the state level, in California. California is broke; uninterested in Race to the Top; and has a governor who hates standardized tests and, most important, the prospect of spending money on them.

Here’s a longer post I wrote on next-generation writing assessments and why I’d like us to resuscitate portfolio-based assessments. 

4. How will Common Core standards affect instructional delivery?

Are we returning to the reading and math wars? To an extent, standards can drive a lot of instruction. Look at how the shift in early reading instructional standards toward explicit phonemic instruction has led to more direct instruction. Lots of folks on the Common Core team are pushing various new (or not so new) models of reading instruction.

Similarly, in my district, content and instructional delivery programs are seen as one mushy whole—lumping together balanced literacy, Common Core standards, and genre study. I’m highly skeptical but heartened by a post by Grant Wiggins that acknowledges the sheer difficulty of doing some of the instructional models being advocated in the name of Common Core standards.

5. Who’s in charge here?

Teachers can be, but we have to step up to the plate with teacher-created curriculum. For anyone who has been in the business longer than I, this movement will sound familiar. For folks who have entered the profession after me (in the last 10 years), this will be a big change.

Most teachers in my district look at the standards and think, “No big deal, they look thinner than what we have now, so this will be easier.” But when I read the work of Common Core supporters (like the Fordham Institute), they are pretty clear that big instructional changes are coming, and teachers need to step up.

Although I don’t like the idea of Fordham or Common Core coauthor David Coleman telling me how to teach, there are a lot of parts of the new standards that are congruent with my teaching style. Teachers can steer Common Core in the right direction by taking the reins of curriculum development and advocating assessment practices (i.e., real people looking at student work) that are congruent with the actual ideals of the new standards.  

These are my big Common Core questions. What’s on your mind?

Post submitted by 5th grade Sacramento, Calif., elementary school teacher Alice Mercer. Alice blogs at Reflections on Teaching.