The implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has focused the conversation on the standards in a different way and brought in more classroom teacher voices. One of the main criticisms of the CCSS math standards from teachers is that they are written for the top X% — I have seen numbers from 5 to 20% — of students. The essence of this argument is that the math standards seek conceptual understanding from a large percentage of students (100%-X%) who are not ready for conceptual understanding. According to the teachers making this claim, these students are not ready both for developmental reasons and because they are behind in terms of the grade level expectations of the CCSS.
The real frustration of teachers when they face a classroom of students who are not ready to learn grade level standards because they have not mastered what has come before is not new. It is not a function of CCSS. Because this has been a continuing problem, we know the outline of the solution: understand exactly where each student is, work with them to fill in the gaps, and simultaneously work with them on grade level standards. I know, this is easier said than done. But teachers felt this situation was manageable before CCSS. In implementing this model, assessments that focus on individual student’s status and growth can play a positive role.
This frustration and a sense of being overwhelmed have been exacerbated by the arrival of CCSS with its emphasis on conceptual understanding and the mathematical practices. Now, not only may students be behind in terms of procedural fluency and competence but a new metric, conceptual understanding has been added against which students will be measured. And this is not just a math issue, because the same frustrations exist for ELA and content area teachers in regard to reading with the CCSS demanding more complex texts. The concerns of teachers have further been heightened by the double whammy of new “next generation” assessments and the potential inclusion of data from these assessments in teacher evaluation. News of lower scores from states that have implemented CCSS aligned tests — Kentucky and New York for instance — only serve to confirm for teachers their perceptions of student readiness.
Another source of worry for teachers in implementing the CCSS is the tendency in education to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” If the CCSS demand new instructional practices, there is a tendency to go overboard with the new and denigrate what teachers know to be effective. This is part of the concern over the CCSS-ELA requirements around informational texts. Teachers are asking themselves, “Will my district/school go too far?” In my local district, the leadership has demanded a whole new approach to math instruction with students doing investigations. They seem to have begged the question of how students will learn the skills and concepts they need to make the investigations fruitful. If two pills every four hours is the dosage, then four pills every two hours is not better; it is an overdose. The issue described in this paragraph is not universal with many districts implementing the CCSS in a thoughtful manner. It’s going to be a challenging, rapid transition and adequate time may not be given to for the standards to come to full fruition. This makes it more important than ever to include formative and interim assessments throughout the school year.
I don’t like to write posts only to admire problems, and I’d like to think this is one that acknowledges concerns and frustrations that are real and legitimate. In part, the critique of the CCSS math standards in the first paragraph reflects the larger frustrations as much as it is a legitimate attack on the standards. Certainly, we all know that for some percent of students it doesn’t matter what the standards are or what the curriculum is or what the classroom instruction is like; they will learn and master the material. However, we cannot accept the premise that CCSS is not ultimately appropriate for almost all students. It is the majority of students for whom good instruction based on good curriculum matters that we must focus on when considering our implementation strategies. We must communicate to teachers that it will take time to transition to new instructional strategies and it will take time for students who have been taught only algorithms, procedures and calculator routines to develop conceptual understanding.
Finally, while there are some concerns from teachers on certain aspects of the CCSS and its implementation, a large majority of teachers seem enthusiastic with what the CCSS will bring to the classroom and students. Scholastic’s third edition of their Primary Sources, highlights what 20,000 teachers think of various aspects of the CCSS.