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What Everyone Should Know About the Common Core Standards

by Gini Cunningham

posted in Reference and Education

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Several years ago educators tried to launch national standards in education. Knowing that families move, some of them multiple times, it seemed invaluable to have some commonalities state to state. Otherwise kids in California learned about life science in the 5th grade and earth science in the 6th. After the student finished 5th his family moved to Idaho where students studied earth science in the 5th grade and life science in the 6th. While this offered the student a double-whammy in life science, this also meant that there was no formal earth science instruction so that when test time rolled around, the student was left with large learning gaps. National standards were intended to alleviate this stressful situation by ensuring that all students are taught what they need to know and understand with grade level expectations in mind.
The biggest problem with the first go-round on national standards was the word "national". State's rights folks determined that the federal government was interfering yet again with demands of what to teach, when, and how. While there was a "what to teach" foundation, these "whats" were items that students need to know and be able to do to be successful. The when was by grade level. These seem rather important and valuable for efficiency and continuity.
With much wringing of hands and agitation, the Common Core Standards entered the scene. Very much like the "national" standards, these act as a guide, a format so that teachers in Colorado teach algebraic computation requirements and so do those in Alabama and New York. If we even want to discuss and then live a level playing field, common expectations for teaching and learning are critical. Again there were no day-by-day declarations on how to teach or specific methodology, just to make sure that students were being taught essentials. Guidelines and techniques are available, but as far as I know no school or district has created a verbatim script that teachers must follow. Astute teachers also recognize that Sally is ready for Step B while Tommy is off and running on Step D. And Susie needs enrichment to support her as she learns and masters difficult concepts. Adjustment for every child is indispensable to excellence in learning.
The Common Core Standards, at first glance, are a bit overwhelming and frightening. While I feel comfortable navigating the English/Language Arts since it is my specialty area, I do find them lengthy and somewhat overpowering on my first study. With examination and reflection I recognize that expectations such as "Describe a character... " runs K-12 as a common expectation, it is the complexity of the text that changes. Knowing this I can run the gambit of standards and integrate them quite simply regardless of grade level and student achievement level. Thus this magnificent list (98 pages, in fact) becomes less wieldy and eventually my friend.
The math standards are a bit more complicated, especially because I have not taught K-12 Math (whereas I have experience with K-12 English). Knowing that concrete thinkers suffer with abstract reasoning and that that is the basis of algebra, student maturity becomes a serious issue when determining why Benny gets it and Sally cannot get it yet. Also with math, it is not just repetition with complexity increasing, but individual concepts. You can't simply skip multiplication and expect students to automatically divide. But once I laid out the K-12 standards and divided, grouped, rearranged, and created a total picture, I felt much more at ease. The science standards, while difficult for a non-science teacher, really depend on State X and State Y agreeing to teach certain concepts and scientific areas at specific grade levels. Science also has that wonderful magic called a lab. Students who go to lab with a hypothesis and then experiment following specified steps, draw conclusions and finally prove or refute their original hypothesis are actively engaged and so they remember and are able to replay and apply their knowledge. This makes uniting concepts, units, and areas of study far easier.
While many insist that is time to abandon the Common Core and move back to state and local expectations or to reinvent with a new plan, this presents the problem of continuity in education and offering equal and ample opportunity for learning for all students everywhere. I believe it is totally possible to understand and implement the Common Core and still teach with strategies and technique that reach and teach every child. They supply commonality and continuity that benefit every learner.
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