Go Common Core

A Resource for Teachers Transitioning to the Common Core

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Common Core and Large Class Sizes

During my limited Common Core professional development trainings, I had the opportunity to watch videos of Common Core in action. We were shown videos of teachers expertly “facilitating” as bright-eyed students enthusiastically constructed their own learning. The excited students engaged in focused and complex discussions about the tasks at hand. The kids were all hard at work learning, and the teacher was circulating to ask clarifying questions and provide positive reinforcement. This was a pretty impressive demonstration of Common Core teaching. Clearly, this was the way to run a classroom!

Then reality started creeping in. I noticed that the bustling productive classroom in the video contained about 12 students. All 12 were on task and were able to converse in a polite and effective manner. Nobody was arguing, playing around, or wandering about the room. There were no students who just gave up and sat there. There were no hands in the air or calls of “I don’t get it.” The teacher never once had to redirect any misbehavior. I’m not so sure that I and my classroom of 37 inner-city students could recreate quite the same scene of productive, calm learning.

I’m told that our students simply need to be taught this new way of learning. Now I have plenty of faith in all of my students. I believe with all of my heart that they are all smart and capable people who can excel at anything they set their minds to. But I do question whether this unstructured approach to learning is well suited to all classrooms, particularly those with large class sizes. I absolutely advocate for students to have plenty of opportunities to work together, but I believe there needs to be a balance of direct instruction from the teacher as well.

I’d be interested in hearing your advice and opinions. Can anyone share any success stories of implementing the Core with larger class sizes?


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Is Common Core the Magic Bullet?

During several of our Common Core professional trainings last year, I couldn’t help but feel like I was sitting through a bad sales pitch.  One such session began with a graphic that compared the math proficiency of students in Hong Kong with that of students in the United States.  Not surprisingly, the Hong Kong students seemed to be substantially ahead of ours.   After giving us a moment to reflect upon the embarrassing data, the presenters shared some encouraging news. 

We were told that Hong Kong students have fewer math standards to master at each grade level.  Because they have fewer concepts to concentrate on, Hong Kong’s students have enough time to master them before moving on to the next grade.  Since those students develop a strong understanding of the math concepts the first time they are taught, there is no need review and repeat the same concepts year after year.  We were told that this teaching method of less content with more depth accounts for Hong Kong’s superior scores.

It was explained that students in the United States are exposed to many more math concepts each year, without time to fully master any of them.  Content is reviewed and repeated year after year, in the hopes that mastery will occur at some point.  The presenters explained that our nation’s “mile wide, inch deep” approach explains why our students do not measure up. 

But, here is the great news!  The Common Core is the answer!  Common Core, we were told, mimics Hong Kong’s math program in that fewer concepts are taught at each grade.  All we have to do is embrace the Core, and our students will catch right up!  It was at this point that I began to feel like I was watching a late night infomercial.  Just buy this one simple product, and it will change your entire life! 

Might there be just a few other differences between the educational systems in Hong Kong and the United States?  Do they spend more days and hours in school?  Are the typical classroom focus and tone different?  What about cultural differences?  Does the average American family emphasize education to the same degree as those in Hong Kong?  I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

The Common Core isn’t going to elevate our students to the level of those in Hong Kong, anymore than the new gadget on television is going to change my life.  Could the Core be a step in the right direction?  Maybe.  Is it the magic bullet that will remedy all of our educational shortcomings?  Decidedly not.


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Common Core: Just the latest fad in education?

I’ve been teaching for eleven years. Each year, it seems there is a new focus or method we are supposed to embrace. One year, it was thinking maps. We were expected to use them with every lesson. They were the big “thing” that year, and were supposed to greatly enhance student learning. When I taught first grade reading, direct phonemic instruction was THE method for a few years. Reading was all about decoding letter sounds. A few years later, the focus completely shifted to whole language. Students learned to read by making sense of the story and pictures, with letter sounds taking a decisive backseat.

I’ve been in education long enough to see quite a few trends come and go. So when I first started hearing that something called the Common Core was coming, I assumed we were all just jumping on the next short-lived bandwagon. But this bandwagon seems to be arriving with more pomp and circumstance than the others I’ve seen. Teachers all over the nation are talking about it. It seems we are all in a slightly different place with regards to implementation, but we all know that it’s big and it’s coming.

Perhaps Common Core is more than just the latest fad, since for the first time the nation is coming together on specific educational standards and assessment. It certainly makes sense that students across the United States should be learning the same content. However, I do feel that the pedagogical shifts accompanying Common Core seem like the newest supposed magic bullet. Fiction is now supposed to take a backseat to expository text. Conceptual understanding in math is to trump skills memorization.

Is the educational pendulum just swinging again? Or is Common Core really here to stay? I’d be interested in hearing from you.


Preparing for the Smarter Balanced Assessments


The upcoming 2013-2014 school year will be the last one in which California students will take the California Standards Test (CST). The following year, students will be required to take the Smarter Balanced Assessments, which align with the new Common Core Standards. In preparation for this transition, my district is requiring math teachers to give periodic standardized unit tests which are supposed to mirror the Smarter Balanced Assessments. During the past school year, we gave two such unit tests. These were in addition to our usual chapter tests and quizzes.

Starting this year, students will take six of these required unit tests per year. Like the Smarter Balanced Assessments, the district unit tests will be far more complex than the CST style multiple choice tests given in the past. These new tests include short constructed response, extended constructed response, and in-depth performance tasks. Even the multiple choice questions are more rigorous because generally more than one answer is correct, and students must select all correct answers. These unit tests are five to six pages long, and have a very complicated scoring rubric.

While I certainly agree that students will benefit from being required to go beyond the usual multiple choice assessments, I question whether these new unit tests are practical for teachers like me with 185 students per day. It took me approximately two hours to score the tests for each of my classes. With five classes per day, each time I give a unit test I am looking at 10 plus hours of grading. Additionally, 185 copies of a six page test require a lot of paper and copying time. At my school, we are allotted seven reams of paper per month. Once we run out, we buy our own. While I understand that we must prepare our students for the Smarter Balanced Assessments, I am concerned that these new required unit tests will require hours of additional time and resources that we simply do not have.

Has your district created new tests to align with the Smarter Balanced Assessments? If so, are they time intensive to produce, administer, and correct? Does anyone have any advice as to how to correct these types of tests more quickly? Is the increased amount of paper necessary for Common Core lessons and assessments an issue for you or your district?

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Common Core Math: Conceptual Understanding vs. Practical Problem Solving Skills

The new Common Core math standards require students to develop a deeper, conceptual understanding of mathematical concepts.  While this is unarguably beneficial to students, should it be at the expense of learning how to correctly perform basic math calculations?  At least in my district, we are being told that the inquiry process and student discussion are of paramount importance.

Under Common Core, my students are expected to complete Formative Assessment Lessons (FALs).  Typically these are group projects in which students solve complex problems and present their findings using posters or other types of presentations.  Of course, because it is math, there are correct and incorrect answers.  However, we teachers are supposed to let students create their presentations with errors in calculations and share these findings with each other.  We are not to correct the errors, we have been instructed to simply facilitate discussion, and explain that some learners are more advanced with this concept than others.

I am concerned that Common Core may have put the cart before the horse with regards to math.  Practical math problem solving skills and conceptual understanding certainly should not be mutually exclusive.  Nor should one be sacrificed for the other.  However, when it comes down to priorities, I’d rather my students know how to correctly solve a proportion rather than create a model of the concept with the incorrect answer.

I’d like to hear about how other math teachers are handling the shift to Common Core. Do you still emphasize basic operational skills? What do you do if students are performing calculations incorrectly?

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Lack of Adequate Common Core Training

I teach middle school math for a large urban district.  My school district was “transitioning” to the Common Core during this past school year (2012-2013).  This transition consisted of the implementation of two Common Core units designed by the district.  Each unit took approximately one week to teach, and consisted of a Formative Assessment Lesson (FAL), standardized homework problems, and a unit test.

A few days prior to each of these two units, teachers were offered a voluntary one hour training session after school.  Additionally, throughout the year we have been exposed to piecemeal information about Common Core at faculty and department meetings.  This information has been in the form of lecture and PowerPoint presentations that have detailed the shifts in focus, coherence, and rigor.  I would estimate my total Common Core training time at less than one day, yet I have been required to make a substantial shift in my instructional content and pedagogy for those two units.

This year (2013-2014), we are to fully implement Common Core.  Our content and instruction is to completely shift to align with the new standards.   We do not yet have textbooks that align with Common Core to guide us.  Due to a grant our district has received, teachers are being offered eight hours of Common Core training for the upcoming year.   Four hours of training will be provided at the start of the school year, and the remaining four hours will be provided midyear.  To say that I feel unprepared for the upcoming year is an understatement.  We teachers with approximately a day and a half of training and dated textbooks will be expected to correctly implement vastly new standards next year.

I’m curious as to the amount and quality of Common Core training provided by other districts. How much training did you receive last year? Was it productive? What is planned for the upcoming year? How prepared do you feel to implement the new standards?


Common Core Lessons: Are they too difficult for the average student?

As I take my first steps into the muddy waters of Common Core, I’m rapidly discovering that my students are not adequately prepared for the rigor of these new types of lessons. At first, all of my students were excited at the prospect of creating their own learning, while I walked around merely “facilitating.” I wasn’t giving them any information, just encouraging them to make their own discoveries. But the novelty for many of my students quickly wore off, and was replaced by frustration.

As a TEACHer, I wanted to help, to guide, to show them. I knew that if I could just show them an example or two, they would feel more confident in solving these more complex problems. Most of them lacked the background knowledge to even attempt the tasks before them. They wanted so badly to “get it right.” I imagine most of this desire stems from years of being taught to take standardized tests. But also math IS a subject in which there IS a correct answer. It’s not open to subjectivity, which a lot of students actually like.

Alas, my limited Common Core training told me, and I in turn told the students, that the answer isn’t the important thing, it’s the process. This was a frustrating concept for both the students and me. I understand that constructivist learning is supposed to be a messing and daunting process. However, I fear that those learners who are already struggling may give up completely. Moving forward, I personally feel that as a professional, I will need to adjust Common Core lessons to match the ability of the students who are in my classroom. Perhaps some students will require quite a bit of skills review, scaffolding, and modeling. Perhaps a few will be prepared to jump in with both feet and figure things out completely independently. Likely, most students will be somewhere in between. And isn’t that a teacher’s job; we meet each student where they are and help them to go as far as they can?

I’d like to hear about the experiences of other educators. If you’ve already been implementing the new standards, are you finding the lessons too challenging for some students? How much latitude do you have to modify the lessons to meet the needs of your students?