Meeting in the Middle with Common Core: It’s Just Common Sense

Below is a blog post by MLP Director Mike Flynn and his friend and colleague Zak Champagne published in Ed Week.

Meeting in the Middle on the Common Core: It’s Just Common Sense
By Zachary Champagne and Michael Flynn

The debate around the Common Core State Standards has gotten ugly. Educators, parents, policymakers, and other stakeholders are choosing sides and the tension is palpable. Some refer to the new standards as the savior of public schools while others profess they will destroy our students’ education. Misinformation from both sides is rampant—from the most ridiculous memes criticizing the standards’ intent to political leaders and other stakeholders blindly endorsing every aspect of the framework. In the midst of this divisive issue, we would like to offer our own position in hopes of helping people on both sides find common ground with common core.

Let us begin by asserting that, contrary to what you may have seen on Facebook or Twitter, the common standards will neither save nor destroy public education. Forget the hyperbole and Internet trolls deriding teachers from both sides of the issue. When we engage in this war of words, we alienate each other and spend more time trying to prove our point or disprove someone else’s than we do working together to find solutions and support good teaching. It’s discouraging, when you consider that most of us share the same goal of providing all students with a great education.

Our work for many years has been focused in elementary mathematics and we believe in assisting teachers in understanding how to provide important foundational knowledge for all students. If we strip away all the controversies surrounding the common standards in mathematics—the development process (as political as it may have been); the lack of fidelity in implementation among the states; the connections to high-stakes testing—and focus instead on just the standards, we can see there are places where the common core gets it right and places where it needs improvement. That’s not to say those other concerns aren’t important, but if we don’t separate the controversial issues from the actual standards, the politicization of the common core will cause many to disregard effective teaching methodologies simply because of their affiliation with the new standards.

A Balanced Approach
In our assessment, there are clearly things that work with the common standards in math. The standards are based on current research, as well as existing and longstanding best practices in math education. They emphasize student understanding and mathematical reasoning in an effort to encourage math instruction that goes beyond rote procedural knowledge. They also provide teachers with clear expectations for what students across our country need to know and be able to do. That is the whole point of having standards, and it’s not a new concept to teachers. States have had standards for years as a way to build consistency across the many different communities throughout the state. The common core attempts to do the same thing, but at a national level.

The inclusion of the eight standards for mathematical practice is what we consider the strongest component of the common standards in math. These practice-oriented standards describe the ways in which students should engage with mathematics on a daily basis. As with other aspects of the common core, the practice standards were based upon existing ideas in the mathematical community—in particular, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Process Standards that “describe ways in which developing student practitioners of the discipline of mathematics increasingly ought to engage with the subject matter as they grow in mathematical maturity and expertise throughout the elementary, middle, and high school years.”

But the common core is by no means perfect and many teachers and leaders in the mathematics education community have raised important concerns that deserve attention. Some of these concerns are directly related to the standards themselves, such as the pushdown effect resulting in some primary-grade standards that might not be developmentally appropriate. Other concerns are related to how the standards are being implemented. For example, there is a severe lack of funding for the much needed professional development for teachers and support personnel. The common standards in math require a significant shift in many teachers’ thinking and approaches to teaching mathematics. Teachers need meaningful, sustainable, and long-term professional development in order to implement the new standards with fidelity, but many school districts cannot afford to train their staff in this way. As a result, teachers are being handed a new curriculum and expected to implement it without much support.

We don’t expect any new initiative to work seamlessly, but it is alarming that there are no mechanisms in place to field test the scope and sequence of the standards and revise them before newly developed, high-stakes tests are administered. Even apart from the tests, there are no plans for a systematic review of the standards. As we move forward with Common Core and begin to understand how it will work in classrooms, we should ensure that we have a periodic review process involving all stakeholders, especially teachers. This and all other concerns need to be addressed if policymakers and educational leaders hope to get teachers, students, and families fully on board.

So the Common Core isn’t perfect, but it is also not the sign of an educational apocalypse. There are strengths to having a common set of standards for our students, especially ones that emphasize thinking and reasoning. There is a lot of work ahead if we want to make these standards effective. But we cannot do that if we stay in the “you’re either with us or against us” mentality. Forget about taking a side, and let’s concede that there are elements of the Common Core that make sense and elements that need revision. We should all take the initiative to encourage everyone in educational communities to meet in the middle and work together to provide the best possible mathematics education for our students.

The views expressed in this piece are Michael and Zachary’s and do not necessarily represent the views of their employers.

Zachary Champagne is an Assistant in Research at the Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (FCR-STEM) at Florida State University. He was a 2009 recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching, the 2011 Duval County Teacher of the Year, and a finalist for the 2011 Florida Teacher of the Year.

Michael Flynn is the Director of Mathematics Leadership Programs at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. He was the 2008 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, a 2009 recipient of the National Education Association/Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, and a 2010 recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching.

Comments are closed.