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Commentary: Teachers weigh in on Common Core

English teacher Kate Mulcahy says the success of the Common Core Standards depends on the extent to which teachers are involved in implementation details.

For a while now, the Common Core Standards have been like a new scientific theory that people have been debating. On one side, you have those that support the new concept like Lily Eskelsen, vice president of the National Education Association.

Eskelsen states that these standards are the first critical step towards successfully enriching students’ education in a democratic society. On the other side, there are doubters like Tom Loveless who wrote the Brown Center Report on American Education that claimed that the Common Core Standards will have little to no effect on student learning.

These discussions are important to the development of this standards movement, but now that the theory of the Common Core Standards is moving into the practice, I’m less concerned with the cerebral concept of this change and more with the nitty-gritty details.

What’s actually happening in the implementation process of the Common Core Standards?

To get an objective viewpoint, I interviewed some of my former colleagues who are ahead of the required implementation process of Colorado’s new standards, which are aligned with the Common Core Standards. This past year they have been revamping their curriculum to meet the new requirements.

The results are mixed.

The positives

Several teachers cited the Common Core Standards as more skills-based and rigorous than previous standards, which often focused on content and canon. They noted that these skills would be beneficial to all students no matter their plans after high school.

Other teachers stated that these standards pushed their practice to include new and useful strategies to involve and educate students. One teacher stated, “I find that overall the classroom is more student/learning centered and less teacher-centered.”

Another teacher referenced the benefit of having a common language for what a student should be able to know and do at any given grade level, a benefit for both teachers and students.

The negatives

Then there is the concern about quantity over quality. Several of the teachers I interviewed are afraid that to meet all of the standards, they would need to gloss over the concepts rather than take the time and repetition needed to have the learning really settle in. Students, especially struggling students, cannot be rushed if we expect them to truly make progress and learn.

The standards are built upon each other, which is great, but this could be a danger for our struggling students. If a student fails to understand a concept in one class and is pushed through the system – as students often are – what happens when the student meets this skill again in a higher-level class? This has been a recurring issue in education, but several teachers voiced concern regarding how the level of cumulative knowledge inherent in the new standards could exacerbate the problem.

Assessments seem to be one of the greatest concerns. How will students be assessed? Who decides how to assess students?  What will happen if a student isn’t proficient? How are we using the assessment data?  The list of concerns goes on. One teacher noted, “The idea of standards is great, but the lack of precision in naming assessments and rubrics and what those standards should look like in final projects/essays is an issue for me.”

The need for action & reflection

The teachers I interviewed are passionate about teaching, but not about these standards. Why? The standards are neither a slam dunk for nor a crippling blow against education, at least not yet. What happens in the future depends on our next steps.

First and foremost, teachers need to take the lead in moving the standards from theory to reality. To have this happen, teachers need ample time, training and collaboration opportunities to make sense of the new standards.

One teacher in the midst of revamping her curriculum said, “I don’t think the big “they” understand how much (professional development) and collaboration is really needed to support this transition.” Comments like these need to get back to principals, district officials, or whomever “they” are to help ensure the proper support and time are given to teachers when the full implementation process begins.

Once teachers have the time to get their hands messy with the new standards, then we could address some of the concerns surrounding assessments. Perhaps instead of the top-down curriculum and assessments that so many teachers fear, we could create unified rubrics and student exemplars. These assessments could be just as useful in the learning process as they are in giving summative data.

And speaking of data…

Let’s make sure that the Common Core Standards aren’t just another way to produce a fountain of data that is neither used nor informative. Let’s make sure that both teachers, and more importantly students, are able to reflect on student growth and know how to increase it.

For many teachers in Colorado and across the nation, the Common Core Standards are still in the nebulous theory stage. But for some, the work to bring these standards into the classroom has already begun. And there are signals that these standards could be the push that our education system needs to improve the quality and consistency of our students’ learning. But the implementation needs to include a high level of honest reflection of what is working and what is not.

Let reality inform the theory.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.