Part ten of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State
You have probably seen the social media posts showing math homework that makes no sense or requires children to do multiple confusing steps to solve a simple addition problem. Should we blame the Common Core standards for confusing assignments? The standards rightly specify that students need to be “fluent” in solving arithmetic problems—in other words, they need to be able to perform arithmetic calculations quickly and without stopping to think. But the standards go further by demanding that students understand the concepts behind arithmetic and be able to demonstrate that understanding in more than one way. For example, students may use drawings or work with manipulatives to illustrate how arithmetic works. This enables children with different learning styles to experiment until they discover a model that makes sense to them.
At higher levels, students are expected to “solve math problems rooted in the real world, deciding for themselves which formulas and tools (such as protractors and rulers) to use.” Assignments and test questions often require students to complete several steps and draw on the application of multiple skills and concepts. The rapid transition to the Common Core has afforded teachers and curriculum publishers less lead time than they are accustomed to, to develop materials to guide students through these conceptual processes and applications, and so the quality of lessons and assignments has been uneven. These growing pains are dissipating as teachers become more comfortable with the standards, and materials are revised and refined. Moreover, the availability of free video lessons on Khan Academy and elsewhere means that even the most math-phobic parent can find help with Common Core homework.
What about the Common Core standards in English language arts and literacy? Some critics have gone so far as to liken the Common Core initiative to Communism or Nazism, or have said that that it is anti-freedom, or even that it will turn children into homosexuals. If you read the Common Core standards closely, you will discover a certain irony to such baseless claims. At their heart, the standards ask students to become comfortable reading and analyzing texts drawn from real-world sources, especially non-fiction texts in science and social studies.
Under the Common Core standards, students are asked to do “close reading” and to ground their analyses in information gathered from the assigned texts. The irony, then, is that Common Core opponents will be hard-pressed to find any evidence of Communism, Nazism, or homosexual propaganda in the language of the standards themselves. Because the standards aim to instill critical thinking skills, students will inevitably be asked to study texts with which they or their parents disagree, including texts that espouse a range of social and political viewpoints. The selection of particular reading materials is a local curricular decision. So anti-Common Core activists are probably right when they warn that “[y]our child or grandchild will not be able to escape Common Core materials that are anti-Christian, anti-capitalism, and anti-America, or that are pro-homosexuality, illegal immigration, unions, environmentalism, gun control, feminism, and social justice.” The Common Core standards are not about “escaping” from texts; they are about grappling with them.
New York’s rigorous Common Core-aligned assessments, though unpopular in some circles, will prove to be excellent preparation for the SAT. One of the lead authors of the Common Core standards, David Coleman, is now head of the College Board, and under his leadership, the SAT has been redesigned in line with the Common Core. The new exam engages students in evidence-based reading and writing, drawing on more non-fiction texts from science and social studies sources. The math portion focuses on the areas of math that are most important for college and career, and asks students “to solve problems in science, social science, and career contexts.” The College Board began administering the new SAT in spring 2016. The smart money says that New York policymakers will maintain the state’s momentum in implementing the Common Core, to give our students the best possible preparation for the redesigned SAT.
Please click here to read part nine in this ongoing series.