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Finding a cure for the Common Core

Many educators say quality teaching materials could fix issues with standards

POSTED: May 3, 2014 11:42 p.m.

Pentagons, counting correct change and multiplication were all topics of a discussion in Heather Anderson’s fourth-grade math class as it prepared for standardized testing.

“We’re talking about multiples and factors,” the World Language Academy teacher said. “Who can tell me the definition of a multiple?”

The students then went through a factor tree exercise.

“That is a great tool to make sure I am finding all of the factors of a given multiple,” Anderson said.

Factor trees are nothing new; they’ve been taught in math classrooms for years as a way to better explain multiplication and division. But when Anderson asked the students to demonstrate a factor tree, the differences were apparent. Some students drew an actual tree, with the multiples under the example number, while others just wrote the numbers in a list.

Another student had problems remembering his multiplication facts so he used a part of his sheet to draw multiplication “dots.”

“They are learning that there’s often more than one way to solve a problem,” said Sarah Bell, Gainesville City Schools director of standards and assessment. “If I am not sure, if I can’t remember that five plus five is 10, then I might have another way to access that information. I might be able to draw a picture to remind myself. I might be able to say, ‘Well, I don’t know what five plus five is, but I know six plus six is 12, or six plus five is 11, so five plus five must be 10.’

“It’s really developing this very deep way of thinking about math and making sure that they are truly understanding the concepts versus rote memorization. There’s still a place for memorization, but it’s not the only method.”

School officials say while there may be one right answer, there’s more than one way to get to it, and it’s just as important to know how you solve a problem as it is to solve it. That’s what makes it more rigorous, and that’s the aim of the Common Core State Standards.

The term “Common Core” has seemingly taken over political rhetoric when discussing education reform, while numerous reports have popped up in traditional media as parents and some educators express frustration over the standards.

When parents get a hold of their children’s homework and become confused by the questions, the online backlash against the standards seems to continue to grow as they post on social media platforms.

Even celebrities are joining in the conversation.

“My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!” tweeted comedian Louis C.K. late last month, the first in a string of anti-Common Core comments complete with pictures of the math problems his daughter, a third-grade student in New York, was doing as homework.

“It’s this massive stressball that hangs over the whole school,” he continued. “The kids’ teachers trying to adapt to these badly written notions.”

The Common Core State Standards were developed by two separate groups, made up primarily of state governors and education officials. The standards’ website, corestandards.org, states the standards were developed by combining “the best state standards already in existence,” as well as input from both teachers and the public.

Backlash grew strong when Barack Obama’s administration tied portions of federal funding to Common Core adoption, as well as when it became public knowledge that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given millions to different groups and organizations that support the standards.

A rush to implement

This is the second year Georgia has the standards for English/language arts and mathematics in place. There is a difference between curriculum and standards. Curriculum is what is taught on a day-to-day basis, while the standards are what students are expected to know at the end of the year.

However, education officials caution that in the rush to sell books that were compliant with the new standards, textbook providers were quick to slap a Common Core sticker on many of their products while not necessarily meeting the standards or being of a high quality. That’s where the frustration comes into play, Bell said, saying it’s a problem that predates Common Core.

“I have seen the Internet stories that have the math problems,” Bell said. “When I see those problems ... what I see is the issue is that they are not aligned to the standard. Those problems are not necessarily asking what the standard requires.”

She said Gainesville teachers have been asked to make sure they understand what the standards are asking, and to ensure any instructional materials — whether commercially provided or teacher created — align to the standards.

“The reality is that the textbook companies have a blanket textbook,” Bell said. “Then they market it to different states, or they will put a Common Core alignment sticker on them. And that sells books, but it does not necessarily mean that there is alignment to the standards.”

It’s all in the packaging, she said — much like how food manufacturers will wrap their products in carefully designed packaging that may proclaim “heart healthy” or “fat free,” and be anything but those things.

Introducing ‘rigor’

It’s not the standards, Hall County’s Middle Grades School Improvement Specialist Kevin Bales said. Rather, it’s the “adult implementation” of the standards.

“I would dare say, most members of our community, most teachers, would have a difficult time picking out any one standard and taking a major issue or having a major problem with the wording of one particular standard,” he said. “On the flip side of that, there may be someone out there who tries to do an activity to accomplish that standard where a community member or a parent is concerned. So that is a great example of the difference between issues with the Common Core and sometimes issues with implementation, or attempted implementation.”

The “rigor” behind the standards, he explained, asks students to put their thinking into wording. As teachers and textbook companies try to find ways to accomplish that goal, sometimes their attempts are going to fall short.

“I think that’s sometimes what gets published, is those missteps in how to introduce rigor,” Bales said. “How to get kids to put their thinking into wording, and of course when someone just sits back and analyzes, ‘Why are we having kids tell us what they’re thinking in math when the answer is just the answer?’ ... I think that’s what you’re seeing happening there.”

There’s value in both, he said, but when information can be instantly accessed on cellphones, it’s important to make sure children are using their brains.

“Obviously we want correct solutions,” he said. “But we actually want our kids to be most capable, and so I would remind people that we live in a day and age when most information is found via a Google search, or an attempt to find that information out there. So to try to build thinkers and creators and innovators is really what we’re hoping to do.”

Missteps expected

While the set of standards aren’t exactly brand new, aligning closely with the previous Georgia Performance Standards, the quest for more challenging and demanding material will lead to a few missteps as educators become accustomed to what has changed in the standards.

With this being the second school year the standards have been in place in Georgia schools, everyone is still getting their footing.

“I think over time, our materials will improve,” Bell said.

“And until that time, again, we’ve asked our teachers to be very conscious consumers, keeping in mind they’re still learning the standards themselves.”


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