Friday, July 11, 2014

One teacher's dislike of Common Core

I read today of teacher concerns over Common Core and was reminded of a teacher we hired a few years ago. Our independent school was rated 'A' in the state, and 'A' in math. "Jo" was a math specialist in a public school rated C/D for Math and wanted the opportunity to work in a high-performing department

Jo's former school used a complete math scheme with student-books, teacher-books, CD-ROMs, online resources, student programs, and actvities, posters and charts, models, boxes of bits and pieces and so on. The scheme even included tests and quizzes. Teacher-books included likely student errors, with scripted responses, and predicted areas of weakness with predicted student questions, and again, scripted responses.

Math teaching at Jo's former school consisted of asking what page in the student-book the students used the day before, and then turning to the next page. Students worked in lock-step, although the scheme helpfully provided "enrichment" activities for the more able to fill in their time while their peers caught up.

Our school had no scheme. Instead, we had a series of defined outcomes at different levels. That was it. Classes were expected to include students at multiple levels of achievement. The teacher library contained several different coursebooks, from different years, and written from different approaches to teaching math. We also had subscriptions to online resource centers, including worksheet-maker type programs. Teachers had the professional freedom to devise activities for their students. Every class was individually and uniquely planned, and all reflected the needs and profiles of the students.

Tests were tied to the levels, and were drawn from external assessments such as SAT, ITBS, Stanford 9 and so on. We also used the annual state tests and several math competitions to monitor our performance against external benchmarks.

Jo was attracted by our students' levels of performance, and the pedagogical freedom our teachers enjoyed. However, she very quickly began to struggle. Her entire training and career had been built around the programmed instruction of the math schemes. She felt lost and as if she were drowning and she began to lobby for a scheme. 

I suspect what is happening with Common Core is the same thing which happened to Jo. Initially, teachers feel they can keep doing much the same thing. The label on the can has changed, but inside it's still the same old beans.

However, the philosophy underlying Common Core is quite, quite different and as teachers venture further into it the more they feel themselves lost and drowning. Standards-based teaching and learning shifts the responsibility from the math scheme to the teacher who must now design his/her own approaches to meet those standards. (I wrote here on one set of approaches to meet one such standard.)

The current teacher concerns at Common Core come from three places, Firstly, they are being asked fundamentally to change their school and teaching culture (aka "the way we do things around here"). This is challenging and threatening. They must leave their comfort zones.

Secondly, they must do a lot more work, including planning lessons and preparing activities, and the ymust do so for each student and for multiple levels in each class.

Thirdly, there were clearly leadership weaknesses in Common Core introduction. Teachers, administrators and parents did not know of the philosophical shift, the move to learner-centered instruction, the lesser dependence on schemes and so on.

Standards-based or outcome-based approaches work in other countries and in other fields. They can work here too.

Incidentally, Jo did not get her scheme. So she secretly photocopied the scheme she used in her previous school. Within weeks, student enjoyment of math plummeted, parent concerns with math appeared, and level-test scores dropped. These were all new, and paralleled her change in approach. In the year-end state tests, Jo's classes had an A - C range, with a C average while all other classes were still A overall. Jo returned to her former school where I suspect she feels more secure and still follows her math scheme's plug-and-play approach.

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