Can These Kids Be “Saved” by Common Core?

There are moments in the life of a teacher when a student says or does something that takes you aback and makes you think about education as a whole.

Last week, while reviewing exponents and the rules associated with them in an Algebra I class, I overheard a student ask another: “How much is 9 x 3?”  This is a student who failed Algebra I with me last year and who had something like “General Math” in middle school. She is not an exception in lacking the very basic basics – many students in my Algebra I classes use their fingers to do simple computations.

By coincidence, a couple of days ago, I received a response to a review of an Algebra 2 Glencoe textbook – supposedly “Common Core” – that I posted a year ago on Amazon.  In agreeing with my critique, Bruce G. Frykman wrote, “What I face is simply appalling. First, students come to these classes without the proper grounding. I have tutored kids in algebra II who cannot multiply or divide at even the simplest level. How did they get into these classes?”

Can these kids be “saved” by Common Core?

I happen to believe that Common Core is a step forward, in that the tests by which student performance is to be judged include a lot more critical thinking and communication than the previous state tests – at least this is how it appears to me from the released. According to these released questions, we will have to ask students to master the material with deeper understanding and the ability to communicate their knowledge.

But if Common Core will demand more critical thinking what will we do with the kids Mr. Frykman and I referred to? Granted that Common Core is supposed to start early – in elementary school – and therefore give us better prepared kids by the time they reach high school. However, the performance of the kids, as many other performance measures, will form a normal distribution. What will happen to the left side of the curve?

Kids in middle school will continue to be promoted, regardless of their performance – Common Core does not touch on promotional policy. Common Core will not transform demographics, poverty, a culture of not valuing education (except as a ticket to a better job), and any other sources of poor educational performance. Common Core is a set of teaching and assessment standards, but it is not educational policy.

Common Core is supposed to give high school students that are “college ready”. The dream is that students who have passed through Common Core K – 12, will not need to take remedial courses as do 30% – 40% of the current college freshmen. But we will always have the left side of the normal distribution and if those kids continue to be promoted despite their poor academic skills, we will face the same situation as before Common Core: a significant percentage of kids who enter high school without the basic academic skills and knowledge that they need.

In the absence of an 8th grade assessment that tests for basic academic knowledge and a vocational track that provides a success avenue for those who do not show sufficient knowledge, we will face the same situation as we have now – Common Core or not.




2 responses to “Can These Kids Be “Saved” by Common Core?

  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I’m right now reading Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error and it’s been cementing my feelings about common core. The standards themselves are fine as standards go. They’re still pretty packed and some states (like NY) have decided to supplement the common core standards so that there’s really no shift from breadth to depth, but overall I like their tone and their emphasis on deeper learning.

    Unfortunately, standards alone can’t bridge the disadvantages of poverty or of unsupportive parents. Also the materials we’re getting from publishers to align with common core are laughable in how unchanged they are from what we had before. Pearson has just thrown in a few extra application problems and called it a day.

    I’m very concerned about the assessments in high school. We’re getting kids who don’t know their times tables yet who are supposed to pass these depth-based free response tests in a year? These kids are already struggling with math phobia and fear about their futures. Give us some time to help students who didn’t get comprehensive math instruction in early grades have a shot at doing well in high school math before crushing them with these tests.

    And finally, I’m worried about how much money is being poured into developing these tests when there’s no evidence that the tests alone will improve education, there’s no evidence that merit based pay is effective in motivating teachers, there’s no clear way they’ve developed to grade the tests fairly (robo grading of free response, depth based tests is scary and seems like it will be quite unfair for students who have correct answers or correct logic but not the vocabulary or the test taking knowhow) and states are so strapped for cash as it is. It seems like there are so many other PROVEN ways of improving our educational system where the money could be better spent. (Smaller class sizes in elementary school, more aides in classrooms, better food and family support services)

  2. Lizzy,
    Thank you for your comment. I believe that there are three strategies that would vastly improve education in the US

    (1) Stay the course with Common Core and evaluate its success/failure only after we have a generation that has gone through Common Core from elementary school on.
    (2) Provide a meaningful and high stakes assessment in 8th grade and build strong alternative pathways to success through vocational programs for those not inclined to academics.
    (3) Choose teachers from the top of the college classes, pay them more and stay out of their way.

    Coincidentally, in today’s NY Times there is an interesting article on vocational tracks in South Carolina: “Where Factory Apprenticeship Is Latest Model From Germany”. I also recommend very highly Amanda Ripley’s book: “The Smartest Kids in the World”.

    Of course there is also the socioeconomic factor – interesting research appears today in another NY Times article: “Measuring the Wealth Effect in Education”.

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