It’s been a tumultuous year for the Common Core standards. They suffered a one-two punch when several states dropped out of the Core-aligned assessments and then Indiana repealed the standards altogether. (Other states, including Oklahoma, may follow suit.) On a national level, politicians have fought about whether the standards are a federal infringement of local control. The National Education Association also took a jab at them by demanding a “course correction.” Closer to home, parents have held protests in front of schools and state capitals.
But when your students enter your classroom, you put politics aside. You close the door and teach. That’s where the work that matters happens—with you and your students and a new set of standards they’re expected to master.
With at least a year of Core experience under their belts, we spoke with educators about what they have learned from teaching the standards. These Core champions spoke candidly with us about what’s working, what isn’t, and what advice they can offer to fellow educators.
Common Core Takes Time.
Sarah Vallejos, a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Horizon Community Learning Center in Phoenix, says that patience is key. “Implementing these rigorous new standards and teaching our students a new way to think is not going to happen in just one year,” she explains.
While the number of concepts you’re expected to teach with the Core decreases, you’ll have to dig deeper into each one. Rethink your schedule to allow time to explore the necessary skills. Nicole Wade, a third-grade teacher at Chevy Chase Elementary School in Maryland, adjusted her schedule to teach science and social studies on alternating days, which allows her students more uninterrupted time to focus on any given subject.
Collaboration Helps. A Lot.
The five teachers on Wade’s third-grade team used a “divide and conquer” approach to the Core. “We decided to specialize, with each of us working on something we’re good at,” Wade says. “We then brought our ideas to the team the week before we were due to teach that lesson.”
Teachers at other schools have found success in communicating their progress across grade levels. “That collaboration is key because it helps us see not just what’s going on at our grade level but what’s going on with the whole curriculum. It helps us see the path that’s been laid out,” says Vallejos.
Be Prepared To Fill In Gaps.
With the exception of the very youngest, most of today’s students have not grown up with the Core, which can present a challenge for both teachers and students. Vallejos has noticed this in math. “One of the biggest challenges we faced is that we have students in third grade who have never had experience with bar models. They’ve never seen a number bond. Yet the curriculum we’re given assumes our students have seen those things,” she says.
Other teachers are adjusting the curriculum to allow students time at the beginning of the school year to transition to the more rigorous standards.
“Our third-grade students weren’t ready for the writing expectations, so we created beginning-of-the-year mini-units to give kids more time to develop and understand their writing,” says Nicole Zuerblis, a reading specialist at Paul W. Kutz Elementary School in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
Change Your Approach For English Language Learners.
Brenda Mendoza, a second-grade bilingual ELL teacher at Greenman Elementary School in Aurora, Illinois, has found that the Core presents hurdles for her students. “It’s been difficult to integrate Common Core standards while also abiding by the standards for English language learners,” she says.
Previously, Mendoza had taught most of her literacy lessons in Spanish. But when her teaching team looked at the Common Core standards, they decided that the amount of English they were using in the classroom wasn’t enough. As a result, they created a biliterate English block, focusing on academic language. “Students’ understanding of the vocabulary and terminology needs to be solid in English if they’re going to be successful meeting the Common Core standards,” Mendoza says.
She has noticed that students are making strides—to the point where they can be assessed in English, something that didn’t happen in the past. “They’re not yet at the same reading and comprehension level as their peers,” she says. “But if they have that academic vocabulary, it’s going to be easier for them to take the new assessments.”
Scaffold For Special Needs Students.
The level of rigor demanded by the standards has been especially difficult for special education students. “I have children in my room who have learning disabilities and cannot answer a Depth of Knowledge Level 1 question, which is basic recall skills, let alone a Level 3 or 4 question, which calls for more strategic thinking and reasoning,” says Lucy R., a second-grade teacher in New York City. (She prefers not to use her last name.) Her class consists roughly of 60 percent general education students and 40 percent special education students. Despite her special needs students’ struggles, administrators have told Lucy that she needs to ask more complex questions in her lessons. When she asks for strategies to help students answer even the most basic questions, she has been met with suggestions like “Let them have struggle time.”
“Struggle time” has been frustrating, and not too useful, says Lucy. Instead, she has found some success with scaffolding and differentiating tasks. “My scaffolding techniques range from small-group instruction to repeat mini-lessons to giving my kids checklists and written reminders of strategies being taught,” she says. “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all, a scaffold that is sure to work. Some work with some kids, and others don’t.”
Expect the Unexpected.
Despite the challenges that face certain students, some teachers told us they have been pleasantly surprised to find that many of their students are Common Core heavyweights. For instance, Vallejos recalls a math problem that asked her third-grade students how much juice is in a cup if Johnny pours half of his 280-milliliter cup into it.
“They hadn’t done fractions yet. They didn’t know how to divide 28 by two, much less 280 by two,” Vallejos says. Still, she encouraged her students to discuss the math problem in small groups, emphasizing that she wasn’t as interested in the right answer as the steps the students would take to solve the problem.
Nine of the 12 small groups solved it correctly.
“I was floored,” Vallejos says. “My adult mind didn’t expect them to be able to do it because it automatically set up a long division problem. But because they’d been taught analytical skills, they were able to break the problem apart, to really think about it, and they weren’t afraid to give it a shot.”
Leave Room For Creativity.
“When I first saw Common Core, I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to do all the fun things I like to do with my class,” says Wade, the third-grade Maryland teacher.
She has since learned that the Core lends itself to cross-curricular creativity. She created a unit about Africa in which her students researched information and composed a newsletter about the continent. The third graders then applied their research-based knowledge of Africa’s animals and habitats to solve Core-aligned math problems. “Students needed to find the perimeter of a fenced-in area,” explains Wade. “But first, they had to figure out how large that area would have to be to be comfortable for a given animal. They had to do research to learn about the animals, and they had to use the area and perimeter skills they learned in math.”
Loop In Parents.
"What’s surprised me most is the Common Core divide,” says Suzy Brooks, a third-grade teacher at Mullen-Hall School in Falmouth, Massachusetts.
“I want parents to be informed, but all of that can be unraveled when they see one picture on Facebook that shows a ridiculous math problem and they think that’s what we’re teaching their kids.”
To combat misinformation—and to make it easier for parents to help kids with their homework—schools nationwide are reaching out to parents. Brooks’s school hosts “parent universities” for caregivers to attend and learn about Common Core lessons and work. Other schools are creating videos and uploading them online to demonstrate the skills and strategies that students learn in class.
“A lot of parents don’t understand why students can’t just get the answer and have that be good enough,” says Megan Mathers, a fifth-grade teacher at Chevy Chase Elementary. “We need to help them understand it’s not so much about the product as it’s about the process.”