As educators, we know that the Common Core State Standards are intended to guide our teaching and lead us, ostensibly, to create lessons that help all students reach high standards. In theory, this doesn’t sound very threatening; but in some circumstances, implementation of the standards has led to scripted lessons and worse. Some districts use the standards as a guide; I use them as a “drop-down menu” to gauge my lessons, and I’m comfortable with that. But I’m an educator—one who takes pride in being “up” on what’s going on in education, and I frequently find myself confused by how all things in education have become simply labeled as “Common Core.”
What in the world must parents be thinking when they hear only snippets of conversation, rhetorical jargon and sensationalized news that lump the Common Core standards, standardized testing, APPR and student achievement data under the catchall heading “Common Core”? How should teachers handle this delicate subject while simultaneously keeping their integrity and educating parents? Here are three tips that have made my life easier during these complicated conversations:
1. Make a distinction between the Common Core standards and everything else. I tell parents how I use the standards as a guide, and I am lucky to have the freedom to make the best decisions for their children based on 21st-century expectations. I explain that as I plan lessons and craft curriculum, I weigh what we know is best for our student population against the standards. I use the example that before the standards were adopted, we did not read multicultural literature; however, when we did a “gap analysis” to figure out what their children might be missing, we realized we needed to make minor changes (like adding a few short stories and poetry) to what we already were doing. The standards have made us more reflective in considering what their children will need for the future—and have made us better for it.
2. Acknowledge growing pains. One of the side effects of systemic change is growing pains, which, sadly, are felt most strongly by our students. These kids were the first to take the assessments, many before teachers and districts were completely prepared for them. This resulted in a large number of students who had been deemed a “3” or “4” to suddenly be cast as a “2” or a “1.” Additionally, it is largely agreed upon that the Common Core standards are more rigorous than previous standards, and lower initial proficiency was expected. But, as much as we’d all like to say that this is only a single measure of a student’s success, it is one of the most talked about at this point. It would be great if the media would showcase student writing portfolios and reading gains, but that is not the reality. If we don’t acknowledge the growing pains, we look like we are just walking a line, not empathizing with the situation that parents face or with the children we teach. It is our job to show that we view their children’s progress through multiple measures.
3. Offer hope for the future. I explain to parents that the changes wrought by the Common Core standards will lead to large-scale improvement. I use my own children as an example. My first-grader is so proud of the fact that he can write “CEE” (claim, evidence, explanation) paragraphs. He is being taught the power of his words to make a point, a lesson that cannot be taught too soon. I have watched my daughter craft the same type of paragraph in fourth grade, but adding transition words. When this type of scaffolding exists, I point out, the writing will blow us away in the middle school. As I am able to move past basic paragraph construction, I will be able to push students to develop their own style and expand their writing repertoire.
There aren’t simple answers, but as teachers, we must be the voice of reason for our students and their parents. We know children are more than a test score. We know that our students are growing and learning. We celebrate their successes and work to help them improve. Though we can’t guarantee a thing about “the test,” we can guarantee that we are working in the best interest of our students.