A Decade Long Experiment----With Your Kids

By Jane Weinkrantz



The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy. ---Common Core Mission Statement


“It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.” Bill Gates, Gates Foundation, donors of $147.9 million dollars to create the Common Core Standards  

            The recent implementation of the Common Core State Standards in New York State has been so different from the outcome predicted in the CCSS Mission Statement that one might expect Commissioner John King to have jumped out from behind a curtain, wearing a silly hat and yelling, “JK! Opposite Day!” In fact, he would be a much more popular man right now had he done exactly that.

            The Common Core State Standards are sapping enthusiasm out of the lives of children, teachers and parents. Nothing about education is fun anymore. Imparting the wonder of learning has been reduced to the goal of “competing successfully in the global economy.” So, when you look at a first grader crying because her math homework is composed of word problems and she has only just learned how to read or a high school student who has dropped an arts elective he enjoyed and was talented at because it now includes essay-writing, take comfort in the notion that they will one day be well-prepared cogs in the wheel of American global competition.

            Note that the mission statement says nothing about a lifetime love of learning, use of imagination, development of character or any of the other attributes you might wish for your child. Now, think back to your time in school. Remember your “best subject?” In all likelihood, it was something that interested you and gave you a feeling of accomplishment and self worth. You raised your hand a lot and always did your homework in your “best subject,” which may well have become your college major and then gone on to be the basis of your career. Usually, your “best subject” played to your intellectual strengths. If you were a math enthusiast, you looked forward to the efficiency and precision of math, the reward of calculating the correct answer and the certainty of the formulas and their outcomes.  Imagine that instead of your math experience, you grew up in the Common Core era as described in this article from The New York Times.  

Ms. Baldi, who taught second grade for the previous four years at P.S. 169 and will teach kindergarten this year, said she had changed how she taught math. In the past, she said she used to present a math topic first before giving exercises for her students to solve. Taking heed of the Common Core’s instruction that “mathematically proficient students start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution,” Ms. Baldi began to give a new problem “cold turkey,” without introduction or explanation, and let groups of students try to figure it out.

“I’m more of a facilitator, and I’m taking more of a step back,” she said.

Only after the students brainstormed their own solutions would she discuss the different ways of solving it. “I thought that they got a better understanding, because they got to tackle the problem on their own and got to hear from the other students,” she said.

(“With Common Core, Fewer Topics But Covered More Rigorously” Kenneth Chang 9/2/13 )

    Why would second graders or kindergarteners be able to solve a math problem “cold turkey?” Why would getting “to hear from the other students” who are equally uninformed be helpful or educational? Why would taking the one person in the room that actually knows how to do the problem and relegating her to the role of “facilitator” improve learning? For a more thorough idea of what this approach looks like, view this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFdeCkjwACQ. After you’ve seen it, ask yourself: is the precision and beauty of mathematics made clear in this lesson or has it just been presented as a mushy, inconsistent mess? The kids are encouraged to share their guesses on what the teacher is asking, but they are all wrong and rewarded with the teacher saying, “That’s not what I’m looking for….” Wouldn’t it make more sense to admit that little kids cannot just intuit mathematics and begin the lesson with the teacher modeling what she’s looking for? By the end of the lesson, it’s not clear that the student’s proverbial intellectual light bulbs have gone on and the teacher says in her post-interview that she has some more teaching to do. With an approach like this, will math be anyone’s “best subject” or will it just be a confusing mess of vocabulary, guessing and uncertainty? Can anyone imagine being able to sustain enthusiasm for any topic that is presented with this approach? As they get older, these kids will know not to venture to guess when they are asked questions they clearly can’t answer; it will become normal to expect and ignore that portion of the lesson when the teacher asks something you can’t possibly know.           Now consider the idea that CCSS will help students in “school and careers.” How does this approach to instruction mirror real work situations? Has anyone sat in a board room as their boss says, “I’ve got a project. Who’d like to guess what the budget is? $4 million? Nope, nice try, John. Seth? $700,000? Close, but not quite. Emily? $640,000? Good job! Now, who thinks they know when the deadline is?”

                That CCSS will help parents know what they need to do to help their kids is laughable. EngageNY’s online handbook “Common Core State Standards: Shifts for Parents and Students” (http://www.engageny.org/sites/default/files/resource/attachments/shifts-for-students-and-parents.pdf) seems to think parents spend their days at home planning the lessons teachers are merely facilitating. Replete with bold, italicized and underlined advice and peppered with more exclamation points than the journal of a nine-year-old, this document has a flair for the obvious with headers like “The more we read the more we can read, (sic).” This section on language arts alerts parents that:

By age 3, children from affluent families have heard 30 million more words than children from parents living in poverty. (Hart and Risley, 1995).  (The CCSS does nothing to address the achievement gap between poor children and children of affluence.)


 Children who have larger vocabularies and greater understanding of spoken language do better in school (Whitehurst and Lonigan). (Larger than what? Greater than what? Better than whom?)


If children aren’t reading on grade level by third grade, are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma (sic) (Hernandez, 2011). (Remediation is not a focal point for the Common Core, nor is drop-out prevention.)


EngageNY goes on to recommend that parents work with their children as follows: Parents can

• Re-read

Provide more challenging texts AND provide texts they WANT to read and can read comfortably

• Read material at comfort level AND work with more challenging stuff

• Unpack text

Know what is grade level appropriate

Handle frustration and keep pushing

• Read challenging stuff with them

• Show that challenging stuff is worth unpacking


Never mind that it’s unclear what is meant by “unpacking” or that the writer’s caps lock key seems to have gotten stuck in a few places. Never mind that these advocates of larger vocabularies can’t find a synonym for the word “stuff.”  To my mind, the most egregious items on this list are “know what is grade level appropriate” and “handle frustration and keep pushing.”

            How can EngageNY expect parents to know what is grade level appropriate when its own recommendations are so developmentally and intellectually mismatched? The parent guide identifies Little Women as appropriate reading for grades 6-8; students in this age group have an average lexile level of 805-1100. Little Women has a lexile level of 1300, making it a challenging read for 11th and 12th graders whose typical lexile level is 940-1210. It is not difficult to imagine the average sixth grader encountering frustration when reading Little Women. (Now Mr. Davis had declared limes a contraband article, and solemnly vowed to publicly ferrule the first person who was found breaking the law. This much-enduring man had succeeded in banishing chewing gum after a long and stormy war, had made a bonfire of the confiscated novels and newspapers, had suppressed a private post office, had forbidden distortions of the face, nicknames, and caricatures, and done all that one man could do to keep half a hundred rebellious girls in order. Boys are trying enough to human patience, goodness knows, but girls are infinitely more so, especially to nervous gentlemen with tyrannical tempers and no more talent for teaching than Dr. Blimber.”) But, fear not. Mom and Dad have been advised to “keep pushing.” So, when your child tells you he or she can’t read this book because it’s too difficult, don’t accept that as an answer. Force him to continue reading about limes not being allowed, Jo selling her hair, a family complaining that they are poor even though they have a servant, and girls spending their time putting on tableaux vivants. Even if the vocabulary is daunting and the context completely unfamiliar, tell your kid to suck it up and think of America ’s competitive role in the global economy.

            What characteristics will the children of the core generation possess? Well, they will feel that the game is rigged, that they are expected to deduce answers without enough information, to read texts that are too difficult and to be burdened with work in general that is not developmentally appropriate. Such experiences will do nothing to engender curiosity, enthusiasm or a passion for learning. There will be no more “best subjects,” only those which are slightly less frustrating. CCSS is making school a miserable experience and, if parents “keep pushing,” home won’t be much better. The good news is that if parents are pushing anyone, it’s Commissioner King who cancelled his speaking engagements this week after parents in Poughkeepsie demanded answers from their naked emperor. Such concerned parents who King termed “special interest groups” are defending their children, preserving their educations and childhoods, not waiting a decade like amateur education reformer Bill Gates to see what happens. Common Core is not a benign “shift”, but a dangerous seismic fault.

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