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The Common Core: What Does it Mean for Students?

The Common Core State Standards specify minimal requirements of math and language arts knowledge at the end of each grade.

If adopted across the country and implemented successfully, the math standards will allow us to expect, for example, that every student will fluently add and subtract within 100 after the second grade; add, subtract, multiply, and divide positive and negative numbers as well as fractions and decimals after the sixth grade - and so on.  If students move to different states, they will be able to pick up where they left off.

The Good:
Teachers will be able to teach math the way it can be taught successfully - by building the foundation first and then relying on it while deriving the next level of knowledge. While classrooms will still contain children of different abilities, no teacher will have to teach her class to multiply decimals while a third of the students still don’t know their multiplication table. Teaching will become more efficient: without having to spend a few months in the beginning of the year reviewing (or teaching) what students were already supposed to know, teachers will have enough time to teach the year’s material slowly and methodically, so that students learn it and will only need a slight refresher following the summer months. The vicious cycle of hectic teaching and reteaching each year will finally be broken.

In addition to making the requirements more rigorous than before (they are somewhat comparable to other countries' standards), the Common Core State Standards also require teaching algebra earlier than it is currently taught in the United States. They contain requirements for students to understand what they are doing, not just to use algorithms mechanically. They also require the teaching of, not just isolated skills, but also how to apply those skills to solve complex problems.

The Concerning:
Even so, I’m far from euphoric about the standards, since there are some difficulties which might make their implementation painful, expensive - and quite possibly unsuccessful.  

Just as children learn to talk at different ages, they develop their number sense at different ages too. Forcing children who are developmentally not ready “to fluently add” big numbers will be frustrating and time consuming - not to mention completely unnecessary. They can easily learn this quickly and easily a year later. Valuable time will be spent on drilling number sense and skills, and in the process children who struggle will be labeled as slow or failing. They will learn to hate and fear math.

Most significantly, this painful process will substitute what could be done naturally and enjoyably at this age (not to mention what will serve these students well in the long run): developing algebraic thinking, reasoning skills, and the courage and willingness to solve math problems. Algebra is a language. And just as young children are much more adept at learning languages than adolescents - so too can they pick up algebra much more easily. By focusing on number sense, the common core loses valuable time.

The attempt to make every student satisfy the standard requirements will also shift the focus to the failing students. And in the process it will take attention and resources away from succeeding students who could potentially excel with the proper support.

Teachers are not ready for the changes that the standards bring. Most have not been educated accordingly, and they will once again feel enormous pressure, knowing that their work will be evaluated by the standardized tests. The rigidity of the standards will prevent the most talented teachers from being creative; and it’s possible that the teacher body will become even less able when the best of them burn out and leave the profession.

But no standards can be clearly defined without the corresponding testing. Standards, on their own, are somewhat open to interpretation. It's unclear which topics are more important relative to others in a given grade, or to what depth concepts are expected to be learned. Seeing the tests will help to clarify this for schools, as well as for us. The Common Core Standards assessments are close to being completed, so we'll have to wait and see. 

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