Viewpoints

California needs skilled teachers for Common Core to succeed

Stacey Jacobson-Francis works on math homework with her daughter Luci in May 2014 at their home in Berkeley. As schools implement national Common Core standards, math has become more complicated at earlier grade levels.
Stacey Jacobson-Francis works on math homework with her daughter Luci in May 2014 at their home in Berkeley. As schools implement national Common Core standards, math has become more complicated at earlier grade levels. Associated Press file

After seeing videos of Common Core lessons in various classrooms, this much is obvious: My daughter’s high-school English teacher could never have taught this way.

She was careful and knowledgeable, but interpreting literature came down to her way or the highway. She told students what to think and how they should write, and if they wanted good grades, they stuck to the straight and narrow.

My daughter wasn’t one to do that; her grades and confidence suffered. Nonetheless, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in literature.

There was little of the straight and narrow in the videos where teachers were showing how to do Common Core. You could practically feel the children’s brains squeezing with the effort of thinking for themselves.

An English lesson required sixth graders to come up with weighty questions on the literature they’d been reading – not the brainless here-it-is-in-the-text questions, but ones like this: Take this quote from the book about a substance burning on the skin until it doesn’t hurt anymore. What does that say about the bigger theme of the text?

Mind you, these students are thinking up these questions years before high school, and they’re showing more interest, and a more sophisticated grasp of text, than many of the college students I’ve taught.

In a math class, the question was: Is 80 divided by 4 less than 80 divided by 2, plus another 80 divided by 2?

Rather than sitting and working out the formula mathematically, several students gave their opinions, backed up by their reasoning. The students listened carefully and respectfully as the teacher let them speak without saying yes or no. After hearing a couple of students explain how they’d reached their answers, a student who had gotten it wrong changed his mind.

There’s been a lot of complaining about the Common Core. It looks unfamiliar, it has admittedly given birth to a host of dumb new jargon and states were pressured to adopt it by the federal government, seldom a popular move. Besides, phrases such as “building critical thinking” seem squishy next to the more traditional “memorizing multiplication tables.”

The curriculum tied to the standards isn’t perfect, and schools should tweak it as they go along. But it’s inspiring to watch kids engaged in thinking deeply about their subjects instead of passively listening to a teacher’s lectures.

This isn’t an easy or touchy-feely curriculum. Done right, it has students working like they’ve seldom worked before.

In elementary school, they’re wrestling with skills that will make algebra, typically an obstacle in eighth grade, seem like a mere formality of what they already understand.

But “done right” is easier to say than implement.

Common Core demands highly skilled teachers who aren’t just good at communicating, but also excel at the subtle art of keeping students on track to learn, while handing center stage over to them.

In a state with a growing teacher shortage, can we find enough of these magical instructors to make it work?

And here’s one thing we have already done wrong: Common Core was implemented much too quickly. One teacher showing the videos complained about older students who find it too unfamiliar; their grades have plummeted.

We’ve done these students a disservice, teaching them a certain way for years and then expecting them to turn on a dime.

Common Core should have been phased in, starting in kindergarten and adding grades each year. We’d have better prepared students, and time to build a corps of better-prepared teachers who feel comfortable preparing the thinkers of tomorrow instead of ordering them what to think.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at ochikes@yahoo.com.

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