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Teacher Voice: How the Common Core State Standards Have Affected My Teaching

Over the past few years, I have heard a lot of discussion about Common Core State Standards, their roll out, and the assessment designed to measure CCSS. As an educator immersed in Common Core implementation, here are a few of my thoughts.

New standards are not new. Standards change as we educators learn more about how to improve education for our children. In the past the biggest complaint I heard about students was that they lacked the ability to think critically and process logically. In the current system, the end of course test in math is a multiple choice exam testing the standards taught in that course. This enables teachers to teach in such a way students score well on the EOC but still underachieve on the ACT. My point is simple: standards memorized and easily tested do not necessarily translate into life-long learning or college and career readiness.

By cutting the actual number of standards, driving key standards deeper in content, and giving clear examples of fluency, the Common Core standards have forced me to rethink my classroom. Having fewer standards reduces the need to cover too much information, allowing me discretion in deciding how to introduce and teach major content. Discussion in my classroom has evolved, allowing me to help students create connections to previously learned math and clear up misconceptions they may have developed. Moreover, fluency examples from the standards help me understand what a student should be able to do with a given standard without dictating what and how I have to teach. As one of my colleagues is fond of saying “Common Core standards and testing force me to teach the way I should have been teaching all along.”

I have been teaching for 10 years, and I firmly believe the Common Core standards drive my teaching to new levels. There is little I care about more than my students’ opportunities to learn and be prepared for the future. An old coaching friend of mine often told players all he wanted for them to have at graduation was options. I have five children of my own and I am excited to see what kinds of options they will have in classrooms teaching Common Core standards. I’ve already witnessed bright students being challenged, shy students discussing and defending positions, and uninterested students engaging in ways I have never seen before.

As educated people, we know what awaits our children in the real world. We know not every problem’s solution is multiple-choice or simple and clear. I know there has been a lot of debate and concern centering on Common Core and its testing. Tennessee has consistently worked with testing agencies (like PARCC) to voice those concerns and make sure Tennessee students are protected just as they are now. I also know the state of education in Tennessee was not acceptable just a few years ago, but the 2013 NAEP (nationwide testing) results show that our shift to Common Core standards is moving us in the right direction. A lot of challenges continue to face our children as they move on to college and the workforce, but we cannot let them quit because those challenges are difficult. In fact, the challenges we know they will face are the very reason we push them harder. Oftentimes, the most difficult challenges are met with the sweetest rewards. Common Core implementation has had its share of challenges. We can, however, separate ‘the baby from the bathwater’ and recognize the tremendous value these standards have already brought to us and build on that success moving ahead.

Teacher Voice: Common Core Deserves the Support of the General Assembly

“Tell me the height of our school.” This is a seemingly easy question, yet one that requires the student to apply a variety of academic and critical-thinking skills. It’s also a very Common Core-driven question and one that I wouldn’t have been able to tackle in my classroom under the old Tennessee state math standards. Questions like this offer the greatest potential to empower all educators to push their students to higher levels of critical thinking to ensure their continued academic growth. Because of this, I urge the Tennessee General Assembly to vote against the current legislation proposing that we discontinue implementation of Tennessee’s Common Core State Standards.

The last two years of teaching high school math under the old Tennessee state standards left me feeling frequently frustrated.  I had to cover so much content that I simply couldn’t take the time to make it truly meaningful to my students’ lives.  I wanted to do projects that required both application and synthesis of skills, like having my students determine the height of a building (which they would do by taking measurements and using trigonometry).

This year, I decided to take the radical step of switching my focus to 100 percent Common Core. This has opened my eyes to thee key ways the standards help teachers and students teach and learn content in a deeper and more meaningful way.

First, Common Core empowers educators to choose the best teaching strategy for each subject. Think of a year with the standards like a long road trip. The old standards gave teachers a set of specific and sometimes constricting directions on where to turn, when to turn and how fast to go. Common Core standards instead give us mileposts to aim for. They tell us where we should end up, but NOT how to get there. Each teacher has the freedom to select the best teaching method to achieve each learning goal.

Second, Common Core allows me to dig deeper into each subject by reducing the number of standards I must teach. For example, in mathematics, Common Core cuts down the number of standards I need to hit from over 100 down to about 40. By streamlining the number of goals I shoot for, I can spend more time on application-based projects, ensuring that I engage my students with each unit in new and exciting ways.

Third, the Common Core State Standards introduce a new test, known as PAARC, to hold teachers accountable for ensuring that students leave their classrooms able to think deeply and critically about academic content. Consider my content area. Under the old state testing regimen, it’s possible to teach students tricks to find the right answers to multiple-choice questions even if they do not truly understand the concept. The new tests are designed to require students to display their work and their thinking.

Opponents to the Common Core typically cite two concerns about PAARC. The first is the fear that scores will drop under PAARC testing. While this is probably true, it isn’t because Common Core will fail our kids. Scores will drop initially because we HAVEN’T been pushing students’ thinking to higher levels.  The new standards will take our youth to a whole new cognitive level not previously required. It will be a tough transition. But it’s a necessary one if we are to truly prepare our students to be successful once they leave our classrooms.

The second concern is that lower test scores will demoralize students and leave them uninvested in education. My students’ experience directly contradicts this. After taking a mock PAARC assessment this fall, 63 percent of them said they believed that the new test was better than the old one. Far from being demoralized, many of them asked if we could tackle more questions like the ones they saw to better prepare for the next mock test. Experiences like this suggest that our students will rise to the challenges we present to them.

My experience tells me that the Common Core State Standards offer teachers in Tennessee an unprecedented opportunity to make content real and meaningful to our students. While the transition will be a struggle, a wise man once told me that nothing worth doing comes easily. We should certainly continue to refine the standards and our approach to them as we go. But to do away with them entirely means we would forfeit all the benefits that they offer to teachers and students. Once again, I call on the Tennessee General Assembly to vote to support the Common Core State Standards to ensure we set our children up for success in college and beyond.

Teacher Voice: RTI² Helps Students Master Challenges of Common Core

There’s a young man at our school – let’s call him Dedric (his name has been changed for issues of privacy) – who has always been a good student. He made good grades in elementary and was proficient last year on the reading/language arts portion of TCAP. But he’s been struggling a little this year, earning a D first semester.

Dedric, you see, is having difficulty transitioning to Common Core. Language arts is much more rigorous now, with a heavy emphasis on writing and defending claims. It’s no longer enough to get the correct answer, which in itself is now more of a challenge, but you also have to explain why your answer is correct and why other options are incorrect. Textual evidence is required for every assignment, and reading passages are utilized more and are more complex.

That’s a big leap from TCAP expectations, which involved more rote memorization and multiple-choice options. And that’s why Dedric went from scoring Proficient to struggling to earn a D.

For every Dedric, there are many struggling even more. Most of our incoming sixth-graders scored basic or below basic and were even less prepared for the increased rigor of Common Core than Dedric.

This is a national trend. Kentucky was the first state to implement a Common Core-aligned test in 2012, and scores plummeted. New York experienced a similar drop in scores this past year with its first Common Core tests.

Critics like Diane Ravitch have used these results to argue against Common Core. And several states have responded by either rejecting or slowing the pace of their original adoption of Common Core.

Tennessee has a different plan. Anticipating a drop in scores under Common Core, our state is rolling out another initiative, Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTI²), at the same time to ensure that all kids have the supports they need to successfully transition to Common Core.

Let’s look again at Dedric. At Grizzlies Prep, we already have a solid RTI² system in place. We take struggling scholars like Dedric and provide them with extra supports (interventions), in addition to the regular high-quality instruction in English language arts.

What do these interventions look like?

At Grizzlies Prep, where the vast majority of our scholars enter multiple years behind grade-level, we use our extended day to the fullest. For reading (and we have a similar program for math), we offer the following tiered interventions:

  • • An extra block daily (alternating between nonfiction and fiction studies) that focuses on reading and vocabulary, with our highest-level readers instead participating in an enriched seminar block daily.
  • • A daily guided reading block that focuses on reading fluency and comprehension.
  • • For our lowest-level readers (our non-readers), it means all of this, plus an intensive daily small group block of Wilson Reading with our literacy specialist that focuses on phonemic awareness, decoding skills, prosody, vocabulary, and comprehension.
  • • And once our non-readers become confident readers, they transition into a seminar class that focuses on reading comprehension, with special attention to close readings of the text.

As a result of these tiered interventions, all of our scholars are on pace to read on grade-level by the time they enter high school. In order to be college-ready, our scholars must first be high school-ready, so we started with that goal and then developed a plan to ensure that all of our young men will get there.

Our average scholar enters on a third-grade level and achieves reading growth in excess of two grade levels per year (meaning they enter seventh grade on a fifth-grade level, they enter eighth grade on a seventh-grade level, and then enter ninth grade on a ninth-grade level). Our non-readers come to us on a kindergarten level and average three years of growth (so they enter seventh grade on a third-grade level, they enter eighth grade on a sixth-grade level, and they enter ninth grade on a ninth-grade level).

If we look at Dedric’s progress, he has grown from a late second-grade reading level when he entered Grizzlies Prep in August to an early fourth-grade level as of December. Early in the new semester, Dedric had a solid B average. Without the support offered by our RTI system, Dedric would be failing.

The drop in scores associated with Common Core could lead to a dramatic increase in special education referrals. Or it could lead to a hard choice of, either retaining an incredible number of students, or passing along students who have failed to master the standards.

Those are all legitimate concerns.

But those aren’t the only options. Just like we’ve done with Dedric, schools can and must provide the additional supports to ensure that all kids are able to meet the new, more rigorous expectations. In our state, these supports are being mandated.

Fortunately, the Tennessee Department of Education has done much of the work already with its RTI² initiative. I encourage you to check out the RTI² Manual, the RTI² Implementation Guide, and professional development options from the state. And feel free to contact me to learn more about Grizzlies Prep.

This blog was first published at Bluff City Education on January 26, 2014.

Teacher Voice: Common Core Standards Help Our Students Achieve More

They say the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing but expecting different results. Tennessee adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2010. Prior to this adoption we received an “F” for failing to give our students the knowledge and skills needed to compete in today’s workforce. I believe the Common Core can make a difference for our students and help create a workforce of creative thinkers and individuals who can work collaboratively to solve problems. But it’s going to require a cultural shift in how we think about educating our students. The point was hit home for me last summer when I attended Harvard’s Project Zero courtesy of the Martin Institute. A professor shared his meeting with a top executive from a company in Michigan; she asked him what was going on in schools. She explained that she hired top graduates from universities across the country, but they couldn’t solve problems. They wanted the formula and her reply was, “…if I knew that, I didn’t need to hire you!”

My training in Common Core began in 2010. I’ll admit it took a year to wrap my head around this change. It initially seemed like a shorter list of grade level expectations. However, as my training progressed, I realized that wasn’t the case. The Common Core standards are more rigorous and the concepts taught build upon one another, as students progress through each grade. I started to realize it wasn’t about what I was teaching but how I was teaching it!

In the past year there has been a lot of negative press surrounding Common Core. It’s clear to me there is a great deal of misunderstanding about its purpose and how it’s being implemented in districts across the country. Tennessee has implemented Common Core from the State Department of Education down to each district across our great state. No other state in our country is approaching Common Core implementation the way we are.

My training from Harvard’s Project Zero, as well as a Common Core Math Coach, dictated a new approach to my instruction. This past school year I taught an amazing group of second graders. For the first time in my ten years of teaching I didn’t feel pressed to cover material. I wanted my students to go deep into content and think, to find ways to solve problems and work with their peers. Fast forward to this year and I’m teaching third grade. One of my second grade students from last year is in my class this year. In fact she was one of my struggling students last year. But her growth in my class this year has amazed me; she’s one of my top scoring math students this year. Why the difference? I firmly believe it’s due to implementing the principles of common core: teaching her to think analytically and creatively; going deeper into content and really analyzing what’s before her instead of teaching her how to memorize facts. Does she still have some work to do? Absolutely! But her performance this year has shown me that if we give our students the tools and time they need to use critical thinking and problem solving skills they can be prepared for the workforce when they graduate.

We still have a lot of work to do. This cultural shift isn’t going to happen overnight, but if we want our students in Tennessee to be prepared for the workforce of the future, whatever that might be, we have to give them the tools to think. I believe that the Common Core standards, along with good instructional practices, can help our students achieve more.

Students actively engaged in Karen Vogelsang’s classroom.
CTE Finds Common Core Not So Different, but Deeper

In 1981 Barbara Mandrell released the song “I Was Country, When Country Wasn’t Cool.” In the song, Mandrell reflected on the things she did that were country before others found them to be “cool” and began to mimic those same things.  In many ways, Career and Technical Education teachers could make the same proclamation about Common Core: “We were Common Core, when Common Core wasn’t cool.”

In many aspects, CTE teachers have already been doing the Common Core Standards even before they were created. Students read technical manuals, wrote essays, and thought critically about their projects. This has made the implementation of the Common Core State Standards into CTE courses painless. In fact, Common Core has left many of my colleagues asking, “How is this different from what we have been doing?”

The Common Core State Standards are very similar to what we have been doing for years in CTE programs. However, with that being said, the Common Core State Standards force students to go deeper than previously required. Now, rather than simply reading a manual and writing about what they have read, my students read articles and form arguments based on the evidence they find in the text.

In my Green Technology class, I asked my students to write an argumentative essay about government subsidies for renewable energies. One article I presented to them argued in favor of government subsidies, while another argued that subsidies should be ended. After reading the articles, my students formed their arguments and wrote evidence-based essays.

At first, the process was slow and tedious; however, with guidance and prompting, my students began to construct thorough essays that outlined arguments that were supported with evidence. In fact, my students not only used the article that supported their positions, they also began to use the counter article to support their arguments as well. They were going deeper! After a few revisions, my students had well-developed essays that established their positions and were supported with evidence.

Today’s workplace demands that employees be able to evaluate, process, and communicate information. The skills my students honed during the essay exercise will be critical for their future career success. Industry relies on the ability of employees to make recommendations for future equipment purchases, communicate information to customers, and interpret data used to guide future production. With Common Core, these skills will become second nature to students.

Although CTE programs have been doing many of the finer points of Common Core for years, room for improvement remains. The standards do not replace what CTE teachers do, but they do force students to go deeper than before, and they encourage them to think more critically about their writing. I am looking forward to what the Common Core State Standards can bring to my classroom as I implement them into my lessons, and I truly believe that I will see tremendous growth in my students as a result. And, remember, CTE teachers can one day proudly hold their heads high and say “We were Common Core, when Common Core wasn’t cool.”