“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.