When it comes to Common Core, trust yourself

Suzanne McCabe  //  Jan 16, 2014

When it comes to Common Core, trust yourself

A colleague's Facebook friend recently posted a math problem that her 6-year-old had brought home from school. Several people tried unsuccessfully to solve it.

"No wonder so many parents hate the Common Core," oberved one "friend." Another said that even her husband, who is studying for a PhD in neuroscience, was stumped.

I emailed my 23-year-old nephew, Nick, a math and economics major who works in finance and is my go-to guy for this sort of thing.

"What a terribly worded question," he replied. He then solved the problem (correctly, I'm guessing), concluding: "If it's not something like that, I have no idea what it could be."

The poor 6-year-old who was charged with this assignment. His poor mom. His poor teacher.

Many teachers are being made to feel that they should no longer trust their instincts in the classroom, that they have to teach in ways that defy logic.

Consider this teacher's dilemma: "I'm continually being asked to have my first graders collaborate and do projects. Shouldn't I teach them some fundamentals first? Does Common Core mean that there is no more direct teaching?"

I asked Dr. Maria Walther, a first grade teacher and author from Illinois, what she thought. Ever since I heard Maria speak at Scholastic's Teacher Appreciation Week last summer, I've been a fan. Here is her response:

Dear Fellow First Grade Teacher,

As we transform our teaching to meet the expectations of the Common Core, it is essential that we not abandon evidence-based practices in our classrooms. To quote from the introduction to the ELA Standards: “Teachers are . . . free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the Standards.”

One successful practice is the gradual release of responsibility model. When we teach anything, from throwing a ball to decoding unknown words, we begin by showing the learners how an expert does it. This demonstration is clearly an example of direct teaching. Then we gradually release the responsibility by saying, “OK, let’s try this together.” Next, we send children out to practice independently, all the while supporting them with prompting and guidance. We know that students have truly learned the skill or behavior when they can apply their learning independently to other situations.

Common Core Standards are end-of-the-year goals. You are right to think that several prerequisite skills and strategies must be taught before students can apply their learning independently or collaboratively.

Maria Walther

I hope that more people will listen to voices like Maria's. The standards represent our best opportunity yet to raise academic achievement, something that all of us agree is necessary. But disempowering teachers and abandoning common sense will get us nowhere.