Monday, June 10, 2013

Common Core Standards are a tool, not a complete toolbox

Common Core Standards Logo
For many teachers, administrators and parents, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) adopted by 45 out of the 50 states are causing common core brain pain instead of common core brain gain. In The Washington Post (6/10/2013), Mr. Jack Markell, the governor of Delaware and the co-chair of the Common Core Standards Initiative offered some relief from the pain in his op-ed piece, “A Core correction.” He explains that the CCSS offers a straightforward list of goals that teachers should use to focus their lessons. Mr. Markell clarifies what I have come to understand: These standards are a tool, not a toolbox for education.

Daily, I read various online sources such as Education Week, the National Council of English Teachers group discussions on LinkedIn, and numerous teacher blogs. I also have conversations with colleagues still in the classroom, educators in the social media, and parents concerned about what their children are or are not learning. From all of these sources, the arguments against the CCSS do not stem from the standards themselves, although some people balk at anything that is mandated by state and/or Federal governments, but from how they are interpreted and implemented.

The CCSS are forthright. Each one is a factual statement. One of the Reading for Information Grades 9-10  goals states, “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text,” (CCSS R1 9-10 1).

The controversy springs from how the standards are interpreted and implemented. Any interpretation is composed of facts laced with subjectivity. With CCSS R1 9-10 1, the adverb explicitly and the adjectives strong and thorough are up for interpretation. What is explicit, strong and thorough to an English teacher- from rookie to multi-decade veteran-may be a pea soup fog to an administrator whose last English analysis class was Communications 101 his/her freshman year of college. This misunderstanding might result in a conflict where the principal demands all English teachers to create and implement as many lessons as necessary to promise clarity.

Hamlet understood conflict when he said, “Therein lies the rub” (Hamlet William Shakespeare) even though he struggled with dreams vs. reality and in education the person vs. person discord stems from a lack of academic understanding. This…not the CCSS... is the cause of pedagogical arguments, confrontations, misunderstandings and morale issues.

Once again, the standards are a tool, like a garden shovel. Teachers use this device to plant the seeds of understanding, to cultivate the shoots of knowledge, to weed out threats to insight, and to nurture degrees of comprehension for each and every student. Due their day after day classroom interactions, teachers know their charges’ skills and abilities, who are left, right or whole brain oriented, and who are visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners. It makes total sense that they should create the lessons that they must implement to engage and motivate their students so they meet and/or exceed the CCSS goals.

Teachers are hired based on their education, knowledge and understanding of their subject area as well as their teaching expertise. Why do some of the same administrators who brought them on-board disrespect their instructors’ professionalism by denying them the right to choose a common curriculum along with their department and grade level colleagues? Why do some school districts demand that all subject/grade level educators teach the same content at the same time? 

For example, maybe five English 12 teachers decide on What fiction and nonfiction material will be core and What will be supplemental, as well as What will be their writing, grammar and vocabulary focus. That shows professional cooperation and good teaching practice. Just because their students are in the same grade, though, doesn’t mean that they all share the same skills and abilities. 

Certified teachers, those same professionals that the districts hired, have been taught how to ascertain student needs. They should be respected enough to decide When, Why, How and How Much study and emphasis in these areas their students need to be academically successful.  How does a lockstep method ensure that students will develop and strengthen their academic comprehension homes?

Oh, teachers might be told that they can choose How to teach the material, but can this occur if they all have to implement the same assessment like they are told to do in some districts?  And what in the world does this have to do with the CCSS? Maybe in the study of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, I choose to concentrate on the existential qualities of Meursault, another colleague emphasizes the symbolism and yet another stresses character development. How could we possibly utilize the exact same assessment, and why should we if we all addressed the same elements of literature Common Core Standards for this study in the first place? 

In any literature unit, teachers will focus on all of these standards because they are elemental, even though the depth might differ. And that is okay because these standards are repeated again and again in grades 1-12, adding layer after layer after layer of understanding to students’ comprehension homes.  

The elephant in the classroom-that the CCSS are state mandated- is an issue for many educators. They have every right to disagree with their adoption. When they first appeared on the educational horizon, I, too, felt a ball of aversion stick in my throat. Like my colleagues, I had never been willing to sacrifice my classroom autonomy to a one size fits all policy. Then, I realized that I was giving the CCSS way too much power.

They. Are. A. Tool. I had the power in the classroom as I have it now every time that I create curriculum for ELA teachers. For every activity, unit, PowerPoint or assessment that I create, I choose which CCSS and which Bloom's Taxonomy skills to use. Bloom's Taxonomy offers major goal setting tools because they teach the children to think. I would not leave my lesson planning home without it.

I have no problem with the nationwide standards.  If I still had children in school, I’d want to feel reassured that no matter where I wanted to move- from Bangor, Maine to Biloxi, Mississippi; from the Outer Banks to Los Angeles or from Pierre, North Dakota to Austin, Texas- that my kids would receive the same quality education.

The medical and legal fields share the same general standards across the country, why shouldn’t education? Similarly, the CCSS provides basic benchmarks. They don’t demand that all tenth graders in every high school in every state teach Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, for example. They DO detail the objectives- the Whys, that teachers much meet for any literature that they select, but leave the What, the How and the When up to the instructors’ professional opinions.

Anyone who cares about the quality of education needs to recognize that the CCSS is a tool and not a complete toolbox.

Anyone who cares about the quality of education needs to respect every teacher’s right to choose which aspects of this implement to use, alone or in conjunction with whatever other scholastic resource they feel will enable their students to succeed.

Anyone who cares about the quality of education shouldn’t cloud the CCSS realities with their interpretations for their own personal or professional gain.

After all, the Common Core State Standards were developed so every child in every corner of every state may enjoy the success of a quality education. And that is all that matters.

Happy Teaching,


  1. Excellent post and my thoughts exactly. I've known so many teachers who have turned up their noses to standards (Common Core or State, for that matter). When I was a new teacher they were a lifesaver! It was so helpful to have that set list of goals! We're in a PLC corporation and, actually, I really like it. The other English 10 teacher and I worked together to create our curriculum and pacing guide, but we still teach in very different ways. Thanks for the enlightening post!

  2. This is a great post. I've struggled to appreciate the Common Core because of it's seeming uniformity, but what a great picture of it as a tool to strengthen our teaching, not a toolbox in which our only tools are located. Thanks for a meaningful look into such a timely topic.