More good than bad with Common Core

The Common Core seems quite good overall, even though we still have some problems with the way New York state implemented these new, nationwide school standards.

After seeing a sizable portion of the Common Core in action with our own children, and after hearing from many teachers and principals, we think we can reassure parents who opted their children out of last year’s tests that the water is safe to swim in this spring. It’s brisk, but not shark infested.

We disagree with people who say the Common Core promotes rote memorization at the expense of teaching students to think. What we’ve seen is more like the opposite. There seem to be more multi-function problems for students to figure out, challenging them to use logic and imagination as well as what they learned.

It also puts more focus, in math, on mastery of one function before moving on to the next – waiting for division, for instance, until students are stronger in multiplication. This steady, depth-learning approach is a nice retreat from cultural trends toward multi-tasking and outsourcing our brain functions to electronic devices. It will serve the students well in the future. How many of us adults too easily forget our times tables? Maybe the next generation will do better in that regard.

By now, all parents should have received the results of their children’s standardized tests last April. Teachers have also received their evaluations, with student test scores factored in. Scores dropped dramatically, as expected. We suspect that’s partly because the state didn’t give teachers enough materials last year. Mostly, however, it’s because these tests are simply more challenging – which is good. The bar has been raised, equally for all. Life is challenging, and responding to challenge is how we get stronger. That’s the basic concept behind all exercise, physical and mental.

Another plus for the Common Core is that it is what its name declares, a common, single standard without variation by state – except for those states that haven’t adopted it yet. New York did, which was wise.

What was unwise, we think, was the haste of implementation, tying students’ test scores to teacher evaluations, and the tests’ marathon length. Nine hours’ worth per child, in six days spread over two weeks, is overdoing it – although thankfully the state Education Department will now start to rein that in.

New York rammed the Common Core into place last school year, and there’s been unnecessary pain as a result of that. A two- or three-year phase-in would have been better, but New York was eager to get federal Race to the Top money. It certainly was a race, and some students and teachers were stepped on.

Because the state didn’t provide teachers with enough materials to prepare students for last year’s tests, kids were asked things they hadn’t been taught. Those additional, necessary teaching modules are now available.

The powerful state teachers union, New York State United Teachers, says that because of these flubs, there should be a three-year moratorium on using test results in teacher evaluations. That might make sense.

It’s important to note that NYSUT supports the Common Core, as do national teacher unions.

“NYSUT supports the Common Core Learning Standards as they are deeper, clearer, and if implemented appropriately, they have the potential to improve student learning,” the union states on its website. It adds, however, “Educators across New York state have made it clear that additional resources are required to make the implementation of the Common Core standards a success.”

We agree. Unfortunately, advocacy turned to rabble rousing as the first of a series of Common Core forums with state education Commissioner John King turned ugly. King canceled the rest of them, then thankfully reinstated them. We hope he has the courage to listen with open ears to the people who have been upset by the state’s Common Core implementation, and we also hope the other side can be respectful and try to understand how these new standards might improve education in the long run.