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Hi! I'm Owen Winkler, and I write this drivel. This blog is about my own life and my random observations thereof. Sometimes I write about technical stuff here, but mostly that's at RedAlt. Please enjoy, or if not, click on my ads. Either is fine with me.

May 2, 2014 12:00am

My Thoughts on Common Core

I read a piece by Cory Doctorow called Standardized testing and schools as factories: Louis CK versus Common Core which talks about a comedian who dislikes the application of Common Core.

I'm not writing to defend Common Core, at least not fully.  People around our district that talk about it seem to have a limited understanding or a skewed perspective on what it is.  I think the problems with Common Core are often not what people most frequently surface.

8ef7c930-b44a-11e3-84f5-9547b2943d40_commoncorephoto.pngConsider this critique of Common Core math homework.  It complains that the problem solved with Common Core techniques is significantly more complex than traditional methods.  But the traditional method of solving this seemingly simple subtraction problem (427-316) has some problems of its own.

First, using the "line up the numbers and subtract the bottom from the top" method for the solution is just as much a contrived procedure as the Common Core way.  There is no intuitive leap that a child can take that puts these numbers in this layout to ease the subsequent artificial process of subtracting the bottom number from the top.

Second, if the problem required "borrowing", such as the problem 427-336 might, the traditional method gets much more complicated.  In contrast, the Common Core method of solving the problem is exactly the same.

Third, the Common Core method of solving the problem gives a more complete and fundamental intuitive explanation of why a person can solve the problem in this way.  The traditional method doesn't provide any explanation of - when you subtract the 3 from the 4 you get a 1 - what has actually happened to the quantities involved.  Having this intrinsic understanding of the number is incredibly important to build on for subsequent math.  It's my opinion that lack of emphasis on this understanding when using a traditional approach to teaching math is the reason why our country is lagging so far behind the rest of the world in mathematics concepts!

I would ask parents who don't understand the Common Core concepts to consider whether they're willing to prepare their children with the appropriate tools for the future.  Using the old ways is like giving your child a chunk of clay and only ever showing them that it can make ash trays, when a better understanding of clay's properties and capabilities would be more likely to lead them to great artistry or utility.

Many complaints I hear about Common Core are from parents that simply don't understand how their kids are being taught a subject.  Rather than complain that you can't help them, why don't you try to learn what they're learning at school and participate?

Now, that said...

Common Core utterly fails when it comes to evaluation.  It presents these concepts in good, new ways, but then insists that everyone learn to produce the results in exactly the same way.  This is completely contrary to the advantages that Common Core can deliver!

Moreover, the standardized testing that Common Core encourages is so extremely gamed by the teachers that it's almost worthless.

I love (the majority of) our school district's teachers.  They're excellent at their jobs, and work in a bad market.  And I don't blame them for wanting to do their best to get the best for our kids.  Still, once a year for a whole week prior to actually taking them, the teachers focus on how to best take the assessment tests.  Not just strategies, but practice tests for the types of problems that will be on the test.

This isn't the kind of test that you'd want to do well on to get into college.  This is an assessment of how well the school is able to convey the Common Core topics to its students.  You can see that if you teach to the test, at least in the way I've seen our kids being taught, you're defeating the purpose of the test entirely.

There is also the case of kids learning at different rates and in different ways.  Sometimes, the students don't take tests well, or can't concentrate for the test, but yet be totally competent at the subject matter in a different environment.  Some students excel at the work, and are held back by having to study concepts that are well-known to them just so that their classmates can pass a portion of a state-mandated test.  Some students need help, and need to be coached through things they don't understand yet, which is not allowed on the test.  These are real, common problems that these all too common assessments don't seem to address well.

The quantity of these tests is astounding, and the importance that our school district lays on them is mind-numbing.  If we didn't spend as much time testing constantly, the kids might actually learn twice as much! 

I don't know what the answer is to these assessments, because clearly, we need to make sure that the students are learning what they need to learn at each level, and that the school is doing what it needs to do to achieve it.  But what assessment consists of in a perfect world? I don't know.  All I know is that the current situation is not the best case.

Worse, I believe our schools are suffering by focusing entirely on STEM education, at a detriment to the arts or a more well-rounded and integrated program.  Not all of our kids are going to be the scientists of the future.  And even those scientists will need a lens through which to interpret the influence, utility, and beauty of their work.