Parents, Educators Coping with Common Core as Best They Can

Change is never easy. And when the change drastically affects small children — and, by extension — their parents — the change can be downright difficult.

Such has been the case with Common Core. Despite continued debate, most public schools in most states are currently using the Common Core State Standards (sometimes renamed something like “Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards”) to guide education. The standards don’t tell teachers what (or how) to teach; instead, they outline what students should know and be able to do at various points in their education. So educators are adjusting instruction to help students meet the new objectives, and parents, students and teachers are struggling to cope with the changes.

Parents, perhaps, are struggling most of all. The Common Core and college and career readiness standards represent a sea change in education since most parents attended school, and many parents feel overwhelmed by the changes. Here are four of parents’ most common gripes regarding Common Core — along with some simple suggestions to help ease the transition.

Gripe #1: Abrupt implementation

Although schools have been preparing for the Common Core transition for years, most students and parents experienced a much more rapid transition: one year, math class was “normal,” and the next year, it was Common Core-aligned and alien.

Dawn Papandrea
Dawn Papandrea

Dawn Papandrea’s oldest son was in fourth grade when his Staten Island, New York, school transitioned to Common Core a year ago.

“It was a whole new way of learning from what he’d been used to since kindergarten. There was a big learning curve for the teachers too,” says Papandrea, a writer and mother of two. “I feel like Common Core implementation should have begun with the incoming class of kindergarteners, so as not to disrupt the learning patterns of the older students, while also giving the teachers time for adequate training.”

Most teachers agree that the transition was difficult. “It took me awhile to understand what I was teaching and why, which made it hard for my students and their parents,” says Sara Kassens, a second-grade teacher at Zielanis Elementary School in Kiel, Wisconsin.

Make it easier: Don’t rush to judgment. The college and career readiness standards were developed after careful study of student learning and the skills needed for real-world success. So take some deep breaths, trust and muddle through.

“Now that I really understand Common Core, I love it,” Kassens says. “But getting there requires letting go of how you’ve always done it and being open to new ways of thinking.

Gripe #2: New terminology and new techniques

There are few things more frustrating to a parent than feeling utterly incapable of helping a 6-year-old with his math homework. Yet that scenario is occurring with frightening frequency as parents struggle to make sense of math worksheets that ask students to solve simple math problems in what seems to be about 100 steps.

During his first week of kindergarten, Papandrea’s youngest son came home with a math worksheet that asked him to “place counters in a five frame.”

“I had no idea what they meant,” Papandrea recalls. “It turned out to be a fancy way of saying, ‘count to five.’”

Sara Kassen
Sara Kassen

Make it easier: Keep an open mind — and maintain an open line of communication between home and school.

“Very few parents ask for help to understand the changes,” Kassens says. “They just complain that it’s different, and they don’t get it.”

A more productive approach is to start a dialogue between parent and teacher. Ideally, it’s best for teachers to take the lead; notes home can be helpful, but most parents don’t read them, so schedule some time to discuss new techniques and terminology in person. (Not feasible? Kassens is considering creating a series of videos to add to her classroom blog).

Parents should let their child’s teacher know what they don’t understand. It’s perfectly OK to send your child to school with incomplete homework, along with a note (or email) saying that you didn’t understand the directions. Ask for an explanation, and schedule some time to talk to the teacher, if necessary.

Gripe #3: No time left for science, social studies, art or gym

The Common Core State Standards cover English language arts (ELA) and math — two subjects that are undeniably important. But the emphasis on English and math has led some parents to wonder if other subjects aren’t being neglected.

“I feel like there’s not enough social studies and science content being taught in the younger grades since those subjects are incorporated into ELA,” Papandrea says.

Because students — and ultimately, their schools and teachers — will be assessed on their progress toward the Common Core math and ELA standards, many schools have indeed stacked instructional time heavily in favor of those subjects. However, educators are also strongly encouraged to collaborate across subjects.

The new standards specifically call for the inclusion of nonfiction texts, so many teachers are working with science, social studies and even arts teachers to plan multidisciplinary unit studies. Students may read, discuss and write about habitat in ELA class, and then go on field trips or undertake habitat-related explorations in science class.

Make it easier: Parents can continue to express their support for science, social studies, art and gym. Ask your child’s teachers to tell you how they integrate subject matter across the curriculum. Offer to share your interests and expertise as well. Because the standards are based heavily on college and career readiness, educators are very interested in having members of the community share info about their jobs (and how they use “school subjects” in the real world) with students.

Continue to support and encourage exploration of science, social studies, arts and activity at home as well, with books, educational programming, games and outings to libraries, museums and the outdoors.

Creative collaborations between teachers should continue to grow, and educators should be sure to let parents know about these collaborations.

Gripe #4: Too much testing

Most public school students will be taking Common Core-aligned tests in the spring of 2015, and schools are understandably nervous about student performance. Some schools have gone as far as implementing before-school study sessions, designed to prepare students for the upcoming exams.

Jeanette Deutermann, a founder of the OptOut movement (which empowers parents to opt their students out of Common Core-aligned tests), vividly recalls the note that informed her and her then-fourth-grade son about the Sunrise Academy at his school.

“When I told my son that they wanted him to come in early to do more test prep, he completely melted down. He lay on the floor crying,” Deutermann says.

Papandrea’s school district has taken a more relaxed approach to testing, but she’s still concerned by what she considers an overemphasis on testing.  “I’m fortunate that my school isn’t test-obsessed, but I see the kids stressing out over it anyway, and it’s frustrating to see,” she says.

Make it easier: Although it’s easier said than done, educators and parents should de-emphasize testing, stat. Both parents and educators should focus on student progress toward goals. If you live or work in a district that’s heavily test-centric, do your best to emphasize and reward authentic learning and hard work instead of test scores.

The best way to make things easier? Give it time. The college and career readiness standards are new to educators, students and parents, and it will take time to figure out the best ways to teach the standards in the real world.

“You can’t change an entire educational system overnight, and that’s what we tried to do with Common Core,” Papandrea says. “In a few years, I think it will all work out, but for now, we’re feeling the pains of transition.”

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.