Students on Common Core

Ask nearly any American adult with school-age children about Common Core, and you’re bound to hear an opinion. Mention “Common Core” in a gathering of educators, and you’ll hear a lot of discussion about the implementation of the standards and preparation for the upcoming Common Core-aligned assessments. But say the words “Common Core” to a group of students, and you’ll probably be met with blank stares.

Despite the rhetoric — stories of schoolchildren dissolving in tears, blaming Common Core for onerous homework loads — many students seem utterly unconcerned with (and unaware of) Common Core’s impact. While adults struggle to accept and adapt to a set of standards that’s drastically different from what they experienced as students, college- and career-readiness-based standards are the norm for many of today’s students. Here’s what a sampling of current school kids told us when we asked them about the Common Core:

Common Core? What’s Common Core?

When asked about Common Core, Ty Velhuisen, a freshman at Bellingham High School in Washington State, responded, “I haven’t really heard about it.” His school, like most other Washington state public schools, has been working to align its curriculum with the Common Core State Standards since 2012. Yet Velhuisen is unaware that some of the things he sees on a daily basis in his classes — group discussions in math class, for instance — may well be grounded in the new academic standards. (CCSS.Math.Practice.MP3 standard states, “Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.”)

In fact, most of the students we talked to don’t really know much about the Common Core standards or college-and career-readiness standards. Rachel Olive, a sixth-grade student at Velma Hamilton Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin, got closest when she stated, “It’s a curriculum where all teachers are teaching the same thing at the same time. So like every sixth-grade school in the country is teaching the same thing right now.”

Olive, unlike many students, is aware that the standards are guiding her education, and that the goal of the standards is to ensure consistency of standards (and education) throughout the country. Yet, like many adults, Olive confuses the standards with curriculum, and assumes what’s going on in her classroom is representative of all classrooms.

“I feel like schools don’t spend enough time on one topic because Common Core doesn’t let them,” Olive said. “We have to keep moving and moving. I think Common Core really doesn’t allow someone enough time to process something, so there’s not enough time for you to thoroughly learn the topic.”

Olive believes Common Core is responsible for what she perceives as rushing through various topics, yet many educators who have worked with Common Core say that one of the strengths of the standards is their focus on mastery, which they say allows them more, not less, time to concentrate on topics. The tendency to conflate what’s happening in one class or school with the standards as a whole plagues students, educators and parents, and has led to massive confusion about what the standards are and are not.

Check your biases

The students who seem most aware of Common Core and the new college- and career-readiness standards are children of educators and activists — children who have heard the adults in their lives discussing the pros and cons of the standards.

Anna Kassens is a fourth-grade student in rural Wisconsin; her mother, Sara, is a second-grade teacher at the same school. When Anna was asked if she’d heard of Common Core, she responded, “Yeah, that’s what we’re working on in fourth grade,” and shared her experience:

“It’s a different kind of math than what we were doing… they gave us some problems where sometimes you would have to do double-step problems… Some of the kids in my class knew times-ing [multiplication] so they used that, but the rest of us had to do the double step instead of sitting there.”

Contrast Anna’s experience and depiction of Common Core math with the widely shared videos of schoolchildren in tears about Common Core.

Supporting students

The takeaway lesson for parents and educators: Children often pick up on and parrot the biases of the adults around them. The single best way to support a child who’s struggling to adapt to new academic standards and/or teaching methods is to keep your personal biases out of any conversations within earshot of children. Adults can — and most certainly should — discuss and debate appropriate academic standards. Involving children in the debate, though, makes it difficult for them to concentrate on learning.

It’s also important to let students work through their own issues. Many parents feel overwhelmed and confused by some of the Common Core-aligned math worksheets coming home with their children, and many are tempted to help their children solve the problems with techniques they consider simpler because that’s what they learned at school. However, research suggests that children learn more when they’re allowed to work through problems. Instead of solving the problem for your child, it’s better to point him or her toward resources.

“One thing that isn’t helpful is when my dad gets his tablet and goes on the calculator and is telling me the answers,” Anna Kassens said. “I’m like, ‘But I need to know how to do the problem.’ What’s really helpful is our teacher letting us take our math folders home, because they have our times tables in the back.”

For many students, the new college- and career-readiness standards are a fact of life. The standards clearly affect their education, but unless the adults in their lives point out the standards’ existence, most students will simply go about their daily lives, learning as they go.

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.

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