July 30, 2013

Tuesday Teaching Tidbit : Common Core Thoughts

Sadly, my tried and true camera finally permanently bit the dust and my newer, nicer one doesn't seem to want to take video longer than one minute long.  Kind of a problem for me, but hopefully there's something I'm not understanding about this new device.  But until I get it figured out, you're going to have to read because when have I ever been able to hold my comments to a minute or less?  Never.  Haha!

I have avoided typing, talking, or blogging about Common Core like the plague because controversy makes me uneasy and I don't handle criticism especially well.  I was invited to speak on the radio about it and politely declined because I feel like I am in no way informed enough to act like an authority on the subject.  But being a voice in the homeschooling scene, I've gotten a fair share of inquiries on the topic, so it seems time that I share my thoughts.  And again, let's just be clear that I'm just a mom navigating the same public storm as all the rest.  I'm not in any way an expert on what's coming down the line.  This is just where I am on the topic at the moment.  Capish?  

So, the bulk of notes and questions I get about Common Core go something along the lines of, 

Dear Skyla,
       Everyone's freaking out about Common Core.  You haven't said anything about it except that one time on facebook.  What gives?  Should we be freaking out, or what?
                                                                                      Loving and Devoted Reader  :)

Here we go!  I have declined to form a hard core opinion about Common Core simply because there is a significant dirth of reliable information out there.  Most people that I hang out with in the homeschooling realm are all hopped up on Glen Beck clips and are completely up in arms over the whole thing - as well they should be if what he says is true.  But before I can freak out with them, I think It's political media.  Love it or not, the reality is that their viewership depends greatly on controversy.  So I feel a little apologetic for not getting all frazzled as my friends try over and over again to convince me that this is pure evil.  And I do like getting the news clips and articles in my in-box, so keep 'em coming.  At the moment, I'm kind of just waiting to be won over by a reasonable argument either way, so I really do appreciate the media that readers and friends send me.  I'm just still not quite convinced.  

I suppose that is why I'm finally willing to write about the controversy (that and all of your nagging to pick a side!  Ha!).  Since I don't have a dog in the fight, and I'm still searching for the truth of this matter, I kind of want to invite some constructive and convincing arguments so that I can keep chipping away at this big boulder in the middle of educational discourse.  Since I'm not about to try and commit you to a team, let me just lay out what I see as the pros and cons in my current state of understanding.  

I will concede that the data collecting aspect of Common Core, if hacked into by extremists or used by a sincerely corrupt government (no comparing presidential administrations to Nazi Germany, please.  That's just absolutely absurd and offensive no matter how you cut it.) could be completely devastating.  The idea of some crazy hacker with an agenda suddenly being able to access everyone's religious affiliation and bus schedule all in one place seems like a recipe for disaster.  

That said, countries who have collected enormous amounts of data over long amounts of time seem to have an edge in academics.  As a homeschooler, this has very little impact on our schooling.  As a teacher, it could have huge impact on how and what I teach individual students in my class that fit the bill as being high need in a particular area.  So I can envision a major plus here.  

In the end, I guess you just have to weigh potential privacy invasion versus quality of educational data.  Had this come up 3 years ago, it would have seemed like a clear choice.  In the post-Snowden era, it takes a little more thoughtful consideration.  There are certainly countries in which the government having my child's bus schedule and religious affiliation on file would be alarming to me, but I'm still deciding whether or not our country is one of those.  

The only other downside that I can see is the inflexibility that districts will now suffer if they feel a change needs to be made.  There seems to be lingering confusion, even among administrators, as to who will be capable of enacting changes when they need to be made.  No system has ever been perfect.  The perfect system is the one that has a clear and calculated means by which it can be altered over time to meet the needs of those who are bound by it.  Our constitution was pretty darn close to perfect in that it included a process by which it could be amended.  For Common Core to stand a chance, it needs to get clear (and make school officials clear) on who has the ability to make changes and how those who see a need for change can go about having that concern addressed.  


From what I can tell, the academic standards really are going to be much higher under Common Core and this thrills me to the core (no pun intended).  In the past (as in a few months back), when I've gotten on public school sites to find grade level appropriate practice problems for my kids, I've been shocked at how little they expect of kids.  Once over the shock, I've upped the grade level search  by 3 grade or so and found things that I felt were more appropriate.  Last week, however, I bought a box of Common Core cards from the teacher supply store with 50 LA and 50 math test questions from the 5th grade CC standards.  I fully expected them to be more lame, substandard questions but went with it anyway just to help the kids get used to the testing language they will face on the new tests.  You know what?  Some of them are killer hard.  I'm so impressed.  If the new  teaching framework sets kids up for that level of skill, I'm considering it a gigantic leap from what we've been doing.  And if we're giving teachers in every state the training to teach to that level, well, I just might barter my privacy if it means that kids around the nation will be challenged and prepared for the world ahead of them.  I am way impressed with the level of rigor as compared to what the old standard was.  

Higher standards are a good thing and I think this is a step in the right direction.  Still, with higher standards come the notes home that children aren't rising to the occasion, that they need more instruction outside of school, that they need special intervention.  This may seem like a bad thing, and for a while I anticipate that it will be.  But any new program is going to have a transitional period, and I hope that we make allowances for that before we judge the program too harshly.  As homeschoolers, we're not stuck to any one company for curriculum, which means that sometimes we make a change, say from Singapore math to Saxon, or more recently to Teaching Textbooks.  This means that I know all too well the growing pains of going with a new curriculum that doesn't precisely pick up where the previous one left off.  There's a little period of struggle when we move from one program to another and the standards weren't perfectly aligned.  That's to be expected. 

The other pro that I see comes from a piece I listened to on the radio about a state that pulled out of the commitment to use one of the tests.  It's the test that assesses college readiness.  They explained that it was too expensive for their district to afford, at a whopping 25 bucks per test, and then they went on to explain why it is so expensive.  They were trying to make a case for why they're not using it, but their case sold me on this test.  It's everything I would want in a college readiness test.  It's expensive because it is graded by real humans.  In a portion of the math, you actually have to show your work to get credit.  No more guessing D when you have no real clue and then just getting lucky.  And a solid portion of the language arts is also graded by a human.  That's huge!  That's totally worth 25 bucks, in my humble opinion.  Granted, for me, that adds up to just $75 for my three kids and for a school district, it must feel like a punch in the gut.  But the quality of those $25 per student seems like more bang for your buck than new bulletin board budgets and new flatter screen televisions.  I've been in the classroom.  The waste is sometimes obscene.  Especially in those upper grades where teachers aren't having to buy all of the art and craft supplies.  I watched teachers discuss how, if they didn't spend their full budget, they'd get less the next year, so they compared notes on how to use up the money they had left on seemingly necessary (and yet totally unnecessary) technologies.  So I'm all for cutting more corners and spending the cash to really accurately evaluate what's going on.  I know every district is different in their spending, but there's as much illogical waste in education as anywhere else in government, we just feel like we're not allowed to call out schools for wasting.  They're ethically beyond reproach for some reason.

So, that's where I'm at.  I think I'm leaning in favor of Common Core, which is certainly not going to win me any friends in the homeschooling arena.  Hit me with some persuasive arguments and show me what I'm missing.  I'm still soft in my stance here.  But I'm warning you, I'm not easily persuaded by hearsay or alarmists.  I want to know the source before I'm willing to get upset over it.  And if the source is a fringe talking head, I'm going to need to know their source too.  LOL!  For now, I speak from my own experience being disappointed in what has been considered grade appropriate and delighted at the more rigorous Common Core standards.  That's pretty much it.  Creeped out by the tracking, and enamored with the standards and testing methods.  If we could drop all of the tracking, I'd be no doubt in all the way.  And had Snowden not recently changed the world, I might have been willing to overlook that too.  Anyway, I look forward to more debate on the topic and seeing where we end up as a nation with this ambitious, if a little creepy, education plan.  


  1. Skyla,
    You have really approached this issue with the spirit of consultation. Well done. Where can homeschoolers get more information about the common core?


    1. Thanks, Jordan! Most states that have adopted Common Core have their own state-sponsored site explaining what changes will be coming for their districts. For Utah, it's here http://www.schools.utah.gov/core/ and it has a fact vs. fiction tab at the bottom. I suppose, if you're a skeptical reader, you might assume this section to be full of pro-core propaganda. That seems to be the trend in these parts. For homeschoolers, I imagine the only real changes will be for those whose states require certain curricula be used at home. In our state, we're pretty much free to use what we like at this point, and our kids only have to take the tests if we choose to educate via online public schools. Most of what I find when I search homeschool and common core, I find articles about how more people will homeschool because they will not want their kids in common core programs. We shall see.


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