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*In recent months, there’s been a tremendous amount of buzz regarding an educational change called Common Core. And a ton of that buzz perpetuates down-right false information. There’s so much to say about this that I’ve developed a five-part series debunking these myths — or outright lies, if you’re being cynical. This is the first in that series, which will continue on Wednesdays throughout August and into September. Of course, I’ll be writing from a math perspective. Photo Credit: Watt_Dabney via Compfight cc*

### Myth #1: Common Core is a Curriculum

This is perhaps the most pervasive misunderstanding. In fact, the Common Core Standards are simply that: *standards*. In education-speak, this means **they are statements of what students should know, upon completing a course or grade**. Common Core does something a bit more than other sets of standards, giving a clear expectation of the depth of this understanding. Compare these fifth-grade math standards, one from Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) and it’s corresponding objective from Common Core:

SOL: The student will describe the relationship found in a number pattern and express the relationship.

Common Core: Generate two numerical patterns using two given rules. Identify apparent relationships between corresponding terms. Form ordered pairs consisting of corresponding terms from the two patterns, and graph the ordered pairs on a coordinate plane.

For example, given the rule “Add 3” and the starting number 0, and given the rule “Add 6” and the starting number 0, generate terms in the resulting sequences, and observe that the terms in one sequence are twice the corresponding terms in the other sequence. Explain informally why this is so.

The Common Core Standard isn’t just longer — it expresses much more depth. Students begin to pay attention to the relationships between numerical expressions, algebraic expressions and graphing. The goal is for students to know that these number patterns can be shown in a variety of different ways. And that’s a pretty big deal when students get into more complex algebra.

But here’s the thing: **How students are taught is left completely to school districts and/or states**. Some select ready-made curriculum, like *Everyday Mathematics*. Others opt to develop their own curriculum, which is exactly what my daughter’s middle school did.

Certainly, curriculum development companies have leapt on the opportunity to create new lessons, textbooks, activities and online components that correspond with Common Core. That’s capitalism at work in our country. (And it’s fed my bottom line quite well over the last three years. I’ve turned away more work this summer than I was able to accept.) **There is nothing in the Common Core that dictates which curriculum must adopt**, however. Localities still have control over that decision and process.

This is not to say that the Common Core hasn’t forced some pretty major changes in how mathematics is taught. **Under these standards, students are encouraged to discover mathematical concepts, rather than be told how math works or should be understood.** For traditionalists this could be a bad change. Yet, I believe that a discovery-based approach helps students conceptualize mathematics, which gives them a much better chance at developing strong numeracy than those who learn merely by rote. More on that in a later myth.

But regardless of what you think of the standards themselves, it’s important to know that they are merely a guideline for teachers and schools. Just like state educational standards — and each state has them — Common Core is merely outlining what the students should know, once they’ve mastered the material. Now how states and districts choose to *measure *students’ understanding of the standards is a different story — and a completely separate discussion of the standards themselves.

*Got a question about the Common Core Standards for Mathematics? Please ask! Disagree with my assessment above? Share it!*

Ann Laing says

Interesting read and comparison with SOLs. As someone who learned math by being told how it works rather than by discovery (some 65 years ago!) it seems foreign to me and I’m glad I don’t have to teach it. At the same time, I know from my own experience that discovery is the best way to learn. I’ll be interested in your future posts since I have heard lots of “bad” things about common core and needed some solid information. Thanks. BTW, how is this changing the way teaching math is taught to elementary majors in college?

Laura says

Thanks, Mom! (Yes, my mom reads my blog. How cool is that?) The beauty of discovery is that it’s more about facilitation than teaching. It’s pretty difficult for many teachers to make that shift, especially since it requires such different things of the students and the class time, but once the transition clicks in, I think facilitation is easier than traditional teaching. And the payoffs are huge. The kids really do light up when they figure something out on their own. When they’re asked to explain their process, they can burst their buttons in pride.

I don’t know how teaching education has changed. I have a friend who heads up this program (in math) at Towson University. I’ll pose my question to her, and perhaps write a post about her response.

Laura

Mellissa DeMille says

Okay, I guess we have to myth-bust a “myth-buster”

“Myth #1: Common Core is a Curriculum …In fact, the Common Core Standards are simply that: standards. In education-speak, this means they are statements of what students should know, upon completing a course or grade.”

From the Oxford Dictionary (and most other dictionaries):

“The subjects comprising a course of study in a school or college.”

The statements above seem to concur–“statements of what students should know, upon completing a course or grade” = “The subjects comprising a course of study in a school or college.”

My district pretty much copied word for word the CC Math Standards and posted them as our “Math Curriculum”.

And for a less formal definition of curriculum: “Under these standards, students are encouraged to discover mathematical concepts, rather than be told how math works or should be understood.” This is specifying more than what math should be taught, it is specifying HOW.

I know that stating that CCSS is not a curriculum is a major talking point for CCSS defenders, but saying it doesn’t make it so.

Laura says

You bring up some great points, Mellissa. Thanks for posting.

It’s terrible that your district gave no additional information about its curriculum. In that usage, Common Core is clearly not a curriculum. You deserve more information than that.

I agree wholeheartedly that the Common Core dips its toes into the business of curriculum. As you correctly point out, identifying how math should be taught is more on the side of curriculum. However, I object to the idea that Common Core is a “national curriculum,” as some folks who oppose the initiative have said. (I don’t read that message in your post, Mellissa.) The extreme objections I’ve read muddy the lines between standards and curriculum to the point that it seems the federal government is printing textbooks. In fact, I’ve read on message boards and Facebook this very misinformation.

Because the rhetoric has been so strident (in some quarters), there are parents and non-parents out there who firmly believe that the federal government is dictating which textbooks should be used in the classrooms. In fact, states are not even required to adopt the standards (though there is a small initiative in Race to the Top). If states are completely opposed to the program, they can skip it altogether. And as I mentioned, states that do adopt the standards are free to choose any curriculum that meets those objectives. (Believe me, there are PLENTY out there! I’ve written for many of them.)

It’s surprising to many that there are a variety of different ways to teach math, even with the nudge that Common Core gives to discovery-based programs. For example, a district could eschew all memorization, while another could introduce concepts via discovery and then reinforced with memorization techniques. There is still a great deal of flexibility in the Common Core.

Again, thanks for commenting, and for allowing me to clarify!

Laura

Barry Garelick says

You’re quite right that there are many ways to teach math and that the standards can be interpreted and implemented along different approaches. I’ve identified some ways that can be used for some selected standards from first and second grade in an article I wrote, located here: http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2014/08/06/common-sense-approach-common-core-math-standards

Laura says

Thanks for sharing, Barry!

Laura

Virgil Middendorf says

As a Parent, I have been at every public meeting related to common core for the school district that my children attend. The curriculum director makes it clear that common core is just standards. Then later in the meeting, we would get presentations from teachers on how the math curriculum aligned to common core will do a better job teaching students. So in these meetings, I received a conflicting message.

So far, both of my children have been under common core for two years. I am pleased with the math education my 1st grader got. The curriculum was very traditional and my son learned the math really quickly. He should get some credit though. He put in the work learning his addition and subtraction facts.

My daughter on the other hand, finished 6th grade with problems. The transition to a more challenging curriculum resulted in her not mastering math completely. I think there were issues with the curriculum even before common core arrived starting at 3rd grade. It really bothered me that very little math homework was sent home to reinforce math learned in the classroom. This may be considered “rote”, but I personally think it is important for the mastery of math. When moving on to the next step in math, the student has to do the previous step without much thinking. I was not impressed when my daughter had to do perimeter and area problems involving decimals and fractions, when it was clear she hasn’t mastered operations involving decimals and fractions.

Laura says

You should be commended for your commitment to your children’s education, Virgil. I believe that partnerships between parents and educators provide the best foundation for solid education.

The introduction of Common Core presents a problem that occurs each time we tinker with our educational system — children are caught in the middle between two approaches. All of us parents (my daughter is starting high school this fall) will notice that our children are confused by the changes and may not receive the best education possible. There’s no denying that fact.

Problem is, there are so many moving parts in education: teachers must get up to speed on the new requirements and methods, students must learn how to work in groups or express their understanding verbally, parents must trust the process, and schools must be given the resources (time, money and tools) to meet this challenge. And we all know none of those things happen perfectly.

The single most important factor in a child’s education is the teacher. Period. When a student has a bad teacher, the obstacles to learning are huge. Research and common sense bear this out. And yet, teachers are human. They have limitations and difficulties. Some shouldn’t be in the classroom at all. Others simply need more time and resources to meet these new standards. And from time to time, a teacher — like any human being — just has a bad year.

Luckily, learning happens over many, many years. One great thing about Common Core is that these concepts — decimals and fractions, for example — are introduced over and over. As adults, we forget that it took us *years* to really understand and perform the process of finding a common denominator or performing long division. Remember, the standards are flexible.

I’m sure you can guess that I disagree with you about rote learning. But that’s okay. Some kids are naturals at that process, and that’s great for them. I just want all students to have a clear understanding of the concepts behind the algorithms or math facts. That represents true numeracy.

Thanks so much for commenting, Virgil.

Laura