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Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes


Common Core or Extraordinary Core?

A donor who was about to be a judge in our annual fourth grade Mission Debate asked me, “Why are some politicians talking about eliminating Common Core Standards? What are the Common Core Standards anyway?” I gave her a brief explanation and assured her that she would see them in action during the debate.

A few years ago, there were attention-grabbing headlines in various cities across the country about “the rolling out of the Common Core Standards.” 44 states adopted Common Core and politicians on both the right and the left endorsed them. The standards were generated from surveying industry and business leaders, as well as university educators. The survey asked what tools they thought were needed for college and global economy success. These standards privileged 21 C skills like critical thinking and the use of cross-disciplinary real-world problems to teach basic skills. Many independent schools saw Common Core as representative of how we had been teaching for a long time.

Historically, United States education has been locally controlled. Each state, indeed each district, has set standards for education. In the twentieth century, the two states that were the largest purchasers of textbooks – California and Texas – often set the agenda for other states with respect to content standards, because the textbooks geared their content to the desires of these two states. Since the beginning of this millennium, several national groups coalesced to create national standards. In 2009, President Obama linked a state’s eligibility for waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act to the adoption of the Common Core Standards, which were adopted by California and forty-three other states. Adoption of the standards meant that teachers needed professional development to implement the standards, textbooks and assessments needed to be realigned, and school compliance needed to be addressed.

This standards movement has sparked the usual spate of arguments that accompany any national education reform. But in this contentious election cycle, the arguments have increased in volume and in divisiveness. Most of the detractors raise concern about the role of the federal government in local education initiatives. They firmly believe that states need to have the autonomy to set their own standards. Interestingly, states are free to not adopt the standards, and some states with their own standards still received No Child Left Behind funding.

It is quite clear to me that the contested nature of Common Core is linked to something beyond the states rights issues and beyond resistance to all Obama initiatives. Common Core challenges teachers to create complex units. These standards do not easily fit into a scripted textbook system that has been the most expedient way to teach large groups of children in public schools.

Among the premises of the Common Core is that teachers cover fewer topics but take deeper dives into each topic, introduce mathematical concepts beyond addition and subtraction (multiplication, division, algebra, geometry, etc.) in younger classrooms, set lessons in real-life contexts, craft interdisciplinary lessons and place greater emphasis on informational reading. Wornick has been teaching like this for many years. The Singapore mathematics curriculum that we adopted in 2010 approaches mathematics this way. Our classroom projects – architecture in kindergarten, heroes in second grade, City of Embers in fourth grade, the artist unit in fifth grade, the Tzedakah project in seventh grade – are interdisciplinary deep dives into subject matter, rely heavily on informational reading, and are set in real-life contexts. Common Core standards are evident not only in these key projects but also in the everyday work that transpires in each of our classrooms.

We revised our progress reports two years ago, and, at that time, wrote the standards for mathematics and language arts in compliance with the Common Core standards. We’ve begun assessments to track progress across the school to make sure that all of our students are achieving mastery of the standards.

The real value of our education became clearer as the schools around us tried to adopt these standards. It takes particular teachers who are passionate about teaching analytically – who think this way all the time – who are not scripted but are thoughtful in their planning – to effectively implement these standards. When we hire new teachers that is what we look for. Additionally, school structure and scheduling matters in the effective implementation of these standards. Teachers who are given common planning time to collaborate with, and be challenged daily by their peers, will outperform their colleagues in schools that are not structured in this way. Above all, standards are only one dimension of education delivery. The ability to develop social emotional skills around resiliency, empathy, effective communication and the ability to work collaboratively are as important as the Common Core – we balance these two parts of the equation.

The end of the story – most fourth graders in California build model missions as part of their California history unit. Our talented fourth grade teaching team created a Mission debate unit that answers the question “Were missions good or bad for California?” In class, students first raise the questions that they will need to research in order to answer the debate question. They are required to study all sides of the question from the perspective of the different people living during this time. They look at environmental and cultural impacts. They are divided into two groups to develop their arguments. The formal debate takes place with every child presenting an argument, a counter-argument or a closing statement. Three outside judges (this year an attorney, a high school AP history teacher, and a scientist) had to decide which side had the most cohesive and compelling argument.

At the conclusion of the debate, the donor who first asked me about Common Core commented that she could not believe that these were ten year-olds who had been challenged to analyze this piece of history in this way. She was surprised by their facility with language, their ability to think and to respond to arguments and counter arguments and their inclusion of multiple perspectives. I noted “this is Common Core in action”. We both mused that some politicians asking for its repeal just don’t want people to think too deeply. In the end, she understood that a Wornick education’s core is extraordinary – beyond common!

Shabbat shalom,
Dr. G.

Posted by dizenson on Thursday March, 17, 2016 at 03:53PM

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Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School develops students who are socially and academically prepared to meet their full potential as engaged leaders committed to a life steeped in Jewish ethics and values.

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