In 2012 the Los Angeles Unified School District rolled in a new way of teaching - adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia - hoping for a new way of leveled-playing-field learning, that is now commonly known as common core.
It was touted as "the first-ever national framework that outlines what every public school student should know." (See link here). It was informed by research into the ways Asian and European countries, with better performing students than ours, were taught. It seemed those kids were taught to think, and our kids were taught to learn. They solved for answers while we looked for answers.
Common core would help students "master" not just "memorize" each core subject and sharpen critical thinking skills. The expectation for common core was that by imposing tougher standards rooted in thinking and visualization, we would eliminate the learning gab between visual learners and sit down and study learners who presumably came from more affluent families where parent tutoring time was a given, and the luxury of studying quietly gave them an upper hand.
I remember when common core came home to our house. My two oldest children were in elementary school, and were both doing fine. As common core rolled out over the course of several school years, it brought with it a burdensome homework time that in our household had long been a cherished hour. We all had homework time. I invariably had some work to do and my husband always had something to read. If our kids bumped into trouble while diligently working on their own, they knew they could rely on their wordsmith mother for Language Arts, and their mathematician dad for Math.
Over the years, common core changed that. My daughter rose through Algebra into calculus and the methods of arriving at answers became so cumbersome and unfamiliar to my husband that he would humph in frustration, admitting, "Honey I can't help you." I know that moment is bound come in any household, where one generation overtakes the other in knowledge, but that moment seemed to me as though it had been ushered in precipitously, by a script that didn't fit.
Language Arts has similarly left the comfort zone of home. It is now and in-class process. Common core standards require more writing along with the reading, and the process has been shifted to class time, where the teacher will presumably teach kids to think critically. In our household, writing with my kids was one of the ways I would pass vocabulary and complex sentence structure to them. As a writer, it was how I infused in them the methodology of writing, then the art of adding the descriptive language that make writing come to life. Then there were the edits, where reading out loud would point out the gaps in the writing. When my kids were young I bought a book that was touted as "200 Words Your Kids Should Know". Once we went through the pages, we realized my kids already knew all the words. We gave the book to one of our favorite teachers who was newly pregnant. She was an opponent of common core and lamented her receding love of teaching because of the odd impositions of new standards. She was one of the most demanding and effective teachers my kids ever had in our public schools, and was often criticized by parents who wanted their kids to be less challenged at home. She later left the public school arena, but not before imparting to me that "common core just keeps the work in class so the parents don't have to see the struggle."
If common core was conceptualized to raise the standard of thinking, which teachers were to infuse in children, it has failed. Good teachers always did it. Bad teachers never will. If it was fashioned to transform the kids that naturally tune out of the classroom into interested learners, it has failed. That kind of spark comes from life experience, not a confused teacher trying to adopt a new standard. If it was intended to eliminate the learning gap between zip codes, as was touted, it has failed. The reality is that the gap exists. People who are disillusioned with common core in the public system will move their children to private schools if they can afford it. Among those that stay, the diligent students will continue to work hard and learn any curriculum that is handed to them, and presumably succeed in life because they'll know how to prioritize and accomplish what needs to be done. The slackers will continue to slack, just away from the watchful eye of parents at home overseeing homework that either doesn't come home or seems entirely unfamiliar when it does. In the process, standards in the public system will continue to be driven down as everyone scrambles to figure out how to accommodate the lowest common denominator in any given school system, rather than to encourage the rise to the highest.
Today my children and most of their teachers will attest that the kids who worked hard before are now working as hard for the same or lesser grades. The kids that didn't work hard before are still unlikely to put in the hard work of learning, for, not surprisingly, the same result. My daughter's best Math teacher in Middle School - the hardest teacher with the toughest reputation - refused to teach by common core standards and pounded Math the old fashioned way. His tutelage ushered my daughter into High School Math one year before her time. My son's finest English teacher refuses to endorse common core and insists that he will teach with a combination of thinking and learning - as he was taught.
Time will write the final chapter on common core. But for now, at this moment of outset, it seems like a struggle all around.
This article was written on the heels of an interview with NPR's Take Two, to discuss the recent CA State standardized test result which showed very few LA Unified students meeting grade level proficiency. By contrast, in my School district (part of LAUSD) two elementary schools scored within the top 10. Common core has not erased the learning gap. We as a society have to do that, by placing more of an emphasis on education in the lives of our children, than the mindless entertainment that mass media sells them. Listen to the segment here: NPR's Take Two on Education