Common Core is Changing Teaching for the Better

by Janice Killelea, Politico

Governor Cuomo made news last week by announcing the formation of a task force to study New York’s implementation of the Common Core State Standards. I welcome this task force because I’ve seen the positive changes resulting from Common Core in my classroom and I believe the standards deserve an honest, clearheaded discussion. The issues with Common Core in New York have less to do with the standards themselves and much more to do with inconsistent implementation across districts, inconsistencies that are understandable given the size and complexity of our education system. My hope is that this task force will help shine a light on underreported success stories and create a clear path for all districts to implement the standards in the most effective ways.

While I was attending a convening with New York Educator Voice fellows in Albany, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia spoke about the need for higher standards. “Our students need to be prepared for college and career,” she said. “In terms of where we need to be, we are on the right path.”

Raising the bar by shifting the focus to deeper conceptual understanding will enable our students to be critical thinkers and problem solvers in both mathematics and real world situations.

If you were to enter my third grade Common Core math classroom today, it would look much different than a math class did years ago. You might not see pencils and papers. You won’t see traditional math workbooks or students seated working on numerous computation problems. You won’t find me standing in front of the class teaching algorithms and procedures or demonstrating how to solve word problems. While algorithms and procedures are taught and reinforced, the real learning occurs within the application and understanding of the underlying concepts.

When learning multiplication in a third grade class, we might begin with a brief timed drill to start the lesson. But the focus quickly shifts to the concepts. For example, students are taught to demonstrate in-depth knowledge of what 4×6 actually means. This can look very different. One student may count by fours, six times. Another student may draw an array with four rows of six. A third child may create 4 groups of six showing equal groups. Repeated addition would look like 4+4+4+4+4+4. A more advanced learner can explain using the distributive property that (4×3)+(4×3)=4×6.

These conceptual understandings become an integral part of the students’ foundational skills. We don’t learn multiplication by relying solely on rote memorization as we did years ago. Students are equipped with the skills needed to think critically and make visual drawings and diagrams to demonstrate understanding. Taking that further to application, the student has a repertoire of strategies rich in conceptual understandings that he or she can use to solve rigorous and challenging problems, a key focus of the Common Core learning standards. In addition, students now have the ability to demonstrate and defend their mathematical reasoning to others.

This is where the teacher becomes the facilitator and the students become the teachers.

To establish high levels of engagement and interaction in my classroom, students are always challenged to solve mathematical problems in multiple ways. Students will present and show representations of their solutions to the class and explain their reasoning. My focus is to encourage student-led solutions. They work with partners and share their thought processes, they present on the interactive whiteboard, they collaborate in groups to discuss solutions to see if they arrive at the same answer. The room is full of energy and math is fun.

Furthermore, these collaborative learning experiences are building the foundation for success in college and career. The implementation of these standards allow for mutually beneficial learning among students, high expectations, an emphasis on student ownership and interaction, and provides us with a future generation of confident leaders.

Are the standards rigorous? Yes. Do they require hard work and effort? You bet. Will kids learn to persevere as they wrestle with complex problems? Absolutely. Parents and teachers should expect nothing less from our students. When a child grasps a new concept and solves the problem that he tackled, he feels a sense of pride and accomplishment. Isn’t that what we want for all children?

Janice Killelea is a third grade teacher in Mineola, New York and a New York Educator Voice Fellow.

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