Emmet Goes to Washington D.C.

I just returned from a race weekend with a girlfriend in Washington D.C.  We ran the Nike Women’s Half Marathon. The week before I left, my son and I were in the car talking about my trip. My son is obsessed with LEGOs and loves Emmet from the LEGO Movie. He happened to have Emmet with him in the car when he was asking me all about Washington D.C.  After a few questions, in his sweet little voice he said, “Mom, wouldn’t it be cool if Emmet could go to Washington D.C. with you?”

Yes. Yes it would. Here you go, buddy.

Barefoot Island

My latest lesson with the 2nd graders was all about community. The Social Studies textbook chapter was a little dry so I decided to spice it up a bit and combine the concept with what I have already taught the kids about mapping so far this year. I found this fantastic lesson by Kyle Knips. Before we began, we discussed the difference between a neighborhood and a community. I asked what places (parks, forests), services (fire department, police), and necessities (roads, parking) they might look for in a community where they would live. Each child then created his or her own Barefoot Island and included these elements plus their own fun features like alien spaceships, animal parks, sports complexes, and elaborate transportation systems. The kids also created a legend to explain their maps. The islands all turned out so great and the kids had a lot of fun. I love it when a good lesson comes together!

Saying Thanks

This time last year, every one of my weekends was filled with all-day bike rides to train for the Seattle to Portland  bike ride (STP) in July. I have never put as much time into training for a race as I did the STP. Riding 700+ miles on a road bike taught me so much. I learned how to build my bike from the ground up. I learned the rules, culture, and vocabulary of cycling. I learned that there are 70 connected miles of rideable trails in Seattle because I rode every one of them from their start to their end. I also learned that making the race less about me and more about a good cause gave me no room to complain or whine or quit.  My friends and family watched me train and cheered me on. They also helped me to raise more than $700 for pediatric cancer. How could I not say thanks (via Facebook) along the way?

Make The Ordinary Come Alive

My friend recently posted this passage from William Martin’s The Parent’s Tao Te Ching.

Do not ask your children

to strive for extraordinary lives.

Such striving may seem admirable,

but it is a way of foolishness.

Help them instead to find the wonder

and the marvel of an ordinary life.

Show them the joy of tasting

tomatoes, apples, and pears.

Show them how to cry

when pets and people die.

Show them the infinite pleasure

in the touch of a hand.

And make the ordinary come alive for them.

The extraordinary will take care of itself.

The Common Core Standards – Good or Bad For Kids?

The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) has caused quite a debate since it’s implementation in 2010. Most people I know have a strong (usually negative) opinion about it but most can’t seem to explain why. I want to give some basic information and discuss the positives and negatives of the program.

The CCSSI is a set of language and math standards that were sponsored by public officials, state governors, and corporate leaders and developed by academics and educators to raise the standards and graduation requirements for K-12 students in the United States. Their motivation being that students today are ill prepared for college and the work place. Currently, 44 out of 50 states as well as Washington D.C. have adopted the standards. Why? Well, each state receives a financial award through Race to the Top grants for adopting the standards. These grants range from $20 million to $700 million depending on the population of students in that state.

 

 

Advantages:

-Academics and educators led the development of these standards. According to the Fordham Institute, the Common Core standards are clearer and more rigorous than the standards used by 33 of the states in the U.S.

-I’m cautious to say it, but it makes sense to me that business leaders should have a say in what their future employees know. It is good that they invest in shaping their workforce. Diane Ravitch, an education historian, argues that historically these programs do no better than conventional public schools but many believe that the leaders involved in CCSSI have good intentions and great ideas for the kids. That sounds pretty good to me.

-In the Language Arts, there is a stronger emphasis on students as researchers who cannot only answer a question but give an A.C.E. answer (Answer it. Cite an example. Explain the answer). There is also an increase in non-fiction reading, which has been lacking and is more practical in the real world.

-In math, there are fewer standards. This allows for more thorough coverage and better mastery of the concepts. This is a positive change from the old standards that made it so teachers could only touch on topics in order to address all of them. It’s better to go deeper into fewer concepts than to go “a mile wide but only an inch deep”.

-Each state chooses their own assessments and school districts choose their own curriculum. I think this helps to address the gap in schools of differing socio-economic conditions. Each state also specified what the grant money would go toward in their Race to the Top applications allowing for each state to cater to the needs of the population they serve.

-As part of the Race to the Top program, traditional textbooks will be replaced with digital media. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says this will help level the playing field for schools since poorer areas won’t need to spend money on textbooks that are obsolete as soon as they are purchased. It also makes us more competitive with countries that adopt technology faster and outperform us academically. We’ll have to see how this goes. I can’t help but wonder how the schools that can’t afford books will be able to afford new technology.

 

Concerns:

-There seems to be a misconception that the Common Core Standards and the curriculum schools use are one in the same. Many parents complain that the worksheets coming home are boring, too thorough, and too time consuming and that there is too much emphasis on showing work and writing out the explanations for answers. These are curriculum issues, not standard issues. The standards are just that, standards.

-Common Core eliminates cursive from the language arts standards and instead implements keyboarding. I hate to break it to you but this has been a long time coming. Over the past 5 years cursive has become an optional topic in the classroom. Most of the language teachers I know offer it as an extension activity if students complete other work and have extra time in class. I think we should expose kids to reading cursive, but I don’t think it’s detrimental to skip teaching them to write it.

-Raising the standards is making it almost impossible to level kids based on ability as all of them are expected to meet the standards. My friends who are teachers say that the kids who were at standard already are doing fine but the kids who need more help are really struggling. There is a shift from individualized learning to whole group learning for the sake of meeting the new standards. The different learning styles (kinesthetic, auditory, verbal) are being ignored. This is a big problem.

-Higher expectations mean more work for the teachers. The standards for Kindergarten, for example, are much higher than a few years ago. This leaves less time for creativity, fun, and socialization at an age when these elements are crucial to future academic success. Teachers are finding it hard to fit everything into a school day. This will inevitably lead to teacher burn out.

-Currently there are no standards for science or the humanities. If we are rewarding states for meeting only language and math standards, it will be easy for them to let these other equally important subjects slip away. If you read my post about Ukraine, you understand why this cannot happen.

-Testing. Oh boy, this is a biggie. Again, people seem to have very strong opinions but not a whole lot of actual information on this topic. Basically, people argue that paying schools to adopt standards creates “high-stakes” testing environments where teachers teach to the test that evaluates students on meeting those standards. In researching the CCSSI, I learned that each state had to submit a scope of work (a summary of how they are going to use the Race to the Top grant money) that had 4-5 components for measuring success. Testing was one of them, but there is other data involved too. In King County, the scope included an increase in graduation rates, a reduction in graduation gaps between cities, an increase in college enrollment, and a new teacher evaluation system. So testing is only one of the requirements for the awards. Unlike No Child Left Behind, where teacher raises and bonuses were dependent on test scores, CCSSI allows districts to evaluate their teachers. This makes much more sense. Teachers cannot be evaluated by test scores alone. It is grossly unfair when there are so many variables that are out of their control (student poverty and malnutrition, lack of sleep, parent support, etc.).

Another concern about the Common Core assessments is how they will be administered. There are two assessments for states to choose from and both are computer based. Parents are concerned that kids with special needs or language barriers will not be able to test this way. Washington State chose the Smarter Balanced Assessment. In looking at their website, they stress that their computer tests can actually be better individualized since the test will get easier or harder based on the student’s answers. The test will take less time than traditional standardized tests as well. Kids with special needs can have accommodations based on their IEPs (Individualized Education Plan). These accommodations include everything from breaks during testing to translations of text. Furthermore, the computer-based assessments offer faster results. In years past, kids took the standardized test in the spring and didn’t get their results until August. By that time, students already had a new teacher. How does that make sense?

 

Conclusion:

So, is the Common Core State Standards Initiative a good or bad thing for kids? The best answer is it’s too soon to tell. No one really knows yet. Early results from states that adopted the standards early show positive trends with higher graduation rates, higher test scores, and kids who are more ready for college. Some would argue that the positive progress isn’t fast enough to justify all the changes. My question is, what is a better option? To keep things the way they are? I don’t think so. I feel optimistic about the CCSSI but want to see more attention paid to subjects outside of math and language. I hope that with time the issues of dry curriculum, struggling students and overworked teachers will be solved with better choices on the state, district, and classroom level. Field testing began this month to see how all the states are doing before they roll out the actual assessments next year. I look forward to seeing those results. If the struggling kids don’t test well, then hopefully changes can be made to help them.

Thanks for reading.