One Brooklyn teacher who attempted to teach the Common Core told the New York Post that her kindergartners broke down in tears, anxious and frustrated. Early-childhood development experts such as Nancy Carlsson-Paige
argue that the standards will lead to an increase in rote learning and a decrease in active play and exploration. If so, we should heed her warning.
The question, however, is whether the new standards should be blamed for poor quality instruction. It’s an important question, as the Common Core will be the reason for spending billions of dollars for new textbooks, state tests, teacher evaluation systems and more.
The standards were designed to elevate the quality of instruction in our country: to teach students to think independently, grapple with difficult texts, solve problems and explain their thinking in a clear and compelling way. This is a noble vision. But its attainment depends entirely on the execution. In fact, the authors of the Common Core write, “the standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.”
Take vocabulary, for example. The Common Core standards state that kindergarten students should be able to “distinguish shades of meaning among verbs that describe some general action (e.g., walk, march, strut, prance) by acting out the meanings.” Imagine a classroom full of 5-year-olds marching, strutting, walking and prancing for 10 minutes to different kinds of music while laughing and learning vocabulary. Imagine, further, that this activity is organically integrated into a meaningful project or a theme-based unit that lights up the child’s love of learning. So while some schools might choose to teach vocabulary in a rote, boring way, clearly the standards are not to blame.
As Zoltan Sarda, an elementary school teacher with 22 years of experience, said to me last month, “The textbook companies are trying to box the big ideas of the Common Core into little disjoined pieces. But just because they are written in a linear way, that doesn’t mean you have to teach in a linear way.” Sarda, who now guides teachers at High Tech High in San Diego, once had his kindergartners build a life-size paper model of how humans would need to be designed in order to fly. This project taught them gravity, anatomy, speed, addition and subtraction, and measurement — all included in the standards — and the children loved it.