More on the Common Core

Right when I’m writing several posts about the Common Core, it’s not entirely coincidental that the Boston Globe had a big article about it this morning. Focusing on teacher training (a.k.a. professional development, or PD), the first few paragraphs of Alexandria Neason’s essay are definitely worth reading. I’ve highlighted a few phrases in red:

THE SPRAWLING SECOND FLOOR of the Sheraton Boston Hotel is swarming with teachers. They’ve traveled from 17 states for the Common Core Now Institute, a two-day conference held by Solution Tree, a for-profit company that specializes in training teachers. The institute is designed to get educators ready to teach the new and contentious Common Core State Standards, which will be tested in dozens of states, including Massachusetts, for the first time this school year.

Around 10 a.m., about 30 teachers file into a large, too-cold hall for a session on teaching and testing the sorts of complex, multi-step math problems emphasized by the Common Core. One by one, seats are filled, and presenter Timothy Kanold, a former superintendent from Illinois who has coauthored math textbooks, speaks into a tiny wireless microphone clipped to his collar. Some teachers type notes into laptops or scribble on large legal notepads. Others fiddle with cellphones hidden in their laps. Kanold lectures on, recommending that they ditch the “I do, we do, you do” model, where teachers spend most of their time lecturing in the front of the classroom. He suggests they let students struggle and stumble through linear and quadratic equations in small groups, without much guidance. More important than revealing the correct answer at the end of class, he says, is letting them ask questions.

Forty-five minutes into this July lecture, Anne Brown, a math coach at Dartmouth Middle School in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, interrupts Kanold to ask him a question about how to group students. She is the only teacher to ask a question in the entire 90-minute session.

The Common Core marks a stark change in what American public schools will expect students — and teachers — to do in the classroom. The standards are meant to reduce the time students spend memorizing formulas and filling in multiple-choice quizzes. They’ll need to use critical thinking to solve problems and rationalize their answers. And no longer will educators teach students that there’s one right answer or one right path to that answer. This means that teachers will be held to new expectations in the way they instruct students.

But for the most part, on-the-job teacher training, which has long been criticized for its ineffectiveness, hasn’t changed much in response to the demands of the Common Core. In Massachusetts, some individual schools and districts are trying innovative methods, but teachers say much of the training offered by the state has been the traditional lecture format, which most experts agree doesn’t work. At sessions like the Solution Tree event in Boston, “we sit down and we do everything that we’re not supposed to do as teachers,” Brown tells me. Kanold had recommended that successful Common Core math classrooms be 65 percent student-led and just 35 percent teacher-led, but Brown estimates that Kanold’s own workshop was 95 percent presenter-led.

What’s wrong with this picture? Let me make a few observations. First of all, the enunciated recommendations are wonderful: less lecturing, more critical thinking, no more one right answer. Second, while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with for-profit companies, their use inevitably raises suspicions about government motivations in this endeavor. Third and most importantly, the jarring contrast between the recommendations and the actual workshop content stands out all too vividly. “Do as I say, not as I do” is never an effective mantra.

Categories: Teaching & Learning