Articulating why the Common Core State Standards are such a big change for mathematics can be challenging, especially if your audience is unfamiliar with them, like parents and other non-educators. After all, isn’t it just changing the standards? Fellow educators also feel the stress, but may have trouble stating exactly why that is. How do you describe what is so different?
The major changes seem to fall into five categories which form the acronym SPARCK. Looking at each category, you get a better sense of why this is such a big deal.
The most obvious change is that 45 of 50 states and 5 of 6 districts or territories have adopted the Common Core State Standards in lieu of their previous standards. If you’ve ever been to a grocery store that decided to reorganize the location of its products, then you’ll know what it feels like. At first you wonder if you are even in the right store. Looking around, you notice that some of the items you regularly buy are in the same place you expect them. Other products have moved to locations unknown and you either have to ask for help or find yourself wandering around looking all over for them. You even encounter new products you’ve never heard of and wonder what they’re for. This alone is a notable change and it will take teachers time to acclimate to these new standards. Real problems include dealing with students who have content knowledge gaps as a result of the transition and learning how the grade level standards fit together to form a cohesive understanding.
Teachers are not only expected to change what they teach but how they teach it. Students must have conceptual understanding and know how to apply the mathematics in addition to having procedural skill and fluency. Children will be expected to articulate their mathematical understandings orally and in writing. Some teachers have already been doing these things with their students for years and will see it as a validation of all their hard work. For other teachers it will be another huge change. It is notable that many teachers were not taught this way when they were students nor was this style of teaching emphasized when they were getting their credential. Accordingly, it is not as simple as telling someone what to do. Educators will require significant amounts of professional development to improve.
This is the biggest change in educational assessment in decades. Previous assessments were rather straightforward: paper and pencil multiple choice tests. The new assessments from Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) will be computer-based, have several types of questions including those that require students to explain themselves in writing, and are computer adaptive (meaning that they will change in difficulty, getting harder if students get questions right and easier if they get them wrong). Most teachers and students have never done anything like this and it will take practice to get used to it.
Some people may compare adopting the Common Core State Standards to adopting new resources like textbooks. Educators may be accustomed to using activities, lessons, or problems that were aligned to their state’s outgoing standards, so integrating new resources will take time. This alone would be a significant change. However, normally when you adopt new resources, the standards, pedagogy, assessments, and content knowledge needed to teach them do not also change. It is a different magnitude of adjustment.
Perhaps the biggest elephant in the room is that some educators will be expected to teach lessons on mathematics that they currently do not understand themselves. It isn’t their fault either, as many of the new standards were not part of the curriculum when they were in school. I am certainly one of them. I was a mathematics major at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). However, in retrospect, I realize I was a math robot. I could do the mathematics well but I didn’t really understand why it worked. For example, I’ve known for years how to find the area of a circle using the formula πr^2. However it wasn’t until after graduating from UCLA that I had any clue where the formula came from or why it worked. How can teachers be expected to help students fill in these missing gaps when they haven’t had the professional development to fill their own? This too will take time.
To be clear, I am a strong supporter of the Common Core State Standards. I believe they represent a large step forward for mathematics education in the United States. If educators are feeling stressed out over this change, it is rightfully so. However, with time and support, this will get easier for all.