Will the Higher Standards of Common Core Improve Early Childhood Education?

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Katie Aguilera

If the experience of “doing school” destroys children’s spirit to learn, their sense of wonder, their curiosity about the world, and their willingness to care for the human condition, have we succeeded as educators, no matter how well our students do on standardized tests?

Steven Wolk, Joy In School

It is a well accepted fact that growth and development happen in stages, and research into brain development has shown that the human brain is still developing into our early 20’s.  With that in mind, it seems reasonable to believe that specific skills are best learned when the brain is developmentally ready to understand and conquer them.  Most experts in child development and early childhood education recognize this.  Unfortunately, it appears that the creators of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) either do not, or were unwilling to take that into consideration when the standards were written.

In March of 2010, in response to the January 2010 draft release of the CCSS, an impressive group of early childhood health and education professionals issued a joint statement through the Alliance for Childhood stating their concerns with the Common Core standards for young students.  In this statement (which I encourage you to read) they list their four primary concerns with the standards, and conclude with the following statement:

We therefore call on the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to suspend their current drafting of standards for children in kindergarten through grade three.
We further call for the creation of a consortium of early childhood researchers, developmental psychologists, pediatricians, cognitive scientists, master teachers, and school leaders to develop comprehensive guidelines for effective early care and teaching that recognize the right of every child to a healthy start in life and a developmentally appropriate education.
Edward Miller and Nancy Carlsson-Paige wrote a critique of the CCSS in January 2013 in which they address the disregard the CCSS creators showed for early childhood development and the concerns raised in that joint statement.  They write, “we reviewed the makeup of the committees that wrote and reviewed the Common Core Standards.  In all, there were 135 people on those panels.  Not a single one of them was a K-3 classroom teacher or early childhood professional.  It appears that early childhood teachers and child development experts were excluded from the K-3 standards-writing process.”
As for the joint statement signed by so many early childhood professionals?  Well, Miller and Carlsson-Paige go on to say:
We know that the instigators of the standards at the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers were aware of the Joint Statement well before their summary of public feedback was written. Copies of it were hand-delivered to eleven officials at those two organizations, including Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the CCSSO, and Dane Linn, director of the Education Division of the NGA, who were primarily responsible for the creation of the standards.
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Why were early childhood professionals excluded from the Common Core Standards project? Why were the grave doubts of our most knowledgeable education and health experts missing from the official record of this undertaking? Would including them have forced the people driving this juggernaut to face serious criticism and questions about the legitimacy of the entire project?
Why indeed?  And what are the potential ramifications of pushing these standards on elementary schools?  Well, as so many early childhood professionals and parents around the nation have been repeatedly saying, there are numerous to consider.
In this Forbes article by Alice Walton, it is pointed out that there is no research or evidence to support pushing higher standards for young students to meet.  In fact, there is evidence to support the opposite.  Consider what David Elkind, child development expert at Tufts University and author of The Hurried Child, is quoted as saying in that Forbes article while pointing out that “children are not standardized”:
Some children attain these abilities—which enable them to learn verbal rules, the essence of formal instruction—at different ages. With the exception of those with special needs, all children attain them eventually. That is why many Scandinavian countries do not introduce formal instruction, the three R’s until the age of seven. In these countries children encounter few learning difficulties. Basically, you cannot standardize growth, particularly in young children and young adolescents. When growth is most rapid, standardization is the most destructive of motivation to learn.
Finland provides a good example of what Elkind is getting at.  Students in Finland consistently rank at the top in worldwide studies of education.  This BBC News article states that “children in Finland only start main school at age seven.  The idea is that before then they learn  best when they’re playing and by the time they finally get to school they are keen to start learning.”  It also points out that “Finnish children spend the fewest number of hours in the classroom in the developed world.”  It appears their education model works very well, yet here in the US, with no research to back it up, we are moving the opposite way by pushing greater expectations on younger and younger children.
This puts our children at risk of failure due to classroom burnout or frustrated despair.  Carol Burris, named New York State high school principal of the year in 2013, points out in the Forbes article, “if this continues the way it’s going, my prediction is that by the time they get to high school, they will not like learning.  We’ll see tremendous academic push back, over-anxious kids, and school phobia issues.”  Gene Beresin, Executive Director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School is quoted as saying, “if kids are pushed to work on material too far above their intellectual level, it could be highly demoralizing, and some may simply give up…”
According to this article by Amanda Morgan, Rae Pica, in her book What If Everybody Understood Child Development, discusses how this sort of stress can effect early child education.  Morgan writes:

Rae Pica cites Dr. Willis’ work in this chapter as well as Dr. William Stixrud who said, “stress hormones actually turn off the parts of the brain that allow us to focus attention, understand ideas, commit information to memory and reason critically.”  So why would we expect our youngest learners to gain more from a high-pressure environment?

As Rae writes: “Imagine the lost potential as students continue to struggle to learn when anxious and unhappy.  Imagine the ever-increasing number of students stressed out, burned out, acting out, and dropping out if things don’t turn around and quickly.  Imagine the lost potential if students are kept from discovering the power of joy in the classroom.”

Proponents of the CCSS will argue that the standards do not dictate the curriculum chosen by individual states and schools, nor do they call for the elimination of the sort of activities that might keep the play and joy in the classroom.  But as Carol Burris makes clear in Walton’s Forbes article, it is much more time consuming to teach students things that they are not developmentally ready to learn.  She says, “if you have goals that are developmentally inappropriate, so much time is spent getting students to achieve what they’re supposed to, that there’s very little time left for music, social studies, science.”

Amanda Morgan, in her article, adds to that by pointing out that these increasing expectations have a “trickle-down effect.”  It is changing not only K-3rd grade classrooms, it is affecting preschool as well with preschool teachers attempting to prepare their young charges for Kindergarten.  She writes:

I’ve listened as some preschool teachers have said, “With kindergarten the way it is, I just can’t do preschool the old way anymore.”  So they get rid of the sand table and the dramatic play area and cut back on outdoor play time.  And they spend more time sitting at tables, filling in worksheets, and, well, being quiet.

This is the opposite of what we know about what children need developmentally.
[Emphasis supplied.]

These are all very real concerns with the potential for very serious consequences for our children.  What appears to me to be pretty blatant ignorance of the developmental needs of our young and vulnerable students is incredibly disturbing and brings me back to the question of why?  Why were the Common Core State Standards developed without the input of early childhood educators, and why were the concerns of so many early education professionals, and parents, ignored as the standards were completed and approved?  Why are those concerns still being ignored today as CCSS is being implemented around the nation?

These are questions I’ll tear into in my next post, “Common Core is a Racket.”

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Common Core: Is There Sense In The Mad Math?

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Math has always intimidated me.  Well, honestly, it has always terrified me.  I was never able to make a connection with numbers like I did with words, and so I struggled all through school with math.  I had many great math teachers who offered a variety of methods to solve problems, but since I didn’t understand math easily, I never pushed myself to make sense of it.  I did just enough to get along, enough to pass, without ever really gaining a solid grasp of the concepts.

Meeting my old math nemesis once again through viral internet memes about Common Core math problems admittedly made me defensive and dismissive of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Bizarre, incomprehensible math problems being shared on Facebook and YouTube by frustrated parents were basically my first introduction to the CCSS, as is probably the case for many.  And there is no question that there is an abundance of bizarre math problems shared online to choose from these days.

This strange math being developed for new, common core compliant curriculum around the nation has become one of the most loudly and frequently targeted parts of the CCSS, especially in the realm of social media.  This may have made it somewhat of a distraction from what I see as much more worrying complaints about common core, but because it is a valid concern, it should be addressed.

I certainly believe there are reasons to question the changes in the way math is being taught.  When what should be a simple equation is made into a series of confusing and complex steps in order to find the answer, it seems reasonable to ask if this is only going to make math even more intimidating and challenging for children.  Are we sacrificing speed and accuracy by moving away from rote memorization?  Are we requiring students to master mathematical concepts they are not yet developmentally ready for?

Since math was so challenging for me as a student, I really tried to dig into this issue with an open mind.  After all, had I been taught math fundamentals in a different way, perhaps it would have been easier for me to understand.  And the truth is, I have found some explanations and examples of the reasoning behind the mad math of common core that do make sense.

Consider the ‘ten-frame’ being used in early grade level math.  According to this site, “a ten-frame is a hands-on and pictorial model that teaches number sense and mental math.”  This idea goes along with the concept of breaking larger numbers into groups of ten in order to make them easier to work with.  When multiplication was explained to me in this way, I see the reasoning.  For example, if you consider 6×12 as 6(10+2), you can do the multiplication this way:  6(10) + 6(2) is equivalent to 60+12 which equals 72.  That is a simple equation, but if I apply the same method to bigger numbers, I can do multiplication in my head pretty quickly that used to take me a lot more time and thought, or a pen and paper.

I think one more good example to look at is the use of the number line.  This article from Salon.com by James Goodman gives this example of solving a problem using a number line that does look confusing at first glance.  However, the article goes on to explain the method this way:

If you haven’t yet made sense of the second diagram, think about the way that people used to give change at the store (perhaps a bit of a lost art these days). Suppose you purchased something that cost $8.27 and paid with a $20. The clerk would start at the value of the item purchased (in this case $8.27), then start with the change, bringing you first to $8.30, then to the 50 cent level, then to an even dollar amount, then a ten dollar amount, and so forth, until the value was brought up to the $20 you paid with:
“Okay, $8.27, 30 cents <putting three pennies in your hand>, and 20 more is 50 cents <putting two dimes in your hand>, and two quarters makes nine <dropping two quarters in your hand>, and ten <giving one dollar>, and ten more makes twenty <giving a ten>.”

This makes sense to me, and I can see many reasons for giving kids different tools to solve equations.  Children all learn differently, as we well know, and it seems advantageous to allow for different problem-solving methods.  Proponents of the Common Core math standards repeatedly point out that this gives greater flexibility at the classroom level, as well as stronger math fluency for all students.   According to this USA Today article,

Learning math this way leads to deeper understanding, obviates the need for endless rule-memorizing, and provides intellectual flexibility to apply math in new situations, ones for which the rules need to be adapted.

That article goes on to say that the CCSS expectations for math “have been endorsed by every major mathematical society president, including the American Mathematical Society and the American Statistical Association.”

However, these arguments in defense of the Common Core math standards do not take into consideration the very real effect that high-stakes assessment testing is having on curriculum development.  This is a note-worthy problem that I will get into at greater length in an upcoming post.  In isolation, the ideas behind the math standards sound sensible, great even, but the reality on the ground tends to show that the benefits are quickly lost in the application.

Along with the problems associated with test-driven curriculum, there is also the question of whether these math standards are developmentally appropriate.  Is it realistic to push pre-algebraic thinking on elementary school students, with the expectation that their young brains can successfully absorb the ideas for future expansion?  This is certainly a difficult question to which there is no easy way to find answers.  Yet it must be asked if the Common Core math standards are to be regarded as an improvement in education.

In a Huffington Post article from May 2014, it is posited that Common Core math standards are modeled on reform mathematics which it describes as math where “kids should explore and understand concepts like place value before they become fluent in the standard way of doing arithmetic.”  It goes on to say,

Stanford University mathematician James Milgram calls the reform math-inspired standards a ‘complete mess’–too advanced for younger students, not nearly rigorous enough in the upper grades.  And teachers, he contends, are largely ill-prepared to put the standards into practice.

‘You are asking teachers to teach something that is incredibly complicated to kids who aren’t ready for it,’ said Milgram, who voted against the standards as part of the committee that reviewed them.  ‘If you don’t think craziness will result, then you’re being fundamentally naive.’

I would like to point out that James Milgram, Professor emeritus in Mathematics at Stanford University, served as a member of the Common Core validation committee, and you can find more of his opinions on CCSS here.

I do think there is much to be said for the fact that it is always hard for parents and educators to transition into something new.  Remember the emergence of computers and the internet in schools, and now the increasing use of tablets (and WiFi with it’s potential dangers).  I realize it can be difficult to accept having our children taught differently than we were, and, of course, we should be able to set that aside in order to be open to improvement in education.  However, I also believe there are intended improvements that might actually prove to be detrimental, and it is imperative that those be questioned, highlighted, and scrutinized.

That gets to what I consider to be even deeper problems with the Common Core State Standards than math that is hard to understand out of context.  Problems that these bizarre, confounding, maddening math problems all over social media may well be distracting us from.  Problems I will continue to explore and write about at length in upcoming posts.

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