Tuesday, June 5, 2012

From New Math to Common Core

So, here we go – a new and improved silver bullet that’s going to save education, revolutionize education: Common Core. My reaction to this reform has been different than my reactions to other ideas. I’ m more frustrated, more angry. I am suspicious.

When I surprise myself like this, I set about watching myself – I analyze my responses, listen to my words. I often learn why, and I think I have.  I think I’m tired. I’ve responded the way a good teacher does to reform after reform for over 35 years. I’ve found the good in each and been ready to move ahead, adopting whatever the flavor du jour happens to be.

My first year of teaching in Indiana, in a sixth grade, self-contained classroom , the state had just legislated New Math to be taught in all elementary classrooms. My teaching math was bad enough (I WAS an English major, teaching on an emergency certificate), but New Math? The gimmick was that each grade would teach the ‘base’ that corresponded with their grade. My mother-in-law was lucky: she taught 2nd grade. Binary! 1 and O. But sixth grade got to teach base six! I was so excited to have a job I did everything I could to prepare and teach, even though I did not understand the underlying philosophy. Didn’t matter – it was new and improved! I would persevere.  I did, New Math did not.

I left elementary the next year, but I knew from my mother-in-law, Indiana’s experiment with New Math was short-lived. As was our flirtation with metrics…we all rushed to understand just enough to stay a few days ahead of our classes. But never fear. Metrics went the way of New Math.

Then there were the Reading Wars…phonics? Whole language? Why not use it all and see what works with each child? I have two children…one learned phonetically and is now a musician. The other, like me, can’t sound out, and she learned using sight words and whole language. But the political landscape in schools didn’t want compromise…we had to declare ourselves in one or the other camp. Now, I hope reading education has found the balance.

Later, Outcomes-Based Education was going to save us. Until it became a political hot-potato. I remember coming back from a field trip with high school kids who asked me what OBE was…their parents were sure it was the first step to Perdition. When I explained it required me, before each unit,  to know what I wanted my students to know and be able to do at the end of each unit, they looked around and shrugged. How was that subversive?

Curriculum Mapping and  4MAT came and went. I found so much positive in both and I’m still using those principles. Technology in the classroom…I’m forcing my old self to use as much as I can, and I’m actually letting my students teach me.

Learning Styles, Multiple Intelligences, Flipped classrooms, online learning…the list seems endless. And the good in each is undeniable.

Now comes Common Core – Standards for English Language Arts that will coordinate learning standards around the country. Standards will deepen understanding, allow for creativity. Assessments will be more authentic. This will free teachers and students up to teach and learn. It’s just for me, the last. I’ll be retiring before I see teachers adopt, respond, revise lessons, and then be told, “Oh, here’s the next new thing! That isn’t any good.”

Color me tired. CCSS isn’t the first reform touted by non-educators. Legislators and governors have always had these great ideas to ‘save’ education. It isn’t the first with good and bad elements. It’s not the first to promise more than it can ever deliver. It’s just the last for me.

So, in a few years, the short attention span of reformers will have another silver bullet, and teachers will do what teachers always do…they’ll learn, revise, teach, assess, and repeat.

More than angry or suspicious, I have discovered I’m just fatigued. Tired of people who’ve never been in the classroom deciding they know my job better than I, they know my students better than I. 
I started my career with New Math, and I’ll end it with Common Core. 

It’s been a ride, but I’m tired.


  1. Thank you for a great column. I too started with New Math and the metric system. You forgot to mention open classrooms. that was an absolute disaster. recently a suit told me that we have to have more rigor..i always want to say rigor mortis when i hear that..she said that my pre-k students needed more academic rigor. i told her she could want what she wanted but children haven't changed the way they develop. they haven't heard the "word" That cost me re-leveling my classroom library but it was well worth it.
    I can hardly wait for the new silver bullet that will save my children

  2. Open classrooms! I taught in an open school...we've converted some of ours back. Rigor reminds me of the same thing...death. Thanks for reminding me. I wonder what other SBs I've forgotten. And yet we keep plugging along, don't we? Doing what's right for kids.

  3. I'm still suspicious! It's all about corporate power.

  4. As a science teacher, I'd like to put in a good word for metrics: it really is much easier than the standard English measurement system we (almost alone in the world) still use. And I know my ease with the metric system has certainly aided me in my world travels ("I'll have a quarter kilo of provolone, please"). And if we HAD gone completely metric, Mars might actually have another satellite right now. As for your main point of flaming and then fading fads, I agree. And I've only taught 16 years.

  5. Laura, my complaint was never with the Metric System, but the way policymakers told us we would all shift and teach only that, and when we responded and learned so we could teach, the policymakers said, "Oh, just kidding...nevermind." I love your term "Flaming and fading fads!" The alliteration really appeals to me. And the image. You're right on target. I may steal it for use in the future. Thanks for responding.