What Teachers Really Think about the Common Core, and How They Are Using the Standards


“I don’t hate the new Common Core State Standards,” Andrew Simmons, a high school teacher in California, wrote recently on Vox. But, “the standards can be damaging when implemented irrationally. Standards are too often treated as a replacement for what teachers once considered good teaching… At some schools, at some point, talented, experienced teachers may lose classroom autonomy.”

Andrew Beaver, also a teacher, said in a Facebook post that he too has trouble with the Common Core because, he argues, it places too much emphasis on preparing students for algebra and geometry, and later calculus. “Maybe if [our] math focused more on financial literacy we wouldn’t have the housing, student loan, and credit card problems in America.”

Considering those views and others that have made their way into headlines, it would be easy to assume that teachers roundly oppose the high, consistent expectations states have begun to implement through the Common Core. But while some educators have legitimate concerns – namely around a lack of professional support to teach to higher standards – support for keeping the bar high in the classroom remains strong.

Jemelleh Coes, a former Georgia Teacher of the Year, agrees “teachers are not better off being told exactly what to teach.” That’s why she strongly supports the standards her state built on the Common Core framework. They are both “specific and flexible” and they allow teachers “the autonomy to assess what students already know, and then build on their skills and knowledge.”

Responding to several misconceptions that have permeated the national dialogue, Coes adds that comparable expectations encourage “foundational learning” with a steady progression from kindergarten through high school. “In that way, the standards actually serve as one of many tools educators can use to close gaps in achievement.”

A popular criticism of states’ implementation of high, comparable standards is that they rigidly dictate to educators what teach and how to teach it. Surprisingly, these claims frequently come from those with no teaching experience. However, many teachers say the opposite is true; with clear learning goals and full autonomy over their classrooms, they have more ability to tailor lessons to student needs and to be creative.

“Contrary to popular perception,” US News & World Report wrote last year, “Common Core was designed to be less prescriptive than many state’s previous standards.” In math, for example, students are encouraged to explore multiple problem-solving methods to help them build the fluency to use the strategies that work best for them, just like most of us do when we encounter math in real life.

“The Common Core is not a federal takeover of our schools [another misconception popularized in the media], nor does it force teachers into a rigid model for classroom instruction,” more than 20 State Teachers of the Year from across the country wrote previously. “In fact, under the Common Core, teachers have greater flexibility to design their classroom lessons—and can, for the first time, take advantage of best practices from great teachers in other states.”

Ariel Maloney, an English teacher in Massachusetts, says states’ dedication to raising standards is a way to help bridge political and social divides, because like educators, parents strongly support academic expectations that prepare their children for college and careers.

“Regardless of what you may have heard, schools today are about more than simply teaching rote memorization, spelling, and how to score well on standardized tests,” Maloney explains. “The teachers I know work tirelessly to care for our students. We teach rigorous academic skills like literacy, numeracy, critical thinking and analysis, how to read complex texts, how to use evidence to support their thinking — the very things that an educated and informed voting populace needs to be able to do!”

Some critics have made a lot of noise about changes to math instruction occurring as states implement new learning goals. For many parents who grew up learning under old models of education, the changes are unfamiliar, and those charges have stirred their concerns.

But, as a “math check” by the Collaborative explains, instruction now encourages students to use many problem-solving strategies, which helps to build fluency with numbers and math operations. And, at the same time, students are still expected to know their basics, like standard algorithms and multiplication tables.

As states have implemented high standards, educators have shifted the focus from process to understanding, says AmyLee Kinder, a math specialist in Illinois. “It’s more about investigative learning and students going through a scenario and understanding a concept completely,” which, she adds, is “very foreign to how people were taught in the past.”

Across the country schools are conducting outreach to parents to help them become acquainted with the shift in instruction, holding math nights and other opportunities for parents to experience classroom learning hands-on. Groups like Learning Heroes have created a wealth of tools and resources to help parents support their children.

A study by the Fordham Institute this year found that 85 percent of teachers believe that reinforcement of math learning at home has declined because parents don’t have a firm grasp on how it’s being taught. Meka Wilhoit, a kindergarten teacher in Kentucky offers some practical advice for teachers and families: Open lines of communication early, and keep them open. Be supportive, and “share, share, share.” And finally, be patient—changes this big take time.

The truth is that high standards coupled with high-quality assessments are giving parents and teachers accurate information about student readiness—which is a necessary first step to improve classroom outcomes. “Parents should resist the siren song of those who want to use this moment of truth to attack the Common Core or the associated tests,” Mike Petrilli explains. “They may not be perfect, but they are finally giving parents, educators and taxpayers an honest assessment of how our students are doing – a standard that promises to end the lies and statistical games.”