Posts Tagged Common Core State Standards

Challenge Is Uncomfortable. Live With It.

Published by — Kids would be less bored in school if they were asked to put their minds to something intriguing, but difficult.


Speaking at the RIMA’s High Expectation’s Conference, keynote speaker Kate Gerson says, “The number one way we love our students is by rescuing them from struggle.  We hate and feel so uncomfortable with kids struggling.”

When you pose a challenge just out of a kid’s reach, she’s forced to think.  She’ll have to sort through what she already knows to come up with an educated, if not necessarily correct, answer.  The kid blinks at you, deer in the headlights.  You assure her she can figure it out, but the wait for her to wrestle through the problem is nerve-wracking.  Often we spare her the struggle and give her the answer, which she’ll never remember.  Had she dug around in her prior knowledge and figured it out — or even come up with a wrong but thoughtful solution — she’d have exercised her mind.

Gerson, teacher, principal and now CCSS Fellow with the NY Regents, explains that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) encourage just this kind of challenge.  They cover fewer topics, allowing time for a deeper understanding of each.  (CCSS offer clearly-written one-pagers about their philosophies about math and ELA that cut through a lot of the noise generated by the media.)

Gerson distinguishes between “productive struggle and toxic struggle.”

Productive struggle is about thinking.  By protecting kids from thinking, we accidently produce toxic struggle.  She gives the example that when high schools set low standards in order to improve their graduation rates, they “send more kids to college who aren’t ready, and those kids take more remedial courses, grow debt and don’t finish.”  The easy standards gave those students a false sense of their own mastery.  Then they hit a wall.  That’s toxic struggle.  If they’d learned to persist at hard tasks early, they’d have a sense of self-mastery and confidence that pushing themselves will pay off.

The Standards are big, broad, and now under fierce attack, even though few people know much about them, including most of their attackers.  I too have my issues with certain specifics, but on the whole, they challenge American education in a healthy way.  Gerson says, “The CCSS demand that every single student gets smarter.  This is something they can achieve when you slow down, unpack what you’re doing, and get intentional about how it’s done.”

Most current curricula are a mile wide and a centimeter thick.

CCSS are designed to help students analyze texts so they can understand them, not merely pick out bytes of information.  Ten correct facts do not add up to comprehension.  Gerson sees “students who know what you [the teacher] are looking for, so they know what words you want them to use.  But do they actually get what’s going on?”

As a high school English teacher, Gerson all but danced Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to convey her own passion for the book to her students.  She looks back now and realizes that likely they remember only her performance.  They engaged with her, not the book.  She didn’t have them dig into the historical period or the political conflicts.  They didn’t have enough background to comprehend what the book was saying.

Such books are demanding.  Many teachers who are not natural performers turn instead to easier, “high-interest” literature, like Harry Potter.  Reading for pleasure is great.  But during the school day, the kids need to be working on materials that are out of their comfort zones.

Figuring stuff out for oneself is the definition of smart.

Math is similar.  Teachers tend to model how to do the problem; kids practice.  Little to no thinking.  Teachers feel they can’t take time to allow kids to wrestle their way to an answer.  But no matter where they start, such struggle makes them smarter.

As teachers, “we were taught to explain things to students over and over again.  So now we need to unbraid wrong answers, and do so publicly.”  I love that.  Don’t just let the wrong answer be Wrong, but unpack it.  Where did the kid’s thinking go wrong?  And even better is teaching publicly.  Bleeding red ink on a paper or quiz is a ton of work for a teacher and does not get the kid invested in the intellectual puzzle at hand.  No one wants to humiliate a kid in front of a class.  But having students see each others’ thinking, right and wrong, is far more instructive than letting them blow off a teacher’s red-inked corrections.  Learning publically helps kids be more thoughtful.  Rich thinking is a better goal of education than acquiring a canon of right answers.

Honestly, I think kids would be less bored in school if they were asked to put their minds to something intriguing, but difficult.  Achieving mastery with intellectual persistence is an acquired taste that needs to start early.  They can’t be lured into education the way they’re lured into the media.

CCSS is a complicated subject; Gerson did a good job.

[Photo: Christine Lopes Metcalf]

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Common Core Standards Totally Freak Out Chicken Littles

Published by — America is the only developed country without national standards.

It’s true:  if allowed to survive, the Common Core State Standards would be a massive, necessary, though slow-moving overhaul of American education.

Finalized and welcomed by the education community three years ago, the standards are now starting to trickle into classroom practices, so hackles are up. But somehow the American public has lost the habit of raising questions in a civil manner or asking pointed questions to spark a needed debate.  That’s for wusses.  Better to reach for emotional Uzis – name-calling, vicious accusations, and rallying cries to kill the Standards dead rather than improve them.  This is life in the post-moral culture.  Fight first.

At the risk of adding to their current unpopularity, the situation with the CCSS is not unlike that of the Affordable Care Act.  Both are messy, flawed, and huge.

But in both cases, they’re also necessary and long overdue.  I concede their imperfections.  They are human-made, after all.  But no virtue or value lies in reverting to the bad old days.  In the case of the ACA, we’ve had the most expensive and ineffective healthcare system in the world, which doesn’t even reach huge swaths of the population.  At least we are headed, however stumbling, towards something better.

In the case of the CCSS, the very purpose of public education in America has been unclear for decades.  We’ve desperately needed a description of “better.”  CCSS are such a description.  They are not curriculum and they’re not testing programs.  They’re just standards –  goals, objectives, targets to sharpen our aim and elevate our hopes for kids.  We can’t get anywhere if we don’t know where we’re going.

America is the only developed country without national standards.

All the countries with whom American students are compared have national standards and even national curricula (Finland).  Weirdly, national standards are about the only thing those countries’ education systems have in common. The Asian countries have their Tiger Mamas and their cram schools and a focus on test scores that makes my skin crawl. The European and Euro-like countries (Australia) have more appealing (to me) national goals and standards that at least mention preparing young people for happy, fulfilling lives.  So the comparison countries have highly diverse, but national standards.

Just for the record, if the state of Massachusetts were a county unto itself, it would be at the top of the international rankings, right up there with Singapore.  In the 1990s, MA set a high bar for their students and weathered nasty complaints of opponents that sound exactly like the hues and cries voiced now against CCSS.  Over the course of years, MA’s students’ academic performance climbed from middling to the top of the U.S. state rankings, where they have remained for years.  MA did not mandate a curriculum; that was up to the locals, just as it is with CCSS.  Interestingly, MA just announced it would take a pass, for now, on the CCSS testing program they’d agreed to use.  If they can tweak their MCAS, which has served them well, it might remain their testing system.  Every state can decide for itself how their kids will meet the new rigorous standards.

Let’s back up to the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law. 

NCLB bowed to states’ rights and local control by mandating each state develop a standards-and-accountability system.  Three states pooled their resources to create the NECAP, bringing the number of unique sets of state standards to a ridiculous 48.  With very few exceptions (like MA), states set fairly low expectations.  Furthermore,
NCLB’s strategy was to punish under-performing schools, so most states tried to avoid consequences with pathetically unambitious testing goals.  Other than developing very useful data-gathering machinery in each state, NCLB mainly left the education industry confused and defensive.

To dig out of that mess, the National Governors Association and the Chief State School Officers collaborated on the CCSS.  They assembled all manner of teachers, boards of education, researchers, institutions of higher education, administrators and business leaders to figure out what a high school student should know and be able to do.  With the end goals in hand, they designed a sequence of grade-by-grade benchmarks to help students reach newly ambitious academic heights,  In 2010, the CCSS authors presented their work in English and Math.

Generally, experts agreed that the standards were good — more rigorous, more aligned with higher education, business and the emerging economy.  Many people, including me, take issue with some of the specifics.  (The early-childhood standards need revision.)  But let’s work on them in isolation.  One bad standard does not spoil the lot.  Killing off the CCSS initiative will not address specific concerns, never mind improve public education.

How the CCSS plays out in your district or your child’s classroom is a local matter. Anyone worried about over-testing needs to take it up with their state, where the problem actually lies.

But stop already with the Chicken Little behavior. CCSS is not the doom of America’s kids. Review your lesson on the Baby and the Bathwater, because while we probably need to change some bathwater, this Baby is critical.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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