Why I Believe in the Common Core

By Clare Berke February 4th, 2014 3:00 PM

This week, I searched the New York Times for articles related to the Common Core State Standards, and I found roughly 6,780 results.  As an English teacher, I train my students to pay attention to word choice for clues about the author’s purpose and message.  Skimming my New York Times search results, I noticed telling phrases such as: “rocky”, “critics pounce”, and “unlikely to adopt”, interspersed with numerous questions: “Will Common Core Improve Schools?”, “Teachers, What are Your Thoughts on the Common Core Standards?”, and “The Common Core – Who’s Minding the Schools?”

In the email I receive daily with headlines from the Washington Post, more often than not, I encounter the Common Core.  Last Wednesday, the headline du jour read: “The coming Common Core meltdown.”

It doesn’t take a genius, or an English teacher, to notice how contentious the adoption of the standards by 45 states and the District of Columbia has been.  But I’ve also realized that the controversy rarely stems from the standards themselves, but instead from the money spent to implement them, the lack of educator input during their development, and the ubiquitous high stakes testing associated with the standards movement.

Today, I won’t be writing about these worthy arguments.  Not because I don’t think they’re important, or because I think teachers aren’t interested (in fact, teachers are and should be involved in making education policy decisions), but because I want to spend my time focused on why I believe the Common Core State Standards help prepare my students for the future.

The Common Core State Standards are based around two simple, but profound principles.  Although I am an English teacher, I believe the principles apply to all subjects.  First, teachers should guide students through tackling complex texts and tasks so that students develop the skills and confidence to think critically about the subjects on their own.  Second, teachers should encourage students to seek multiple “right” answers and to explain the thought processes that helped them arrive at their results.  For many teachers, this is already the norm.  For other teachers, implementing these principles represents an opportunity for growth.

I’ll never forget my high school geography class.  Day in, day out, we copied notes from the overhead projector and attempted to spew them back to the teacher during weekly quizzes.  With bona fides adoption of the Common Core, this disappointing classroom scenario cannot be repeated.  Instead, teachers will guide students through the nuances of their subjects, rather than focus only on the reiteration of basic facts.

When I entered college, I was a strong reader and writer, and I had a decent understanding of chemistry and biology.  But I had never annotated a text for imagery or author’s purpose.  I had also never been forced to think through mathematical principles in a way that made sense to me.  I found myself crying in my Calculus teacher’s office and earning my first-ever Bs and Cs in a course called the Civil Rights Revolution.  I had expected that college might be more difficult that high school, but I was amazed to meet peers who could quickly fill me in on the purpose of derivatives, and who would cite specific words and pose interesting questions about Mrs. Dalloway.

It was my first experience being on the losing end–as Orwell put it–of “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

I persevered and graduated with honors (just barely!), but it was a rough road.  So when I think about the Common Core State Standards, I try not to worry too much about how many teachers actually wrote them or fret about the never-ending tests — I focus on the positive.  With the adoption of the Common Core, I have become a better teacher.  Because I had to shift my thinking and adopt methods to support my diverse learners through the analysis of complex text, and the writing and discussing of poignant ideas and questions without answers, I fully realized what I had been missing when I entered the post-high school world — the skill-set to develop claims and adequately  support my ideas, and the confidence to pose a deeper question or offer an alternative answer.  The Common Core has challenged and encouraged me to help my students develop the competence and self-assurance to be successful in college courses and future careers.

The 6,780 articles found on the New York Times about the Common Core are evidence of their authors’ critical thinking skills and abilities to present arguments.  With the successful implementation of the Common Core State Standards, all of our students will be able to take part in the continuing debates over their education.

Clare Berke is an English teacher at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School.