NORWALK, Conn. – A photo that bounced its way across Twitter with the hash tag #commoncore #fail is not typical to what is going on in the schools, Norwalk Math Instructional Specialist Craig Creller said.
“Some of what you see on the Internet is isolated examples of bad teaching,” Creller said, when asked about a Facebook post that included the tweeted photograph at right. “The pattern there is doubles plus one. How do you make 11? The kid who can count by five can go, ‘Five and five is 10, oh, and one more: 11.’ That’s the theory behind it. ”
The Facebook post, which got a litany of angry comments, linked to an NBC Washington story about Common Core State Standards (CCSS) with the headline “2+2=What? Parents Rail Against Common Core Math.” Creller said the story itself was balanced as it described the national debate about CCSS, but said that, in Connecticut, the backlash is based on a misperception, tying CCSS to teacher evaluations. Misstatements are rampant, he said, as he explained that one of the ideas behind CCSS is to provide multiple techniques to children because each child is different.
“Some children can go 21, that’s three times seven, because they have it memorized,” Creller said. “Other kids will go seven and seven is 14, and seven more is 21. That’s one of the strategies that takes a beating in these Common Core critiques because the parents will say ‘Why can’t he memorize it?’ or ‘Why do you have to have all these other methods?’”
The answer? “Because they work,” he said.
Kids are developmentally different, he said. Some can’t sit still in their seats; some want to go to the bathroom every five minutes; some shout out instead of raising their hand, he said.
“Our kids come into our kindergarten with wildly different abilities,” he said. “The diversity of learners that walk into our schools goes from neo-genius to ‘I’ve never had anybody read to me.’ You have to be sensitive to developmental differences.”
Norwalk has been using CCSS for math for three years, he said. It’s working – the achievement gap is being narrowed, he said.
“What’s happening in Norwalk is the kids at the top are still at the top and they’re moving a little. We had kids this year, on the end-of-the-year benchmarks, 98’s, 100’s, we’ve never seen that,” Creller said. “So the kids at the top, they’re knocking it out of the park. But they’ve always been high, those are strong students. What we’re doing is we’re closing the bottom. What’s happening is we are taking that bottom half and really raising it. When I first came here, our very first benchmark, I think the difference between the lowest and highest performing school was 63 points on a benchmark. Some school got a 22 and some school got an 85. Now the lowest school is a 67 and the highest is still an 85. We are bringing up the bottom. You want to talk about closing the achievement gap? We are closing the achievement gap in Norwalk.”
Plus, the children in the lower grades, who have only known CCSS teaching, are doing significantly better, he said.
“What’s happening now in Connecticut is the backlash against the core – people have melded in their minds the teacher evaluation system with Common Core somehow. Those are two different things completely,” Creller said. “… If there was no Common Core there would be still be evaluations, just they would be tied to CMT (Connecticut Mastery Test). The two launched in the same year so they are sort of intertwined.”
Unions are panicking because, next spring, 45 percent of teacher evaluations will be based on test results, he said. This on top of teaching a more rigorous curriculum, he said.
“The Common Core is a good thing. What the teachers and the teachers unions don’t want is to be held accountable to their test in their performance evaluation. … Until 2014, what teacher in the state of Connecticut has ever been held accountable for test scores?”
That is why it is controversial and polarizing, he said.
“What I see is this year especially and this season, and this spring, are sort of myths and misconceptions about the core,” Creller said. “I have never seen this rampant sort of inaccurate statements. Not from you but people on Facebook, people on blogs, standing up in meetings and reading me things: I heard 15 states dropped out of the core. No, no, no, 46 states adopted the core. One state – Indiana – dropped out, and they formed their own standards which look identical to the real ones. The Tea Party is in control of Indiana, so the Tea Party says ‘we’re not participating in any government-sponsored takeover of education, we’re going to make our own standards.’ So they hired an independent consultant who said your standards are just like the real core.”
Connecticut used to be proud because the national standard for kindergarten mathematics was for children to be able to count to 20, and Connecticut children could count to 50, he said. The CCSS standard is for kindergarten children to count to 100 – by ones, fives and 10’s. They also have to know all of their two- and three-dimensional shapes and subtract to 20, he said.
“It’s the Grand Canyon of rigor divides. We’ve gone from counting to 20 to counting to 100. So nobody is going to question the rigor of it,” he said.
Parents may feel like they can’t help their children because math is being taught a different way, he said. But the schools are teaching kids math the old way and in four other ways, he said.
“In this country, not just Norwalk, we have been handing them a calculator in second grade. We have been robbing them of their math sense,” Creller said. “The Common Core has thrown down the gauntlet: You must learn to add and subtract in second. You must memorize your multiplication facts in third. We don’t just start Sept. 1 with memorization. We teach them, what is 14? It’s seven and seven. It’s repeated addition. What’s 21? It’s seven and seven and seven. Or 20 plus one. Repeated addition. We teach kids every way to get to 21 and then we also do flash cards for memorization. But what parents are saying is ‘why can’t they just memorize it?’ Because not every child can do that. Not every child, through poverty, abuse, simply lacking working memory, can memorize their times tables in September of third grade. So we teach them all these other strategies to get to the finish line.”