Monday, March 3, 2014

Why Christians should be cautious in criticizing Common Core

I hesitate to write this blog because I am not a Common Core advocate.  I care nothing about promoting these standards or fighting against them.  What bothers me as an educator, parent, and Christian, is all of the misinformation and misrepresentation of well-meaning people.

I am not in the least an expert in all things education.  I graduated 14 years ago with a B.S.E. in Elementary Education.  At the time of my studies, I was encouraged to teach much of what Common Core is driving down the pike.  However, a decade ago, there was no concrete way to implement the ideals.   I did not immediately enter education as a vocation--instead I primarily stayed at home with my three children during their pre-school years.  I became a full-time teacher for the first time last year, during the first year of Common Core's implementation.  

Though I can understand the concerns about CC in literacy, I am not educated enough myself to speak in that arena.  I CAN inform others of the practical implications for math, since this is the subject I most adore, what I'm teaching every day, and it is in THIS area that I perceive others being completely misinformed.

In my classroom, there are at least 4 different dynamics going on.  First, I am accountable to teach the Standards.   This is non-negotiable.  Second,  I have a curriculum that was adopted and purchased by the school.  Third, I am trained in different programs during professional development on how to deliver these standards.    And fourth, I have 53 students who think in a variety of ways, use a variety of methods, and bring their own reasoning and thinking into the classroom.

The Common Core Standards are my classroom "Bible" so to speak.  WHAT I teach is driven and focused by these standards found at  It is in these standards that I find I am suppose to make sure my students understand 2-digit by 2-digit multiplication, for example.  The standards "command" I teach the following:

* Fluently multiply multi-digit whole numbers using the standard algorithm.
* Multiply, using concrete models or drawings and strategies based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction; relate the strategy to a written method and explain the reasoning used.

Let's use an example of 42 X 37.  Most adults in the U.S. were taught a standard algorithm, which as a teacher I CAN and DO teach, but NEVER at first.  This familiar algorithm is what you will find on the right of this picture.

On the left-hand side of this picture is a standard algorithm that is taught in some other parts of the world.   It's called the lattice method if you want to explore further. If what is on the left confuses you, don't worry--adults from Asia for example, will look at what is on the right with the same freak-out mentality that American adults have when they see the method on the left.

When teachers teach multiplication based on concrete models of place value, it may look like this depending on curriculum that a teacher has:

With this array, the student understands that 4 in 42 MEANS  40.  The student is to understand that in multiplying we can break apart the place values, multiply those and then add the products together to get the answer. 
The above form is in a concrete drawing, but can also be represented like this:
The examples above may be some that curriculum gives me to teach, but how this shows up in the classroom may be different depending on the teacher and the program he/she has been influenced by.  In my classroom, and many others in my building, students show their work to the entire class and EXPLAIN it verbally or in written form.  Other students are encouraged to figure out how their peer got an answer.  As students are taught place value, the relationship between multiplication and addition, they may come up with their own way of calculating a problem such as 42 X 37:
In the above example, the student started with 37 X 10, something known and familiar to him, and then added that answer 4 times.  Then he added on 37 X 2 to get his final answer.
On any given day, my students may have 8 different ways of working the same problem.  The part that is DRIVEN by Common Core is the REASONING.  Almost every standard I bring to the classroom tells me to reason and compare and contrast relationships between various mathematical expressions and computations.  This is the part that takes so long.  I would argue that it does not dumb down any student, but forces them see the same problem in a variety of ways.  At the end of the day, concept, or year, the goal is that every student has at least 2 ways of approaching a problem correctly, and can explain or reason why he/she solves it that way.
So why, as a Christian, am I cautious to criticize as I have seen others do so?  In keeping with the "common core" way of comparing and contrasting relationships between unlike things and reasoning, here is why:
The christian's written standards are found in the Bible.  Those commands are often broad and general.  You will find a multitude of books written to give specific help on an area commanded by the Bible.  These books are not the same as the Bible, and there is room for mis-interpreting a "standard" or representing the Bible in a way that was not originally intended.  Depending on a christian's church, he or she will receive different training and programs on HOW to carry out and practically apply their faith that they are informed of by the Bible.  And lastly, there is individualism in the Christian faith.  No two Christians attack or understand life's problems the exact same way.
How many times have I seen people reject Jesus or the Bible because they didn't like the way others practiced their faith?  Or how many times have denominations and trainings promoted legalism, rigidity, or confusion? How many times have the authors of Christian books deviated from the meaning of Scripture?  If a person is going to intellectually reject Jesus, I at least respect him or her if s/he does so from reading the Bible itself.  I do not respect, nor accept, criticism of Jesus based on churches, authors, or individuals who claim to know Him.
My point is that Christians who throw darts need to be prepared to defend themselves when darts get thrown back at them.  We believe in a triune God who is 3 persons in one.  This does not add up mathematically.  We believe in God in the flesh, born from a virgin; this defies science as we know it.  The world looks at our standards of belief as insane AT FIRST, and it is our responsibility to bring clarity to the craziness.
Particularly if you claim the name of Jesus, be careful how and what you criticize.  Do not look at something you don't understand and automatically call it stupid.  Make sure that you understand what you are condemning.  If you hate Common Core, by all means speak your mind, join groups, share you tube videos, fight in the political realm, but MAKE sure you distinguish between the standards, curriculum, professional trainings, and the application made by a student.
We can not make productive change in ANY area if we make judgments before we get understanding.

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