With a son in fifth grade in a progressive New York City public school, I am at ground zero in the fight over the common core and the standardized testing situation. In the past several years I have been very involved in my son’s education. I’ve worked closely with his teachers, I’ve taught him at home after school when I identified gaps, and he spent grades 1-3 in Japan, so I am able to compare and contrast Japan’s method of education with ours for some perspective.
I will add that my son got every single question correct on the math test last year, and he thinks he got all but one correct on this week’s test. I share that because I feel like the approach we took toward the common core and the testing has been successful for us and I want to share my experience and perspective.
In Japan, from first grade, my son sat in rows with other students all day. They bowed before a lesson, and they spent time every day reciting their multiplication tables. Every child memorized the tables and my son was considered an average student. Nobody ever talked about making math fun, they simply memorized math facts. Nobody complained because all the kids did the same thing every day and it was just normal.
When we moved back to New York, our son was two grades ahead in math for an American school even though he was right on track for a Japanese one. His English was way behind though. He went to school early, and his teacher worked with him to get him caught up to his peers. He worked very hard, and so did his teachers. But he complained that math was boring.
Suddenly, my son was seen as some kind of math whiz. This was great for his self image, because he was so far behind in English. But he was bored in math. His peers struggled with division, and after asking around it became clear that even by fourth grade, most of his classmates had not memorized their multiplication tables at all. They also hadn’t drilled in addition and subtraction. Whenever anyone asked me for advice with their child, I suggested they drill the tables to gain fluency and the answer was always the same. “If it’s not fun, s/he won’t do it.”
To keep my son engaged in math I realized I would have to teach him myself. I was a terrible math student and my academic GPA in high school was a 1.2, so I’m not a math genius. I went to the bookstore and I bought the teaching materials for Kumon. I also went to a site called The Math Worksheet Site and I bought other math books. I went to Khan Academy and I used their “Knowledge Map” and drills to figure out which skills my son had and which he didn’t. I worked with him for about 45 minutes a day. He did problems on Khan Academy, and I sent him to school with worksheets I printed out from The Math Worksheet Site for him to work on during math if he already knew what was being covered.
When my son came home with math homework in the “TERC” method, I was baffled. My first reaction was to complain and push back. But then I realized that my first and only goal was to keep my kid engaged and not go for the drama. I also didn’t want to waste time debating which approach was better if it meant that I was taking time from tutoring my son.
I realized that my son was going to have to learn some stupid approaches to doing things. Fortunately, I have been in public schools for all my education. I was in the Army National Guard, and I’ve worked as a teacher in Japan and for various ad agencies and corporations in the US. Being able to do things that don’t make sense, that seem counterproductive, and that are mostly a waste of time is actually a skill that was necessary in every job I’ve ever had. I realized I was going to have to use that skill as a parent and that I was going to have to teach it to my son.
And so we sucked it up and I taught him what I could of the new ways of doing things, what I remembered of the old ways of doing things, and what I could find in books on online. My mantra was “surrender to win.” Give in to the nonsense and master it. That was what I wanted my son to learn, because too much of life is just knuckling down and getting stuff done, even if it sucks. It took me too long to learn that, and now that I know it my life is easier than always being angry at the inefficiency and nonsense around me.
My son progressed. He learned English and caught up to his peers. His math continued to go well. I heard about the common core when a pamphlet came home in my son’s backpackpack. I read the standards for his grade level for the past two years. Some of the standards are clear, some read like beuracratic jargon. Here are some examples of standards in English for his grade level that I understand:
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative language such as metaphors and similes.”
Here is an example of an overall goal for his grade that I do not understand:
“Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:
By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 4-5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.”
There are many standards on the common core website for every grade, and they broken down into categories. I spent about two hours reading them and trying to figure out what they all meant. At parent teacher conferences I tried to determine which of the skills were being taught. Then if I identified any gaps, I tried to teach those to my son myself by discussing what he was reading or finding non-fiction articles for him to read and going over what he learned.
Here’s what I don't like. Next year my son will go to middle school. It is very hard to find a great middle school in New York City. The schools have to be tested into, so my son has taken the standardized tests and many middle schools administer their own tests. My son has taken over 15 hours of tests to get into middle school and we don't yet know how he did or where he’ll go.
This is the real problem. The stakes of the tests. It is important to test kids so that we know where they stand so that we can know what to teach them. But these test are being used to determine if kids will get into schools that are great, good, or lousy. This high stakes is what’s driving us all insane.
I believe that engaged parents have to spend all of our time trying to get our kids into schools that we have no energy left over to demand reform of the schools. The reform that's needed is to vastly improve all the schools so that there’s no panic about where our kids will go. Every New York City kid deserves a great school, we shouldn’t be fighting so hard for a good education.
In my opinion, the common core is mostly fine. It’s a work a progress. We’re trying to set national standards. I was happy to have those standards as benchmarks so that I could engage in my son’s education and learn where he’s at. I was grateful for the open communication with my son’s teachers so that I could augment his education where I thought it needed it. The testing is a drag, but we were able to approach it as part of life that can be dealt with. We couldn’t afford to drop out of the tests as some people advised us to do for political reasons because many great middle schools rely on those test grades for admissions. So far the tests have been an unpleasant part of life that we’ve navigated with success. But the common core has been a roadmap to find out what my son could know and how to help support him and his teachers in making sure he’s learning and growing.