No More Blank Faces: Common Core In My Classroom

By Guestblogger Kylie Alsofrom

Common Core is coming under fire from critics who claim the new standards amount to a common curriculum (false), federal overreach into states’ control over their education systems (also false), or simply because they’re just too hard.

It’s that last argument that I have the biggest problem with. When I first learned about the Common Core, I was so excited for the potential it had to improve student learning nation-wide. Recognizing that the new standards were going to require students to have a deeper understanding of the concepts they’re taught, I wanted to give them a test run by pushing my students’ practice to see what they actually understood.

Here’s what that looked like in my classroom: I presented my students with a type of problem they hadn’t seen for a while. I wanted them to solve multiplication problems using arrays.  When I noticed they were stumped, I modeled a few problems on the board. They were then able to mimic what I had done to solve the next problems. They were getting them correct!  Then, feeling that they’d had a necessary warm-up, I asked them to solve a few more in the form of word problems.  They read the problem, they took the two numbers, they drew an array. High-five for me…they got it. But then I asked them to explain how they knew to use an array, or what the array was showing them. Blank faces. They only knew because they had just practiced it. They plugged in some numbers. They couldn’t explain to me the conceptual understanding.

This is what is happening to our students. They can go through the motions and get the correct answers, but is this enough?

Kids answering questions correctly does not mean it is time to move on to the next topic.  Do they truly understand? Do they know why they are getting these answers? If we settle for mere correct answers, we are not only not closing education gaps—we are creating gaps. With Common Core, there are fewer standards, over the same amount of time, that push student learning to a deeper conceptual level. These standards allow teachers to spend more time on conceptual understandings and higher-order thinking skills. If we get the Common Core right, kids will be able to relate their work to real-life applications, rather than just use a formula to answer questions. Students will build the problem-solving skills they need to persevere through any problem, regardless of when they learned the process.

If we don’t take the time to build this kind of deep, conceptual understanding, students will continue to move to the next grade with knowledge of surface level procedures. With our current system, students often don’t push their understanding forward as the skills become more difficult and build on what they were ‘supposed to’ learn the year before. The Common Core provides us with an opportunity to ensure that students have the coherence they need between the grade levels to continue to move forward.

Fast-forward to my classroom today. Since I first tested my students on arrays that afternoon, I have been to a handful of professional development sessions around the Common Core State Standards. I am consistently asking myself, “Where are all the other teachers?” In D.C., we’re now at a point where teachers are expected to be fully implementing the Common Core standards. It is our job–teachers, school leaders, administrators, districts, and beyond–to create supports and professional development for teachers to ensure their understanding of the new standards.  Teachers who have mastered the standards must take on new leadership roles as Common Core experts in their schools, networks and districts. We need to create more opportunities for teachers to collaborate and coach one another. As I learned at the teacher-led Common Core Conference in D.C. in May, teachers learn best from other teachers (similar teacher-led conferences will take place in LA, Boston and Indianapolis over the next few months). Teachers want to hear from those who are experiencing the same struggles and achievements with the Common Core standards.

If we want the Common Core to work for students, we need to make it work for teachers. The most important thing we can do is support teachers in this new endeavor and build teacher buy-in. Teachers must believe in the potential the Common Core brings our profession and our students. So let’s find more ways for teachers to learn from each other about the standards, share best practices, and talk through challenges. I believe the best way to spread buy-in and excitement is through teachers.


Kylie Alsofrom teaches at DC Prep in Washington, DC and is an alumna of the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship.

6 Replies to “No More Blank Faces: Common Core In My Classroom”

  1. “With Common Core, there are fewer standards” is this true? Math teachers in my state are saying there are more standards, not less.

  2. “This is what is happening to our students.”

    No. It’s what’s happening to *your* students, because you apparently don’t have a good idea of how to teach math. You describe your teaching, totally unaware that it shrieks “I’m a crap math teacher!”

    So apparently, *any* professional development that gives you a better idea of how to actually teach math is a good idea. You are, however, exactly the wrong sort of person to promote Common Core, because you start your post with evidence that you are a terrible math teacher. And that’s not going to be fixed by Common Core.

  3. Since I’m a constructivist, I support student-led learning, experimentation and discovery. I love the fact that CCSSM asks teachers to move away from teacher-directed classrooms. There are definitely less standards to teach and instead of focusing on many strands of mathematics, the new standards lean toward number sense and proportional/algebraic thinking.

    I say kudos for learning something new and working to implement it in your classroom. Your students will become better mathematicians for it!

    @ Education Realist: I do not think what she said makes her any different than most of the math teachers in the country. Common Core Standards move to a constructivist form of teaching which has not been popular in U.S. math courses (if you are an educational realist, I’m sure you’ve noticed that). She sounds like she was a very traditional teacher and that common core helped her discover a new (better) method.

  4. No, CCSSM does NOT ask teachers to move away from teacher-directed classrooms. It is being interpreted that way by schools, school districts and PD vendors, particularly the Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP) which as based in large part on NCTM’s “process standards”. CCSSM plugs in to 20+ years of reform math which has evolved into a constructivist mess. Granted, some of the standards themselves are quite explicit (e.g., “students shall understand that…” or “students shall be able to explain that…”) and contain a heavy emphasis on understanding. That the CCSSM are being interpreted so that “understanding” trumps “procedure” is an artifact of what the reform movement has wrought.

    Bill McCallum, lead writer of the CCSS math standards has stated publicly that the standards do not dictate nor prohibit any kind of pedagogy.

    This “very traditional teacher” (as Supporter of CCSSM characterizes her) mischaracterizes traditionally taught math (as many do) as providing only “surface level procedures”. Not all of us are swept in by the Marilyn Burns view of math education nor use her techniques to “teach with understanding”.

  5. I appreciate the conversation on CCSS being put forth here. I am a new teacher, and was taught nothing but GLCE until I began to teach and was told about CCSS. It has been hard for me to make the transition as I feel there is little understanding in my district. From what I have been able to learn however, it appears that my students will be held to a higher standard and will be required to dive much deeper cognitively into the material. As a student, I always struggled in school because I did not like the memorization without meaning. I think the CCSS will help us to give more meaning to the learning, and hopefully create more student buy in to the process.

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