A science teacher’s truth about the Common Core

commoncorelogoIt’s always interesting to be a fly on the wall when non-educators discuss public education policy.  Whether I’m sitting in the “parent room” at my daughter’s gymnastics practice or standing in line at the grocery store, I find it enlightening to hear what regular folks think about what’s going on in education.

What is less enjoyable is holding my tongue when I hear half-truths and misinformation being shared.  Sometimes I just avoid the situation, but at other times I can’t resist the urge to set the record straight.  These days it’s frequently about the Common Core.  I’ve come to realize that, as this issue has become politicized, more and more people have ridiculously strong opinions about a subject that they know very little about.  I won’t pretend to be an expert on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), but here are three ideas that I try to correct when I hear others misstate them: Continue reading

Education, Science

A Vote Against NGSS is Not a Vote Against Common Core

I’ve struggled before with the idea of a common curriculum.  The science teacher in me loves the idea, but the libertarian hiding under the surface sees problems.  Common Core State Standards, in the end, were an easy sell to me: I see the benefit in a very tangible way.  The skills and content knowledge covered in these standards is really powerful and necessary stuff.

The Next Generation Science Standards are a different beast.  On the surface they appear very similar, but if you look under the hood you’ll see some glaring differences.  Yes, NGSS were developed by a consortium of states and agencies.  Yes, states must sign on before they are held to these standards.  But, when it comes to the quality of the standards, the similarities end. Continue reading


Every Teacher a Tech Teacher

Its funny how quickly after creating a Personal Learning Network (PLN) and interacting with colleagues from all levels of education and all over the world, you begin to think of these people as your equals.  I frequently forget that some of the great minds that I follow and share with online are actually world-renowned education experts.  It’s a very democratic world, this Twitter.

One such humble master whose writing I read voraciously is Jeff Utecht.  He’s the kind of smart guy who can post nuggets of wisdom on a regular basis while simultaneously self-publishing books about PLNs and working as both an education consultant and an international teacher.  And recently he wrote a piece about a topic that has begun to bug me lately.

In “Really? It’s My Job To Teach Technology?“, Utecht responds to another teacher’s blog post and presents his opinion about the question of teaching technology skills.  I agree with some of what Jeff has written, but I also see some real parallels to the change that Common Core State Standards have brought to U.S. schools, specifically.

One of the biggest changes for Science classrooms is the more prominent integration of reading and writing.  This is something that I wholeheartedly support as these literacy skills are universal.  They apply to everything that a student learns in school (and outside of school), and improving these skills will make them better science students, to boot.  It just makes sense that students should get instruction and practice in literacy skills in every class.

Technology is no different.  There are fundamental tech skills–like basic Windows troubleshooting, word processing, blogging, wikis, etc.–that every student needs to be successful in school and professions afterward.  Every teacher needs to be teaching and supporting these skills.  It is unrealistic, and less than effective, for teachers to “out-source” this responsibility to another teacher.  It’s also silly to front-load your school year with these skills if you aren’t going to use them every week.  Kids, like adults, are not going to remember processes that they do not practice regularly.

So, if these practices don’t work, what does work?  The answer is continual integration of tech skills and reinforcement into classroom activities.  Like reading and writing, we need to be sneaking them into content-area activities on a weekly basis (or more often).  Yes, your school may not have adequate tech resources.  Yes, you many not know a lot about educational technology yourself.  These are not acceptable excuses anymore.

Consider stations or project choices in which you don’t need an iPad/laptop/desktop for every student every time.  When appropriate, make use of students’ personal tech to build these skills.  Remember that just because they have them doesn’t mean that they know the right way to use them.

In 11 years of teaching, I’ve received about 3 hours of literacy training, yet I am expected to teach my students how to read.  Technology is no different for most of us.  You need to take responsibility for your own professional development.  Build a PLN, seek out local experts, experiment with tools, brainstorm best practices.

In the end, we have to embrace this technology integration if we are going to create truly tech literate students.  Because it takes a digital village…

photo credit: vernhart via photopin cc


School of None?

The idea of common curriculum is something I find myself talking about a lot these days. It’s been a popular topic of discussion with both educators and non-educators that I spend time with. The Race to the Top requirement that participating states adopt the Common Core standards has raised the profile of this issue. Nonetheless, I’m not sure how I feel about it.

When I wrote about this previously, I was similarly unsure of where I stood on the issue of a national curriculum. Some recent news, however, has pushed me away from supporting such an idea.

Part of my concern is one of semantics, and follows along the lines of Tom Vander Ark’s piece in the Huffington Post earlier this month. He points out that even those who talk about a unified curriculum sometimes don’t agree on what exactly this means. To some, the standards of mastery should be aligned. For others, this requires an alignment of the actual teaching materials and lesson pacing.

Resolving this confusion is only the first issue. In general, the more standardized a curriculum becomes, the less freedom exists for a teacher to innovate and customize his teaching to the needs of his students. A great example of the opposite extreme is the “School of One” concept being piloted in New York City. Obviously, a system like this one, which creates a unique learning plan for each middle school math student, is time- and resource-intensive. But, I think that we can learn a lot from it.

On the other hand, a common set of standards that require every child to be measured against the same benchmark can be highly effective in raising the level of achievement for all American students.  Some states have been criticized in the past for using assessments that inflate the achievement level of their students.  A common curriculum would address this concern, but at what cost?

A key element in the School of One concept is the focus on individual student improvement or growth.  With limited resources, however, customizing (in education parlance, “differentiating”) the curriculum to meet the prior knowledge and skills of each individual child is not only impossible, it’s laughable.

In the end, I guess I still don’t know how I feel about national standards.  I want the freedom to be creative and innovative in the classroom, but I want American children to all learn the concepts and facts that will help them be effective citizens.  Is there a middle ground?