Moscovitch: Getting to Core of education debate

Standards raise expectations, teach critical thinking

(as appeared in the Boston Herald)

Ed Moscovitch Monday, March 07, 2016

Whether Massachusetts should drop the Common Core standards is the subject of a State House hearing today. My answer – an emphatic: Keep them!

Common Core raises expectations for student performance and helps teachers improve instruction. I hope today’s discussion sticks to what standards actually mean in classrooms — and isn’t distracted by hostility to the federal government or opposition to testing generally (the standards are goals for student instruction and are separate from state tests).

I’m in classrooms all the time — about 60 school visits a year, each at least three hours, with the time spent walking through classrooms with the principal, observing instruction, and discussing how to improve it.

Common Core’s English standards emphasize looking for evidence, students’ understanding of what they read, and their use of this information in speaking and writing.

Examples from the fourth grade standards:

Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text.

Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.

Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details.

Isn’t this what we want for our children – to think critically about what they read and to use these ideas in their writing and speaking? I can’t understand how commonsense standards like these inspire such angry resistance.

The Bay State Reading Institute emphasizes reciprocal teaching and student debate. Starting in first grade, groups of four students, working on their own, make predictions, read the text, clarify what they don’t understand, ask each other questions, check the accuracy of their predictions, look for evidence, and pick out the main ideas.

Starting in third grade, students begin researching topics and debating them — again in groups of four, while the teacher is across the room teaching other students. Topics include whether genetically modified foods are the answer to world hunger, whether the 13 colonies should have rebelled against King George, and whether using animals for testing is appropriate.

Students love this kind of high-level engagement! What’s not to like?

Common Core shakes up the traditional order of teaching math too. Learning the standard algorithms (like doing long-division by hand) is postponed until fourth grade so the first years in school can be used to immerse students in mathematical logic and patterns. There’s an emphasis on word problems (that is, taking real world problems and using math to solve them). Students learn that there is more than one way to solve a problem; they first try to solve a problem on their own and then discuss different solution strategies in small groups — all of which leads to a much deeper understanding.

Since its adoption, Common Core has caught the attention of teachers and principals, leading to extensive teacher dialog on what good instruction is. Abandoning it after only a few years would strengthen the nay-sayers and undercut those teachers who’ve been working hard to improve instruction.

I hope legislators today will ask Common Core opponents specifically what it is in the standards they object to. Do they think that rote memorization of arithmetic algorithms that basically replicate the calculator function on cellphones is more important than understanding the structure of numbers? Do they not want their students to read text critically, to distinguish fact from opinion, or to look for evidence? Do they object to developing critical thinking skills and being able to express one’s self persuasively?

I don’t see how anyone who actually goes into classrooms and observes Common Core instruction could look me in the eye and say that this is not what they want for their children.

Ed Moscovitch is the executive director of the Bay State Reading Institute, which works with 52 Massachusetts elementary and middle schools, primarily in high-poverty districts.

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