Teacher Voice

Teacher Maricela Montoy-Wilson Defends Common Core: A Response to Principal Carol Burris

Guest Post: Maricela Montoy-Wilson teaches second grade in East Palo Alto, California, where she has taught for the last six years. She graduated from Stanford University as an undergraduate and received her Masters in Education from the Stanford Teacher Education Program, where she is now a mentor. She serves as the lead teacher for her grade-level team and is a fellow with America Achieves Fellowship for Teachers and Principals. She also publishes a blog, Growing Minds, which promotes teaching strategies and reflections from her classroom on fostering growth mindset in the primary grades. Follow Mari on Twitter at @maricelamw.
Dear Principal Burris, As a teacher who has taught the Common Core State Standards for three years now, I want to respond to your post — Four Common Core “Flimflams” — from the perspective of a classroom teacher, who, like many of my colleagues, has found the Common Core standards to be a great opportunity for my students. The standards do not tell me how to teach, contrary to your point, but rather they serve as a guidepost for me, as the educator, to determine the best instructional strategies to attain the standards. The standards guide me in selecting instructional methods that facilitate true understanding of the fewer, deeper standards. They help me focus on clear-cut needs, which help me identify instructional practices through collaboration, strong coaching, and feedback. This helps me equip my students with a stronger foundation in mathematical thinking and reasoning. Ultimately, the Common Core standards help us prepare students to enter colleges and the ever-changing workplace. We know that our nation is not up to par in mathematical reasoning, and our classrooms are not adequately responding to the fast-evolving needs of the innovative and technological workplace. Therefore, a shift from doing to understanding was imperative in creating innovators. The Common Core standards offer such a shift.

The Standards Are a Guide

You point to a specific math standard, calling the standard a teaching strategy, making the argument that the standards tell teachers how to teach. The standard does not tell me how to teach composing and decomposing numbers; it highlights the critical need that our young mathematicians learn about place value, beginning in kindergarten. I find that the ability to compose and decompose numbers is foundational to deeper understanding and true number sense, and my students lacked this deeper understanding before the Common Core State Standards. The equivalent state standard here in California reads as follows: “Use concrete objects to determine the answers to addition and subtraction problems (for two numbers that are each less than 10).” As a first grade teacher, I had many students who were proficient on this standard coming from kindergarten, but who then could not use their mathematical understanding to move toward more complex reasoning in problem solving. Their ability to solve these problems was not based in strong number sense, but rather an ability to follow a procedure. In fact, many struggled to understand the meaning of place value, and how numbers were composed. Now, as a second grade teacher working with students with two years of Common Core-aligned math instruction, it is remarkable to see how students are so willing to problem-solve, using a plethora of strategies and approaches, which I attribute to their strong understanding of number sense. The standards do not tell me at all how to teach. I believe when people say these things it’s because they don’t know how to teach the standards. These standards are based in understanding, and it can be uncomfortable for teachers who aren’t familiar with teaching understanding in place of the old procedural standards.

Common Core and the Achievement Gap

You also dispute that the standards can help close the achievement gap. If anything, the standards illuminate the achievement gap. The previous standards were not an accurate representation of our kids as thinkers. The performance tasks illuminate the need for rigorous thinking taught in schools. Going through Common Core math training helped me understand what was so imperative to my students’ work. There were gaps in understanding. I now rely heavily on the Common Core for mathematical practice as well as for setting a benchmark. These are habits of mind that have changed my instruction for the better. When I first began learning about the Common Core State Standards, I was immediately attracted to the way they address our real equity needs that I knew my state standards were not addressing. Teaching predominately English Language Learners (98% of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch) means that equity is at the forefront of my mind every moment of every day. I am in education because I believe every student deserves a first-class education. With Common Core, there was finally a greater focus on time spent with complex text, close reading, and analysis. High-income communities often have taken the luxury of delving into project-based learning, problem-solving, and critical thinking tasks that equip students to become innovators, whereas our lower income schools were often forced to focus on testing strategies, rote memorization, and strategies that do not engage higher order thinking. This is part of the well intentioned No Child Left Behind era, and the standards offer a dramatic departure from this. The standards ask all teachers, or ALL students, to teach higher level thinking skills. Every day as I teach the Common Core standards, I am confident and excited that I am equipping my students with habits of mind that will make them college- and career-ready. It was definitely puzzling at times to be a lower-grade teacher embarking on this challenging work. The standards certainly weren’t telling me how to teach, and I needed training, collaborative minds, and resources. Just as we want to equip our students with perseverance, grit, and teamwork — critical skills for success — we as teachers need to model these traits as we develop into teachers who promote critical thinking, problem solving, and student-based learning in our classrooms. I told my staff when I was training them on the standards that I believe strongly in the Common Core as an issue of achieving equity in our schools. This puts an emphasis on content needs, making complex texts and higher-order mathematical thinking practices the norm in our classrooms.

Don’t Blame the Tests

The current conversation focuses too heavily on how our students are failing, or as you describe it, “a widening of the achievement gap.” In truth, the Common Core standards measure deeper thinking and understanding. The new, Common Core-aligned standardized tests are performance tasks that replace rote memorization and bubble-in answer sheets. It should be no surprise that our students are scoring poorly on these tests when we haven’t equipped them to address this higher-order thinking, or to craft analyses and short-responses, or type and manipulate technology. Instead of blaming the tests, we need to reflect on how our classrooms can better attend to these needs and equip our students with proper skills for the 21st century. Ultimately, the standards serve as focused guideposts for what a student must learn, and as the teacher, I make the decisions on how to address them. I feel empowered to take standards and implement instructional practices to best meet the needs of the students I know and serve every day. My attention on foundational understanding has been powerful in equipping my young mathematicians to be problem-solvers and critical-thinkers who persevere. As a proponent of the Common Core, I have never used it as an excuse to “avoid the real work,” as you suggest. We certainly must address the real problems of our racially-isolated schools, including inequitable funding and insufficient academic and socio-emotional resources in our high poverty schools (including my own). Common Core and the call for higher expectations illuminate these needs more than ever before.

Change is Hard, but Worth It

We are at a crossroads in education policy. We can heed calls to make things “easy” and fail to get at the heart of what our students deserve — or we can buckle down together, accept that there are challenges, that the going is tough, but ultimately the promise of these standards are worth it. Teachers have invested three years of time, and students are experiencing the shifts. Parents are struggling with things that look very different from when they were in school. This change is hard, and lets face it, we often shy away from challenge to take an easier way. This is not a “lemon breaking down on the highway,” as you suggest, but a challenge that must be addressed. This opportunity is too great. We must push through the hard parts — in the end, the struggle and discomfort that come with transition are worth it. We owe this to our kids.
Maricela Montoy-Wilson
Maricela Montoy-Wilson teaches second grade in East Palo Alto, California, where she has taught for the last six years. She serves as the lead teacher for her grade-level team and is a fellow with America Achieves Fellowship for Teachers and Principals. She also publishes a blog, Growing Minds, ...

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