Constructive Criticism for Common Core Constructivism Deniers

(Guest Post by James Shuls)

Let me start by saying that I share most of Jay Greene’s reservations about the Common Core State Standards. Over the past couple of years, I have had the opportunity to discuss these concerns with many Common Core supporters. Although I typically disagree with their conclusions or their logic, I believe Common Core supporters are for the most part sincere in their belief that these standards are rigorous and will improve outcomes for students. However, I find claims that the Common Core State Standards will not influence instructional practices downright disingenuous and obviously false.

In a recent Twitter exchange, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education informed me that the CCSS don’t “tell teachers how to teach.” This is a phrase that has been echoing across the country as the Common Core has come under attack from the left and the right.

The fact is that curriculum standards don’t tell teachers how to teach in the same way that a high jump bar doesn’t tell a jumper how to jump. You could theoretically jump over a high jump bar in whatever way you would like; but because of how the jump is structured there is a clear advantage to doing the old Fosbury Flop.

It is clear from documents on the Common Core website and from the discourse throughout the country that these new standards encourage constructivist teaching practices. Take for example these two quotes from a Key Points in Common Core Math document.

  • The standards stress not only procedural skill but also conceptual understanding, to make sure students are learning and absorbing the critical information they need to succeed at higher levels ‐ rather than the current practices by which many students learn enough to get by on the next test, but forget it shortly thereafter, only to review again the following year.
  • Having built a strong foundation K‐5, students can do hands on learning in geometry, algebra and probability and statistics. Students who have completed 7th grade and mastered the content and skills through the 7th grade will be well‐ prepared for algebra in grade 8.

Common Core developers themselves are saying that traditional methods of math instruction aren’t working and students should be learning through “hands on learning.” It is reasonable to assume the tests will likely favor constructivist teaching practices.

I have written extensively about what constructivist teaching looked like in my child’s classroom, where students were supposed to discover how to solve math problems rather than learn to use standard algorithms. My kid’s school is not the exception, it seems to be the rule. Across the country schools are beginning to understand that the Common Core standards will require a more constructivist based form of instruction.

In California, teachers will be “encouraging critical thinking over memorization, focusing on collaboration and integrating technological advances in the classroom.”  We are told that teachers “are attending workshops and training sessions to rethink the way they relay information to students.”

A Virginia newspaper reports, “Discovery, guided math, problem-based learning, project-based learning – call it what you like, it’s here.”

Even in Massachusetts, a state that had arguably better standards than the Common Core, teachers are moving more towards constructivist teaching practices. In the Wrentham School District, “the first and second grade math programs are already implementing new methods for teaching basic math skills that are designed to create deeper understanding of math among the students.” One teacher commented, “Our job as teachers is to guide through questioning.” If that doesn’t sound constructivist, then I don’t know what does.

I am aware that some non-constructivist based curricula, like Saxon Math, are aligning to the Common Core. They are doing so because they have to or they will be at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace. It remains to be seen if these more traditional models will resist constructivist influences. Much of that depends on how the Common Core assessments are structured.

I am also aware that the standards do not dictate which pedagogical approach a teacher must take. Although, to me it feels a bit like when my mom used to say, “You can do what you want.” Which never really meant that I could do what I wanted.

The bottom line is that the Common Core State Standards are built on constructivist principles and are being implemented, by and large, by constructivist means. If supporters like constructivism, which I suspect most do, then they should just come out and say so. That is not such a difficult position to defend. But don’t attempt to tell me these standards won’t tell teachers how to teach.

James Shuls is the education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute

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