Kids on the Common Core: How do our students feel?

January 29, 2015

By Tara Brancato

Recently every morning when I read announcements over the loudspeaker, I smile: it’s college acceptance time again. Just before we read the school pledge over the good-natured grumbles of our early rising student body, there is a moment of glory for a few seniors before all of KAPPA. Because I teach in a small public school, I’ve worked with some of our seniors since they were freshmen, and I can’t wait to learn about their successes in higher education. Before they go, I decided to ask my graduating seniors how they feel about the Common Core and to what extent the new standards have helped prepare them for college. Their responses, as I hoped, were honest and intuitive.

What is the Common Core?

“I know it means things are harder!”

“Common Core is more along the lines of everyone being taught the same skills...before, schools had the ability to test different things, but with Common Core everyone learns the same things to take the same exact tests.”

Do you see differences between school now, and school before the Common Core?

I hear the word scaffold a lot now. I feel like kids who understand stuff...get a lot less help.  But now the kids who don’t get things as well, they get totally different worksheets and help sheets to do the same skills I’m doing.”

“Personally, I’m always asking for help, and teachers still help me, so it’s not that different for me.”

“In English class, she would stand over us in ninth grade and tell us every step of what to do. Now [our teacher] doesn’t really hold our hand as much; he lets us experience stuff.”

The amount of independence afforded to us is staggering.”

“I don’t think the way we’re taught is that different. Teachers still teach kind of the same – they give the basic idea and then if students have questions, they help.  Students more on the recluse side get called on a lot more now.”

Can you think of a time you really had to be independent or rely on a skill you learned?

This question went out to students who are taking both IB (International Baccalaureate) and regular Regents classes.  They don’t know the difference between the assignments we make up and the assignments their international benchmarks require. However, it is worth noting that virtually all of their IB assignments are Common Core–aligned organically – IB has always focused on analysis, broad skills and independence.

During the writing of our history assessment, we got a topic and not much else. We had to develop our own thesis and analyze different texts to find supporting details.”

“For [an IB] essay, I have to analyze a question through an unconventional set of lenses...The essay cannot be written as though it is giving an answer, rather, it must interpret the different ways the question can be probed by others while still containing my personal thoughts on the subject. The level of flexibility in this project is borderline insane: every sentence I write has to keep track of every possible interpretation, making this an interesting project to manage.”

What do you like, and where do you see room to grow?

I’d rather experience learning on my own like this – I learn better based off of trial and error instead of somebody holding my hand. I’d rather figure out what I do wrong and fix it.”

“It was implemented poorly...when you use Common Core techniques to supplement IB work, you produce a widely divided class environment...all I have to do is look at the differences in our worksheets to know who does and doesn't understand what is being taught...a high achievement student can find themselves ignored in favor of two or three others when all of them have...the same question.”

From the beginning, I believe [high school] should makes students ride an academic bike with training wheels, and as students progress through high school [you] should remove those wheels and loosen [your] grip and allow students to ride on their own...By senior year they should not be relying on professors to hand feed them notes and nag them about deadlines and missing work.”

Conclusions

Although student independence, cognitive rigor and analysis is the goal of both the math and ELA Common Core standards, students are perhaps the least consulted stakeholders. There are reports of teacher and parent support and criticism nationwide. For example recent polls have found 75%, 46%, and 76% teachers favor the Common Core. But we don’t hear from students nearly enough. The students I spoke to love the challenges and the more complex tasks that the Common Core focuses on, but they expressed wariness at the emphasis on high-stakes Regents assessments at the end, and fear that the new methods wouldn’t make newer, harder tests any more attainable.  In their honesty, I see evidence of the growth we have begun, and also the journey we still have before us.

A special thanks to my 12th graders, especially:  Karina R, Alexis D, Jeremy D, Sapphire B, and Joel G.

Tara Brancato is a founding member of KAPPA International High School, an International Baccalaureate World School in the Bronx, and has been a teacher of arts and human rights studies there since 2007. She is a traditionally certified teacher and a proud UFT chapter leader at her school. 

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