Common Core Classroom Perspectives: Teachers Respond to N.Y. Principal Carol Burris

Common Core Classroom Perspectives: Teachers Respond to N.Y. Principal Carol Burris
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High school teacher Lauren Trahan observes as a student reads aloud during a Common Core-aligned English lesson. (Courtesy Lauren Trahan)

RCEd Commentary

In “Common Core ‘Goes Way, Way, Too Far,’” N.Y. Principal Carol Burris critiques the Common Core State Standards based on her experience as a high school principal. We would like to counter her critiques based on our experiences as current classroom teachers.

The Standards We Need for Kindergarten (Robbie Torney, Kindergarten Teacher)

Burris holds fundamental beliefs about what students can and cannot do. But Burris can’t speak for me, a Kindergarten teacher in East Oakland, Calif., as her claims about developmental appropriateness do not match up with my experience on three important levels:

  • What students should be able to do in the early grades to put them on track to be college and career ready
  • What students can do and how teachers can help students do those things
  • What the standards actually say kindergarteners should do

The Common Core State Standards exist to make sure that our students graduate high school ready for and able to attend colleges and universities or enter a career. What students should be able to do is part of a progression, a staircase of understanding and skills that leads from kindergarten to 12th grade graduation. (’s Milestones video library looks at what this progression looks like K-5)

The clear, high bar set by the standards ensures that my students are on the path to college and career when they leave my classroom at the end of kindergarten, so that is the bar I aim for. When people say, “That’s too hard” or “That’s not developmentally appropriate,” they are perpetuating a status quo where some kindergarteners -- the students who actually can count to 100 -- have a skill that they need to be ready for college and other kindergarteners do not because it’s “too hard” or “not appropriate.” Different expectations lead to different achievement levels. It is simply not ok with me that educators like Burris choose what is too easy or too hard for their students.

Not only should kindergarteners be able to count to 100 – as noted in the Common Core -- but they can. How to get them there is part of the art and science of teaching, and involves making sure that I know what my students know and can move them to where they need to be. Teaching kindergarteners to count to 100 is not bad worksheets and it’s not making kids so frustrated that they cry (which would be evidence for bad support on my part) -- it’s about knowing a student’s mathematical development and supporting them appropriately, which is crucial to building a bridge between a child’s current ability and where they need to be. The Common Core doesn’t mandate any worksheets, assignments, curriculum, or materials, and I write and adapt curriculum from a variety of sources to create coherent lesson sequences that build this bridge for my students, who discover joy in our number system in my classroom every year.

Robbie Torney teaches kindergarten in at the Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, California.

The Standards We Need for High School (Lauren Trahan, High School Teacher)

As a high school teacher in New Iberia, La., I am always in a fairy tale place at the beginning of the year –- so excited to welcome new students and for the learning to begin. I am quickly snapped back into reality by the learning gaps that plague my students. I teach in a high-poverty area. These students make up most of the future voting population. Many cannot read a ballot. Why would I want education to stay the same course it has, when this is the product?

As I started to implement the Common Core State Standards in my classroom, I took it upon myself to research; to relearn what I’d need to teach and to attend meetings and conferences that allowed me to understand these new expectations.

As an English teacher, I know that the standards do not prioritize nonfiction over literature; much of the nonfiction called for in the Common Core’s English language arts standards is intended to take place in history or science classes. The standards have guided me to develop rich lessons that tie both fiction and nonfiction together. I can bring in historical texts or primary source documents to relate to the fiction we were reading in class.

The standards are guidelines for learning, it is not a curriculum. Teachers have the freedom to choose their own curriculum and design their own lessons. Yes, states have offered unit plans, curriculum, and example reading material for the teachers and districts who want these resources, but we still have the sovereignty to select novels and documents that we believe are best for our grade levels and individual classes.

The entrance of the Common Core some four years ago was a wake-up call to take notice of what we are putting in front of our students.

We want the best for our students. We want them to dream of jobs in advertising, journalism, and biology. We want them to know why and how things work and to be able to solve problems in multiple ways. Most importantly, we want the education that students receive in our classrooms to be the best it can be -– an education based on high expectations and challenging goals. We all want what is best for our future generations, better than we ourselves have had. On this we can agree.

Lauren Trahan is a teacher and the ELA Dept. Director at Westgate High School in New Iberia, Louisiana.  

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