Common Core and Standards-based Learning: a student's view

2 June 2011

In the past few months, I’ve interviewed a number of people about the common core learning standards. Common core is a new bill that was adopted by the state of Maine at the end of March. Common core standards are much more rigorous than the ones that we currently have in many subjects. One important idea behind common core is standards based learning, which is when the curriculum stays the same but the means to achieve it varies depending on a student’s abilities. Common core is a difficult topic for a number of reasons, including that few people know what will happen when our schools adopt the new standards.

In the present system a student’s progress is based on letter grades and the number of hours spent in class. Standards-based learning allows students to progress based on their own mastery. For example:

  • Kindergarteners should be able to count to one hundred and write the numbers 0 through 20 to progress.
  • First graders should be able to write a story with some description and several events in order.
  • Third graders should be able to multiply and divide whole numbers within 100.
  • Seventh graders should be able to solve word and mathematical problems using algebraic equations.
  • High school juniors should be able to evaluate the hypothesis, data, analysis, and conclusions in a science text, verifying the data when possible and corroborating or challenging conclusions with other sources of information

The changes that common core will have on different schools will vary. I interviewed individuals in the school community in order to understand how it may affect schools on MDI. I’ve talked to teachers, administrators, school board members and students and they seem to have completely different opinions, ranging from worries about limitations to concerns about reactions within the community.

One person I interviewed was Sarah Winne. She is the gifted and talented specialist at Conners Emerson school, one of the schools rapidly moving towards adopting common core learning. One of Ms. Winne’s primary concerns is that teachers might put boundaries on what students can learn. This could be a problem in both undifferentiated and differentiated classrooms, but more in undifferentiated classes. Her example is of a second grader, whose teachers say that he or she can be learning math at the level of a first grader to a third grader. However, the student has mastered third grade math, and therefore, is left hanging with nothing to do for the remainder of a school year.

Another source of information was Joanne Harriman, the assistant superintendent of our school system, who gave me an interesting perspective as part of the administration. Ms. Harriman is involved in most of the curriculum decisions in our school system and has an extensive knowledge of both the current requirements of our schools and what might be changed when we adopt the common core standards. Ms. Harriman says that generally the curriculum for our schools is quite close to the new standards, although the common core standards make it necessary for students to read more difficult pieces at younger ages and will have to read more nonfiction than students do currently. Her worry with these changes is that students who have trouble learning will become exasperated more quickly, especially the students that might struggle with the current levels of necessary reading comprehension.

I also interviewed Isabel Bohrer, a freshman at Mount Desert Island High School. When I asked her what common core was she defined it as the foundation that schools are adopting for students. She considered the negative aspects of it for a minute, then suggested it would be a difficult change for the teachers. “From what I’ve heard of the first global lit [class], it kind of sucked, but it’s gradually improved.” The Global Literacies class at MDI High School is in its third year. It was an innovative change, like common core, and had some problems at first but is now much better.

Despite various reservations, none of the people that I talked to thought that changing to common core learning would be a bad thing for our schools. Although common core learning is not perfect, it’s a step in the right direction for our schools and an important one for students. As MDI High School principal Dr. Garrity-Janger stated, “Standards are just a list, a framework, for focusing and organizing our efforts. The common core is a good framework.”

Nora Hubbell, 9th grade student,
Mount Desert Island High School,
Bar Harbor, Maine

Basic Questions

I understand the basic theory, but just don't see how it works in practice for every student in an entire state.

For example: What happens to the student who - in kindergarten - can't count from 1 to 100 or write the numbers 1 - 20? Does the student stay in kindergarten or move on to Grade 1 and keep working at it?

What if the student can do the math, but can't read at whatever level is expected in K? OR, can read at a much higher level but doesn't spell particularly well?

By sticking with the whole idea of "grade" levels, it seems to me that one (standards) just gets in the way of the other (grades) and vice versa.

Grade advancement

In theory, the student would have to work with other peers who would be working at the same level as the student. The student would stay with their peers in subjects where they were competent and continue to work at the level they can until they're ready to work with their peers again.

Thanks for the response

I guess we'll all just have to wait and see if this can really work on a state-wide basis.