Common Core’s Positive Side Effects

Is Common Core the The BOTOX of Education?

antique syringe

As a Migraine sufferer, I have first hand experience with unexpected benefits from relatively silly ideas. BOTOX was discovered as a treatment for Migraine when some migraine patients receiving cosmetics treatments reported a lowered incidence of headaches. This spurred research into whether or not the injections might be an effective prophylactic treatment for Migraine. In late 2010 the F.D.A. approved BOTOX as a Migraine treatment. In 2011, I began the treatments, and for the first time in over twenty years, began to experience pain-free days. The more I thought about Common Core, the more I began to realize that it is like Botox. It was hyped in the media for cosmetic purposes; used in unskilled hands, it is a poison; it can, however, bring some benefits to education when properly applied.

Take Your Medicine

Anyone in with any ties to education, whether it be as a teacher, parent, or student, has probably heard of Common Core by now. In spite of the fact that Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been around for about ten years, Common Core is still surrounded in a cloud of fear, rumors, and bi-partisan rhetoric. I was quite disturbed to find that my students and I would be evaluated using an untried test on a set of standards developed by and large without the input of teachers. Rick Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute notes “his biggest issue is how the standards were implemented, not what they actually require students and teachers to do” (Hechinger Report).  As a classroom teacher, I certainly had no input; what I can decide, however, is how to implement CCSS.

While some teachers seemed determined to hold their hands over their ears repeating la-la-la hoping Common Core Hear no Evilwould go away, I decided to do my best to work with the new standards. (I have always felt that it is hypocritical to push my students to reach out and learn and try new things if I am unwilling to follow suit.) As I began implementing CCSS in my classroom, I was understandably concerned with how it would affect my students’ scores on current End of Course exams since the Tennessee was using the “old” tests that year. This school year, however, the only chance I had to try out some new techniques to help me make the transition before full implementation became mandatory, so on with Common Core I went.

Same Song, New Verse

One thing that stood out to me at first was that in spite of the new label, I had been implementing CCSS standards for the majority of my twenty-five year career. It was not all old news, though: My personal epiphany was that, as a teacher of both honors and standard level students, I had not had high enough expectations for my standard level students. I set out to create some CCSS lessons that would cross the levels and challenge all of my students equally. This is what I see as an actual strength of CCSS: the focus on challenging a diverse group of students with a single lesson. I am fortunate that my district provided quick and fairly in-depth training, offering help for teachers to learn how to work with the standards.

There’s Work to do in the Core.

A common misconception is that the CCSS laid out what teachers should do on the classroom, or how they should teach; this is not the case. In fact, a writer for CCSS said, “When we wrote the standards we were prohibited from addressing how to teach; that’s not what standards are supposed to do” (Hechinger, teach differently). This meant that tiny-people-700921_1280many teachers fell into two main camps: those who just decided to keep doing what they had always done, and those who wanted to help their student “achieve the core,” but did not know how. As I began working on lessons in the fall semester of the year, I found that updating and preparing CCSS lessons requires a significant time commitment.

If legislators had been serious about wanting this shift to succeed, they would have given districts more time to train teachers, and districts would have given teachers more time to update lessons. Had I not been well versed in the process, from both my system training and personal research, I would have been completely intimidated at the thought of producing a single CCSS lesson, let alone an entire semester’s worth.

From Theory to Practice

More significant, however, was the discovery that my students responded very well to Common Core. I tried my first CCSS lesson with a standard level, ninth grade English class. I discovered that some of the students who had been uninterested in “traditional” lessons became engaged during the CCSS lesson. Some of them surprised me with the depth of their written responses. My students enjoyed working on the computers, participated meaningfully in the guided discussions, and most produced well-written, text-based essay responses.

The Fad Diet of Education

Most meaningfully to me is that I incorporated CCSS without sacrificing what I felt I was already doing well in my classes. As with every curriculum I have worked with, the most important thing for teachers to remember is that such standards provide a benchmark for minimum proficiency. This is how I really see CCSS as analogous to fad diets: no curriculum can provide a quick fix for education. Simply replacing carbs with fats or eating all the grapefruit you want won’t by itself make you healthier; study after study (with no product to push) has shown that only a reasonable diet paired with exercise will make you healthier.


“While elective brain surgery didn’t test that well, it did test better than diet or exercise.” Ted Better off Ted.

We don’t want to hear that, though. We don’t want to hear in education that no curriculum overhaul is a magic bullet. To substantially improve education will require more parental involvement, better teacher training and input, stronger administrative support, and (gasp) more money– all pushing higher standards for students. Proof that legislators were looking for a quick fix with CCSS is the speed with which they abandoned the plan they had only recently touted as our educational savior.

A Rose by Any Other Name

My state, Tennessee, replaced the CCSS with a “new” set of standards they/we call TNReady. Why? Well, that’s unclear. According to an article by Emmanuel Felton on The Hechinger Report, an online poll regarding Tennesseans’ yellow roseattitudes about the standards themselves (as opposed to the whole of Common Core) in which “[m]ore than 2,200 Tennesseans participated, including 1,164 teachers, 320 parents, 141 school administrators, and 15 students” indicated that that 56 percent of participants favored keeping the individual standards. While 56 percent is hardly overwhelming support, it does indicate that the switch was not made to appease an overwhelming public backlash. So, Tennessee has stopped calling our standards Common Core State Standards; we have edited them; and we are using new evaluation methods.  I have worked with my district to help align our curriculum to the new TNReady standards, and they are basically just Common Core State Standards under a new name.

Many of the objections to common core arose from the idea that it dictates curriculum. It does require modifying curriculum, but CCSS never told educators where to stop teaching. I still taught my what I knew were my strongest units, albeit with some new tasks incorporated to address the new standards. So, how effective was this hybrid approach? When the data for my students’ performance on their End of Course testing had been analyzed by the state, their academic growth was classified by the state as “above expectation”; it was on par with what my students achieve every year.

On the one hand, I was surprised at the consistency because I had taught far less of the traditional curriculum.  On the other, while I had been comparing and contrasting reading passages in class discussion, asking students to analyze vocabulary, and write responses (all per CCSS), they had been learning about vocabulary in context, main ideas, implied theses, and other traditional End of Course performance indicators. I approached CCSS with an open mind; my teaching evolved; my students performed well.

photo by Phalinn OoiNow was this an intentional effect of CCSS or an unplanned side effect? I vote side effect. Any reform of education must include substantial input from classroom specialists, by which I mean teachers. I used my knowledge and experience to incorporate CCSS in a way that was beneficial for my students. I am fortunate to work in an environment in which I am not micro-managed; this allowed me to find the most advantageous way to address CCSS. The real problem is that most teachers are not given enough classroom autonomy or training to utilize their knowledge.

Does your state still use CCSS? What do you think about it as a teacher, parent, student, or concerned citizen? Do you have any success stories? Horror stories?

Art credits: Hear no Evil Monkey, John Snape, Creative Commons 3.0; Yellow rose, Tracey Rains; Surgeon, Phalinn Ooi, Creative Commons 2.0

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