Do standards matter? A teacher’s perspective on the promise and potential of the Common Core

Cole Farnum

I started teaching seven years ago, and I have worked in four different schools in three different states. I’ve always sought schools and environments with higher standards for what students should know and be able to do, as well as higher expectations for what teachers can accomplish.

What I’ve learned, though, is that the definition for these goals varies not only across states but also within school districts—and that’s is a problem for our students.

We need to ensure that regardless of their zip code, our students receive the core instruction that will lead them to successful careers in school and life. The need for a clear standard for what students know and when are why I believe the Common Core State Standards are essential.

Before launching into the now-familiar debate around the new state standards, consider this experience.

In my first week as a sixth grade math teacher at a high-performing New York City school, I met Ethan, a student recognized for his strong math skills. When asked to show me his skills, he beamed at his ability to correctly find the area of an irregular polygon.

I was surprised, not because Ethan could solve the problem but rather because I had taught it to my fourth grade students in Massachusetts years earlier. Still, in New York, that lesson was a part of the state’s curriculum for Ethan’s sixth grade level.

No, I did not lead my former students in math lessons two years ahead of their grade level. The expectations between these states differed—and dramatically.

If where you are born determines what you will learn in a classroom, our students risk falling so far behind that they’ll never catch up.

If we lack coherent standards and allow less-rigorous curriculum in classrooms across the country, we cannot be surprised when our children show lower levels of competency in core areas than their peers abroad.

If we do nothing, we cannot expect to close achievement and opportunity gaps for students from low-income families or whose first language is not English.

The Common Core standards are not a perfect solution, but they are a tremendous opportunity to get our classrooms, finally, on track. I can confidently say that my current students entered the sixth grade ready to master the foundations of proportional and algebraic reasoning. My colleagues trust in me that my students move to higher grades with the critical thinking and mathematical skills required of students in nations behind which we now lag. The Common Core are also a tremendous opportunity to come together as educators for students’ gain and our own.

Earlier this year, droves of my fellow educators, our students, and their parents attended Commissioner John King’s Common Core Town Hall at Medgar Evers College to voice our opinions on the standards.

The opponents focused on a faulty rollout that left teachers feeling ill prepared and their students overwhelmed. Those are fair criticisms, but let’s use them to construct a better policy rather than as an excuse to tear it down.

My surprise with Ethan underscored the unintentional opportunity gaps of low expectations across cities and, ultimately, our country. I’m hopeful that the struggles a student faces when adjusting to higher academic demands will mean he never faces the realization that, despite his beaming confidence, he may not be academically prepared for the realities of post-secondary education. I’m also confident that, led by his teachers, he’ll persevere through and embrace the challenge. The success that follows at this moment of educational history won’t be a surprise: it will be expected.

Cole Farnum is a sixth grade mathematics teacher in a New York City public school and is a member of Educators 4 Excellence. 

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