Is Common Core an uncommon curse or setting the course to the cutting edge of critical thinking and college-preparedness? This is an article re-printed from the New York Times June 14, 2014. I thought it was interesting. What do you think?
He could have written about the green toy truck he kept hidden in his room, a reminder of Haiti, a place he did not yet fully understand.
He might have mentioned the second-place trophy he had won for reciting a psalm in French at church — “le bonheur et la grâce m’accompagneront tous les jours de ma vie…” — his one and only award.
He could have noted his dream of becoming an engineer or an architect, to one day have a house with a pool and a laboratory where he would turn wild ideas about winged cars and jet packs into reality.
But on a windy April afternoon, as the first real sun of spring fell on Public School 397 in Brooklyn, and empty supermarket bags floated through the sky, Chrispin Alcindor’s mind was elsewhere.
His teacher, Trisha Matthew, had asked the 13 boys and six girls in her fourth-grade class to write self-portrait poems. Some students compared themselves to red foxes and resplendent stars, loud pianos and LeBron James. Chrispin took a different approach.
“I am a 9-year-old,” he began, “who struggles with math.”
Chrispin had reason to worry. New York’s state exams were two days away, and he was having difficulty dividing large numbers and deciphering patterns. He had once been a model student — the fastest counter in the first grade, his teachers said. But last year, in the confusion of a new and more difficult set of academic standards known as the Common Core, he had failed the state tests in English and math, placing him near the bottom of his class.
The Common Core, the most significant change to American public education in a generation, was hailed by the Obama administration as a way of lifting achievement at low-performing schools. After decades of rote learning, children would become nimble thinkers equipped for the modern age, capable of unraveling improper fractions and drawing connections between Lincoln and Pericles.
The standards have recently become a political flash point. Lawmakers in some states have suggested the Common Core undermines local control of education. Parents and teachers have raised questions about whether students are ready for a new wave of standardized tests, after precipitous drops in test scores in New York and Kentucky, the first two states to adopt Common Core exams. Others have argued the new benchmarks are onerous and elitist.
But whether the Common Core achieves its promise will ultimately depend on schools like P.S. 397 and children like Chrispin, and whether they rise to the rigor of the new demands.
At P.S. 397, about 85 percent of the nearly 350 students failed state exams last year, the school’s worst performance on record. New York City gave the school a C on its annual report card, citing its poor test scores; it even lagged behind similar schools serving large numbers of poor children. Parents were distraught, and staff members wept.
On that April day, Chrispin was determined. As one of the smallest children in the fourth grade, he had grown accustomed to being underestimated. With the right luck, he thought, he would earn high marks when test scores came back in August. “If I don’t pass the test,” he said, “I will feel miserable and never come out of my room.”
Maybe, Chrispin thought, he would score so high that he would win a trophy. He imagined the scene: walking across the stage at graduation in sunglasses and white sneakers, claiming his award and basking in the applause of the entire school.
At the very least, Chrispin resolved, he did not want to find out in June that he was so far behind that he would have to go to summer school. In his mind, it was a jail, a grave place devoid of friends, family and his Xbox 360. He returned to his poem:
I take my own path
When I feel like it.
My friends call me small
But I may get tall.
P.S. 397 stands at the end of a secluded stretch of Fenimore Street in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn. Wayward scents, like the sizzling fish cakes and West Indian curries sold on nearby streets, do not make it here; instead, the hallways smell of Canadian bacon and cheesy beef tacos, or whatever dish happens to be on the day’s menu. The school’s three stories are, for the most part, subdued, except at lunch, when conversations about stuffed animals, racecars and sleepovers bring a cacophony to the cafeteria.
P.S. 397 had long tried to make a name for itself. But success in recent years has been elusive. Enrollment dwindled as families left the neighborhood or opted for charter schools with flashier offerings. Parents, many of them immigrants, were difficult to reach. More than 90 percent of students came from low-income families, and Nancy Colon, the principal, estimated that almost half of the students were being raised by single mothers.
The Common Core was the latest educational experiment to come to a school whose teachers had long tired of them. P.S. 397 embraced the standards in 2012, when Ms. Colon, hoping to shake things up, began using a curriculum from Kentucky, one of the first states to turn to the Common Core.
On its own, the Common Core was not a curriculum; it did not tell schools to use particular textbooks, lesson plans or technology. The standards provided a philosophy for instruction. Teachers would focus on fewer topics and cover each in greater depth. They would bring abstract lessons to life by explaining how skills could be applied in the modern world. And they would emphasize critical thinking at every turn.
Many teachers across the city were initially skeptical. Some saw the Common Core as another mandate from above, an idealistic vision of education promoted by outside groups seeking to radically overhaul schools.
The hurried rollout last year of a new, more difficult set of exams aligned with the Common Core to replace old exams complicated the effort. While passing rates fell across the city, the drop was especially pronounced at schools with large numbers of black or Hispanic students, according to an analysis by The New York Times. Labor unions argued that the city had not devoted enough resources to training educators in the new standards and that it was unfair to evaluate teachers using results from the new tests.
By the start of school last fall, with the memories of state tests still fresh, a sense of anxiety was growing at P.S. 397. Though teachers found much to like in the new standards and believed the Common Core could transform education in the long run, they worried about what might happen in the short term. They feared for children like Chrispin — promising students unaccustomed to the critical thinking required by the Common Core, whose confidence was fragile and frayed.
A Big Challenge
One day I was playing soccer in the living room. I kicked the soccer ball right into the glass where my mom kept her tea cup. I thought my mom will be angry at me. So I started running to my room. My dad almost grounded me, but this time he said the next time I break a glass he’ll ground me. It was so embarrissing.
Chrispin Alcindor, “The Time I Broke a Glass,” Sept. 12, 2013
Almost all of the fourth graders who arrived in Ms. Matthew’s classroom in September had failed state exams the previous spring. Only a few students could form persuasive arguments; most filled their notebooks with meandering personal memories. Many struggled with basic math skills. Ms. Matthew, concerned about morale, called each student to her desk at the beginning of the year. “Please don’t think you are a failure,” she told them, one by one.
Ms. Matthew, 32, an immigrant from Grenada who had taught for a decade, knew that her students carried unusual burdens. There was Stella, who had arrived in New York four years earlier without knowing much English, fleeing the horror of an earthquake in Haiti. There was Lamott, who dreamed of one day dribbling down the court of Madison Square Garden, but whose parents rarely took time to read to him at home.
And there, at the front of the classroom, was Chrispin, a reserved boy whose cheery glances obscured his own struggles. He was one of three Alcindors in the fourth grade, triplets born during a thunderstorm in Port-au-Prince on Dec. 27, 2004.
Chrispin had little recollection of Haiti; the only reminder he kept was a toy truck given to him by his father too long ago for him to remember. Sometimes he asked his mother, Carline Alcindor, why the family had left for America. Life in Port-au-Prince was pleasant, she said, and then one day it was not. Ms. Alcindor lost her job as a receptionist and the family could not survive on the money sent by the triplets’ father in America. It was time for a change.
So on a September day in 2006, when the children were almost 2, the family left Haiti for Brooklyn, where they reunited with the triplets’ father, a bus driver. Ms. Alcindor cycled through temporary jobs — cleaning houses, changing sheets at nursing homes. Still, New York felt more hopeful, more resilient, than Port-au-Prince. In Haiti, the schools were shoddy and violent; here, they seemed orderly, with separate bathrooms for teachers and students. Here, she thought, her children might blossom.
On the first day of christmas my parents gave to me a psp for me.
On the second day of christmas my parents gave to me 2 xbox for me.
On the third day of christmas my parents gave to me 3 creepy noams for me.
Chrispin Alcindor, “12 days of christmas,” Dec. 13, 2013
Even though she worried grimmer days might return, Ms. Alcindor took pride in imagining a future for each of her triplets. Haelleca, a diligent and confident girl, would become a lawyer. Christopher, the one with the most sensitive heart, would become a doctor. And Chrispin, the most careful, the most exacting, would be an engineer.
By fourth grade, however, Chrispin seemed far from that ambition. He had become engrossed in the violent fantasy worlds of video games like “Assassin’s Creed.” In December, he wrote a variation on the “Twelve Days of Christmas” peppered with references to PlayStations, Xboxes, iPhones and an urban legend he had heard about evil gnomes.
“If Santa did not come this year,” he wrote in his notebook, “I will feel angry and I will take a chainsaw and I’ll scare him off. Then he will feel sorry.”
Ms. Alcindor did not know what to do about his academic difficulties. Her English was too limited to be of much help with homework, and she had never heard of the Common Core. She was away from the house most days, working a $10.50-an-hour job as a nursing assistant, and the triplets’ father no longer lived with them. But Ms. Alcindor knew that Haelleca (pronounced HALL-UH-kuh) was doing something right, judging by her pile of awards and her zeal for reading. “You must help your brothers,” she told her daughter.
The living room was transformed into a remediation center. Haelleca quickly discovered that her brothers were struggling with skills they should have learned in second and third grades. She pulled out old books and coached them through each lesson, mimicking her teachers at school. She read passages of novels like “Sounder” and asked tough questions that were the hallmark of the Common Core. What was the author’s intent? Why did he choose to include these descriptions? What can we infer — she liked that word — from this passage? Chrispin and Christopher usually stared back, clueless.
“They act like foolish little babies when I teach them,” she said. “They won’t listen.”
Under the Common Core, Haelleca’s writing had become more nuanced, and she could calculate the area of a room without flinching. But it seemed to have an opposite effect on her brothers, who were accustomed to spouting back basic facts. They improvised their way through questions that demanded critical thinking, throwing in phrases like “the author’s choice of words” and “the character’s motives,” even if the result was incoherent.
Haelleca was especially worried about Chrispin, who had soared through the earlier grades.
“When they started making things harder, he hit rock bottom,” she said. “I was like, ‘What happened to you, Chrispin?’ ”
Christopher piled on. “He became lazy,” he said.
Chrispin, who had heard the criticism many times before, smiled. “I was so smart in kindergarten,” he said. “I was even smarter than all of my friends. I was always answering questions. My teachers were amazed.”
Soon Chrispin and Christopher had no choice but to listen to Haelleca. In February, their mother disconnected the television and locked away the Xbox after discovering that Chrispin had not been doing his homework for weeks in a row. Now, with two months left before state tests, the boys would stick to a grueling regimen: long division on Saturdays, writing on weeknights. They would pass the state exams and avoid summer school, their mother mandated. They were triplets, after all, she said. They would rise together.
New Math, Again
A pet store has 18 hamsters. The shop owner wants to put 3 hamsters in each cage. How many cages does the shop owner need for all the hamsters?
Math had always been Chrispin’s favorite subject. Wherever he went, he was counting: Jeeps, pennies and basketball scores. He liked the satisfaction of arriving at a neat, definitive answer and not having to worry about things like spelling and grammar.
But as he worked on practice questions one day, the hamster problem stumped him:
Draw a model using equal groups or an array to show the problem.
Write a division equation for the problem.
Write a multiplication equation for the problem.
How many cages does the shop owner need?
Chrispin scribbled aimlessly in the margins. He hated word problems, a hallmark of the Common Core. Ms. Matthew had once told him to act like a detective and look for “clue words.” If a question referred to a “border” or “outside,” for example, it was asking for its perimeter. “Math is very, very, very, very logical,” she had said.
But Chrispin did not see any clues before him. After a few minutes of intense reading, he settled on an answer: 6. But he still did not fully understand the question. He could not remember what an array even looked like.
In 2009, when Chrispin was 4 and about to begin kindergarten, education in the United States was at a turning point. Despite decades of investment and experimentation in the school system, American schoolchildren still ranked far behind counterparts in countries like Singapore and Finland on international tests. Education experts were increasingly convinced that the problem was one of low expectations. Many of the highest-performing countries set rigorous national benchmarks. But in America, states traditionally had authority over academic standards. Rigor varied widely, and some states had relaxed requirements after the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, as a way of increasing test scores.
In 2009, a group of education experts, with the backing of groups like the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, set out to reverse the trend. The group began to delineate what skills students should master in English and math. In kindergarten, for example, students should be able to write the numbers zero to 20 and identify the title page of a book. In high school, students should be expected to add and subtract vectors and explain how a character’s conflicting motivations moved a plot forward.
More than 40 states, including New York, signed on to the Common Core. Though the Obama administration played no role in drafting the guidelines, it helped them catch fire by offering federal funds to states that adopted more-rigorous standards. Arne Duncan, the federal education secretary, said last year that the Common Core “may prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown v. Board of Education.”
But since the adoption of the Common Core, opposition has grown. Some Republicans derided the new standards as “Obamacore.” Comedians like Stephen Colbert and Louis C.K. mocked the new math as overcomplicated. Parents organized protests, chanting, “My kids are not guinea pigs!” Some took issue with the idea that all children should be placed on a path to college, and they worried about the disappearance of vocational education.
In March of this year, Indiana became the first state to abandon the Common Core, and South Carolina and Oklahoma followed.
The architects of the Common Core knew the transition would be bumpy, but they believed students would rise to the challenge of higher expectations. It would be up to schools like P.S. 397 to determine whether they were right.
A True Believer
Once upon a time a God name Terrolight. He was so evil he ask zeus to make the world dark, but zeus didn’t have the power but terrolight did. Terrolight had no idea what to do, For that he didn’t used his power for 8 years. Terrolight tried by pointing his hand at the sky and he discover this old power. His old power was dark magic. Terrolight created darkness. Zeus was happy.
Chrispin Alcindor, “The Myth About Terrolight,” April 2014
Sometimes, when afternoons dragged on, Ms. Matthew filled the room with stories from Grenada.
“When I was growing up,” she began one day, “I had two pairs of shoes: one for school and one for church. Your shoes had to be a certain way, and your socks had to be pearly white. And if they weren’t, you’d get written up. And if you were written up too often, at the end of the year, you would get a floggin’.”
The students looked confused.
“They would beat you in front of school.”
“That’s like slavery,” a boy said. Another asked whether the students could sue.
Ms. Matthew chuckled. “You guys grew up where no one is allowed to hit you, and it’s great,” she said. “You have opportunities and privileges here, and you shouldn’t waste them.”
Ms. Matthew was defiant when it came to the Common Core. She saw it as her patriotic duty to make it work. “This is the United States of America,” she said one day after school. “We need one set of standards. That’s the only way schools will get better.”
Ms. Matthew’s classroom had become a model for P.S. 397. She posted excerpts from the Common Core standards on the wall. She chided students for using “cheap, $1 words” and encouraged them to adopt a more complex vocabulary, words like “puckered,” “snagged” and “skittered.” She set aside feel-good posters in favor of more provocative messages. “Metacognition,” one read. “Thinking about what I am reading. THINKING what is going on in my head. REAL READING.”
Under the Common Core, P.S. 397 had replaced some works of fiction with magazine articles and books about science, a shift meant to sharpen students’ ability to search for evidence and piece together arguments. (The standards require that nonfiction texts make up 50 percent of classroom reading in fourth grade; in 12th grade, that figure rises to 70 percent.) Free-form essays on topics like winter break and personal heroes were rare; instead, students were assigned weighty essays about slavery, the environment and school safety.
The Common Core brought a renewed focus to long-neglected areas like Greek mythology, a way of teaching students the origins of English words. Many students in Ms. Matthew’s class had never heard of the likes of Zeus, Athena and Poseidon. So she explained concepts such as the Midas touch and a herculean effort, and she asked them to invent their own Greek gods, using Greek and Latin word roots like “terr-” and “astro-.”
In math, Ms. Matthew’s mantra was simple: “Prove it.” It was no longer sufficient for students to memorize multiplication tables. They had to demonstrate exactly what three times five meant by shading in squares on a grid. If the topic was fractions, they would slide around neon-colored tiles on their desks until they could prove that three-quarters was the same as six-eighths. Math instruction had long been derided as inaccessible; the Common Core aimed to change that by asking students to explain their calculations and solve modern-day problems.
Taken together, the demands of the Common Core were daunting. But Ms. Matthew was persistent. In March, with a few weeks to go before the first exams, she knew exactly which students were struggling and which lacked help from their parents. She knew who needed one-on-one coaching and who was most at risk of failing and in danger of being sent to summer school. She kept a close eye on Chrispin.
Read the myths. Then answer the questions that follow.
The directions on a practice exam seemed simple enough. But as Chrispin skimmed two stories about the creation of fire, he bit his nails. Words like “council” and “shivering” tripped him up. And he was puzzled about why some words, including “Beaver” and “Pine Trees,” were capitalized in the middle of a sentence (they were characters in the story).
“It’s too much to think about,” he said, putting down his pencil. “Sometimes I just forget things and I just can’t remember.”
Officially, he was at a third-grade reading level. While some students raced through autobiographies and novels, he read shorter titles like “Zac Power: Poison Island.” When he read aloud, his voice was hushed, and he whispered his way through tricky phrases.
The excerpts before him offered two perspectives on how fire came to be. One told a legend of how beavers stole coal from pine trees. The other was a modern-day monologue recounting how Prometheus robbed a spark from Zeus’s lightning bolt.
Chrispin’s task was to point out similarities and differences between the tales, using details to back up his argument. Chrispin easily identified the likenesses, noting how both myths spoke about how fire was given to those in need. But he stumbled in articulating the differences, producing a nonsensical string: “The beaver stole fire by first beaver into the council meaning what the pine tree was having then after the live coal rolled over and he took it.”
Chrispin grew distracted, and he looked toward the window. On cloudy days like this, there was not much to see: buildings the color of rust, rooftops covered in satellite dishes and, in the distance, a lone blue slide. “I wish I could be there right now,” he said. He turned back to the test, erasing everything he had written.
Yoga for the Nervous
I’m against standardized testing. Standardized testing causes me to feel nervous. One reason is “a student may exhibit extreme emotion and physical stress.” Also, “stress can bring about cheating.”
Chrispin Alcindor, letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña, April 2014
The first day of April was the start of testing season — English first, then math a few weeks later — and Chrispin was beaming. Ms. Matthew had hung a piece he had written about pollution on the wall. With the grudging help of Haelleca, he had picked up a few new words. And he was showing some improvement in math, especially in long division, even though he still thought it was “too long.”
Ms. Matthew celebrated the day with her pretest indulgence, a cappuccino from Dunkin’ Donuts with three packets of sugar. Before the students began their exams, she led yoga exercises and turned on a Sara Bareilles song: “I wanna see you be brave,” the lyrics said.
“I get nervous,” Ms. Matthew said. “I don’t want to get them nervous.”
After repeating the testing routine three days in a row, Chrispin was exhausted. But he felt good about his performance. “It was easy this time, actually,” he said in the cafeteria.
With the first round of exams finished, Ms. Matthew asked the class to debate the merits of standardized testing. She expressed her own doubts about the value of tests, and she spoke about the No Child Left Behind Act and the Common Core, and how schools sometimes felt pressure to increase test scores.
Most of the fourth graders in her class seemed opposed to the idea of tests. But Ms. Matthew pushed them to consider alternatives. If tests were eliminated, what would replace them?
“Grades,” a student named Chloe suggested.
But what if a student, by no fault of his own, had trouble finishing his homework?
Chrispin, who rarely volunteered to speak in class, raised his hand. “Sometimes when you don’t know how to read,” he said, “you’re going to struggle with everything you have to learn and it’s just going to be harder.”
Signs of Progress
In mid-May, with the end of the school year looming, Chrispin tried to move beyond the stress of exams. He was busy practicing doo-wop for a student production of “Grease.” He was learning African dance through a program at school. And he had become one of the fastest runners at recess, circling the playground until his lungs gave out.
But Chrispin’s life was filled with reminders about tests, summer school and the Common Core. His mother had taken to praying daily for his academic success. Haelleca had won another academic award, this one from the City Council, and she had made a habit of reminding her brothers that there was no doubt that she had aced the exams.
At P.S. 397, Ms. Matthew was relieved. She thought the tests had been fair, unlike those in the previous year, and she predicted that P.S. 397, as a whole, would do better. She believed the Common Core had made Chrispin a more discerning student, and she had watched his confidence improve over the year.
During an end-of-year evaluation, Chrispin flawlessly read aloud a 100-word passage on apple trees. And in class, he had grown more adept at using evidence to support his arguments. But his comprehension was still weak and his writing could be disorganized, and in math, he was still having trouble with word problems.
“Chrispin is going to make strides, it’s just going to be a long, long journey,” Ms. Matthew said. “To expect him to master all of this very quickly is, I think, ludicrous.”
In early June, Chrispin’s outlook brightened. Preliminary test scores came in, and the results were promising: Chrispin was not among the bottom 10 percent of students in the city. He would be promoted to the fifth grade along with his siblings, and he would not have to attend summer school. Though he would not know until August whether he had passed the exams, he was elated.
“Yes!” he said. “I feel so proud of myself. I thought I would do really bad and feel guilty. This gives me a second chance.”
Without pause, Chrispin began plotting out his summer: days filled with “Assassin’s Creed,” dinners at Applebee’s, Bible school on weekends and a visit to the National September 11 Memorial Museum.
Then, with equal certainty, he listed his plans for the next school year: He would get into a good middle school. He would keep up his grades so that he could go on the fifth-grade trip. And he would dance across the stage at graduation, a trophy in his hands.