Common Core, Curriculum, and Schooling Choices

Ooooh, controversial topic, right?! Let me say right now that I’m not out to bash Common Core or to love on Common Core. Among parents with school-age kids, this is a very controversial topic that can get people really riled up really easily, I’ve found. I’m not out to rile people. I can’t rile people, given that I’m not an expert on this stuff. But I did feel like putting my thoughts in one place, so here goes….

Theo’s in public school. California public schools have adopted Common Core, along with most of the states in the U.S. Thus, we have Common Core. And people seem to love to hate Common Core. Why? Beats me. Some probably hate it because it came about from the Obama Administration. Some probably hate it because the math is freakishly confusing to those of us schooled years ago. And some probably hate it just because it’s new, and change is a pain.

I don’t hate it. I don’t love it, either. The Common Core standards themselves seem sensible to me. I read them, and I think, “Yeah, these are things I want my kid to know.” I even like some things about them. I like that they introduce nonfiction reading to students at a younger age, for example. I wrote a paper supporting this in grad school, in fact—back in the Bush days, long before the Obama Administration. As a writing teacher for college freshmen, I found that students coming into college did not know how to read and understand nonfiction, and I found that quite problematic. So I like that Common Core introduces kids to different types of reading—they get literature and they get nonfiction. Cool. I’m on board with that.

And I read the math standards, and I think, “Yeah, these are important things to understand. I can get behind this.” And I like the general idea that we’re introducing kids to critical thinking earlier. Because when I was teaching college, this, too, was a big issue—kids coming into college didn’t know how to think critically! They simply took whatever information was spoon-fed to them and regarded it as gospel. So I like that Common Core focuses on analyzing and thinking critically about topics. I can get behind that.

With all that said, I find the math curriculum pretty dreadful. Note that I said the curriculum, not that standards themselves. The standards I’m fine with—the curriculum they developed to achieve those standards…well, I find that ridiculously confusing. Theo is in first grade, and I have to work a bit to understand his math homework.  I can get it—I can help him where needed. But I have to work to understand how the heck they want him to do it. And I can only imagine that when he gets into higher grades, there will be a point when I will throw up my hands and say, “I have no idea what they’re doing here.”

Now, I’m not a math genius by any means. I’m far better at language arts, though I was able to muddle through math passably. Chris, however, is quite good at math. He went all the way through calculus with very little difficulty. And even he has trouble with Theo’s math—the way they’re teaching it is just so different from how we learned it that it’s hard for us to muddle through it with him. So it’s not just me being somewhat dense about math—it really is an unusual method they’re using now.

But is unusual bad? It’s hard to say. To me and Chris, it is difficult because it’s so very different from how we learned math. But the “experts” who developed it obviously think that it’s a more effective way to teach math to kids—and it might be! To Theo, who never learned math the “old” way, this may make perfect sense. Unfortunately, some kids are caught in the middle of the switch—Sam’s PT, for example, has three kids older than both of mine, but all still in school. The older ones started learning math the old way and are now switched to the new curriculum, and they are struggling. I can see why—as someone who learned math the old way, I am struggling, too! But in theory, if you start a kid with this new curriculum, maybe it makes perfect sense. Maybe. I guess we need to wait until Theo’s generation grows up to know for sure—and I’m not sure I feel great about my sons being in the “guinea pig” generation for math curriculum!

But my bigger concern actually lies with Sam. Theo is academically bright enough that I think he’s going to do okay with whatever is thrown at him. I do think that the way they’re teaching math will work for certain learners more than others, but that’s always been the case—some kid have always learned well from whatever the curriculum is, whereas others have struggled. And with a one-size-fits-all curriculum, which is what you get in most schools (public or private), there’s just no way around it. Luckily, Theo will probably do just fine, because he’s been blessed with a pretty sharp mind that adapts well to academic things.

But I’ve been told by many that where people with Down syndrome really struggle cognitively is with analytical thinking. I’ve heard this from a geneticist, from teachers, and from parents of older kids with DS—all have said that third grade tends to be the turning point. Up until third grade, kids with DS do fine in mainstream classes because it’s all learning facts. But in about third grade, the learning turns more to analytical thinking, and then kids with DS start to struggle. Supposedly, their minds just don’t lend themselves as well to that type of thinking. (The geneticist told me flat out that they’re incapable of analytical thinking. I don’t believe that for a second, as I’ve seen Sam do it, and I’ve seen plenty of other kids with DS do it. But I do think there’s validity to the point that they may struggle with it, since I’ve been told that by many people with far more experience than I have.)

So, if Common Core tries to integrate analytical thinking at a younger level…well, that may be a problem for Sam. If analytical thinking is hard for him, and they start that in kindergarten now…will he struggle from Day 1, instead of having a few good years before the struggle sets in? It’s hard to say, because the new curriculum and the Common Core standards are so recently implemented. But I do worry about this—which is one reason why I’m considering Montessori for him. (It was on my mind anyway, but this makes me think about it even more. Montessori allows for many ways of thinking, and I suspect that may be a real plus for any kid, but especially for one whose mind may process information a bit differently.)

My recent change in job situation even had me thinking more about homeschooling. That’s always been an option in our minds—I think there are a lot of benefits to homeschooling. Individualized teaching methods tailored to the particular child is one of the very biggest benefits, in my mind. If I homeschooled the boys, I could use whatever curriculum seemed to best fit their learning methods. But there’s one problem with this: Supposedly the SAT and other college-entrance exams are being revised to reflect the new curriculum. So if I teach Theo math the “old” way, will he be utterly baffled when he gets to the SAT? And will that cause a problem? Maybe. Again, hard to say. (I need a crystal ball, don’t I?)

That’s less of a concern with Sam, because he isn’t overly likely to need to take the SAT. If he decides to go to college, it will likely be a two-year or specialized program. Unfortunately, I have yet to hear of a person with DS completing a regular four-year bachelor’s degree. (Though hey, maybe Sam could be the first, if he wanted to be!) They more often choose to go into specialized programs, such as two-year hospitality degrees and such. But Theo…he’ll probably need/want to take the SAT at some point, and I don’t want to create problems for him if it’s based on this new way of doing math.

So…who knows? It’s a lot to think about. At this point, I’m not rocking the boat. Theo’s doing reasonably well in school—it’s not perfect, and he still has rough days and good days, but I think that can be said for many kids. He’s making friends (just got invited to a birthday party, in fact!), he loves his after-school care, he’s enjoying the once-a-week science enrichment I signed him up for, and I think he’s going to love Odyssey of the Mind when we start next week. So even though we have days where he wails about going to school and rages about having to go, and days where he comes home and his behavior hasn’t been great, I think on the whole it’s going okay, and we’re going to stick with it. But if we get to a point where it’s not okay, and it’s more negative than positive and we don’t see a way to improve that, then homeschool is certainly a distinct possibility. I’m just not sure I like the way the curriculum is heading. I’m reserving judgment, but it concerns me. And it’s definitely a factor in my mind when I consider Sam’s educational future, too. So much to think about…

So anyway, those are my preliminary thoughts. I don’t hate Common Core, but I don’t love it. I don’t understand the “new” math. Homeschool looks more and more attractive…but for right now, we’ll just watch and wait. And hope that we can figure out the best situation for both of our boys and their individual learning styles.

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