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A Parent’s Guide to Navigating Common Core — and Helping Your Kids Succeed with It

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Supporters of the Common Core State Standards are happy to see the increased rigor and uniform standards across states. Critics argue, among other things, that CCSS is a step towards a national curriculum. Some people objectively see both pros and cons to the new standards. Or, if you’re like most of the parents I’ve talked to, you don’t know how to feel because you are confused and frankly don’t understand what Common Core is all about. I’m not writing to debate the merits or weaknesses of Common Core here. I’m writing simply to give parents a few tips on how to help their children with the transition to CCSS because, personal feelings aside, 45 states have adopted these new standards and your children will soon be assessed on these new principles.

I work at a middle school in Florida. We rolled out the changes last year and will begin, like most states, assessing on the new standards this 2014/2015 school year. I think younger elementary kids will fare just fine with the CCSS, however, because these changes were implemented across every grade level at the same time, I feel that middle and high school students are at a disadvantage. They’ve learned one way for several years and now are being required to make sudden, dramatic changes. This guide is to help you, the parent, so you are best prepared to help your student be successful:

1. Try not to badmouth it in front of the kids.

Now, I’m not saying the program is fabulous and without flaws, and I’m not saying you have to like it and support it 100%. In fact, you can hate it. But saying, “Common Core sucks! This is so stupid!” in front of your kids is a bad idea. Just like you shouldn’t badmouth your ex in front of your children, you shouldn’t speak poorly of their teachers, schools, curriculum, or state standards even if you really hate them. A bad attitude won’t help your child or change the situation. If your state has adopted CCSS and you don’t like it, go through the proper channels to have your voice heard, pull your kids from public school, or homeschool your children. As long as your children are in public school (in a state that has adopted these standards) you need to be supportive. After all, your goal is for your children to be successful, yes? Don’t sabotage that with a negative attitude that will transfer to them.

How to do this: Instead of berating CCSS when your kids express frustration or question why things are changing, say something like, “I know that change is hard, but I’m here to help you. Your teachers are trying to prepare you for jobs that didn’t even exist a generation ago and education needs to change a little to keep up with the changing job market.” Offer to set up a conference with your child’s teacher to talk about it if you need to.

 2. Understand what the changes are — and why they were made.

Yes, change is hard. Humans tend to be creatures of habit and change is disconcerting. At the same time, change is inevitable. Education has evolved very little in the past generations, yet the job market has transformed considerably. I remember my parents commenting on my math tests, way back in the day, that I wasn’t working the problems the way they’d learned how to do it. And my parents may have thought it was a waste of time playing Oregon Trail on the computer at school when I was in 8th grade because, “what need do kids have to play with toys (computers) in school?” I learned how to use a card catalog and encyclopedias; that’s something my kids will never learn. Your kids may start learning simple code in elementary school. We didn’t learn that because we didn’t use computers back then! Our kids today are learning different subjects in different ways than you did or your parents did because life is different now. Things change.

How to do this: Take advantage of any classes or meetings your school or district offers. Last year, my school invited all parents to an informational meeting about Common Core. Only about 40 parents showed up, but they were all very thankful for the information and I think it really helped them to understand the changes and put their minds at ease. If your child’s district or school offers any classes or meetings, go to them! If they don’t offer a meeting, urge them to. Make a list of any questions you have. Believe me, your child’s teachers want to be partners with you and will happily answer your questions and be thankful for your involvement.

 3. Get ready for more complex texts and advanced language.

You’ll see your children coming home with more complex, non-fiction texts peppered with academic language. Many schools have done away with spelling tests and are focusing on understanding vocabulary words instead of memorizing how to spell specific words.

How to do this: Go over big words, both in your child’s homework, and in real life and ask them what they think the word means, then ask them how they know. Explain words they don’t understand and/or look them up together. Read, read, read. The more they read, the better understanding they’ll have of complex vocabulary words, and the better they will be at spelling.

 4. Help them get used to making inferences.

Your child will have close reads wherein they’ll have to carefully read a text and answer questions while developing inferences based on their prior knowledge and information from the text.

How to do this: Take your child to the library and help him choose non-fiction books that interest him. The standards include more technical reading and more non-fiction texts. I imagine this might turn some kids off to reading, so help them to find topics that are engaging to them. When reading books with your kids, ask them questions that require them to make inferences. “Why do you think that happened? What do you think will happen next?”

 5. Ask them to cite evidence at home.

Not only will students be reading more complex, technical material, but they’ll be required to accurately cite evidence from the text.

How to do this: Get a subscription to an age-appropriate kids’ magazine so your child will always have interesting articles at their fingertips. Magazines like Time for Kids, Calliope, and National Geographic Kids contain the types of articles your children will be reading in school. When talking to your child and asking questions about what they’ve read, ask them to back up their answers with proof from the actual text. Direct your child to pay attention to captions, maps, sidebars, subheadings, and other infographics while reading the article.

6. Remember: the goal is to learn the why not the how.

In math, your children will be learning fewer topics, but they’ll be learning each concept on a much deeper level. No longer will the teacher stand up in class, repeating the same problem over and over again until the student “gets it.” Instead of simply memorizing algorithms, students will learn many ways to solve a problem and they’ll learn why a problem can be solved like that. The goal is for students to be able to transfer their knowledge across many disciplines and apply what they’ve learned to real-life situations. Right now, I think most students have a difficult time figuring out how to take the problem their teacher went over in class and make it work in any other situation.

How to do this: First off, your child will probably have math homework that will look like hieroglyphics to you. You will want to bang your head against the wall and scream, “Why is your teacher making this so complicated?!” Take a deep breath. Yes, on the surface it does seem like they’re taking a simple problem and making it unnecessarily difficult. Remember – the goal here is to make your child understand the whys of how to solve the equation instead of simply memorizing an algorithm. Don’t worry. They won’t always be taking eight minutes to solve a problem that takes you 30 seconds to do. They’re learning with a goal of mastering the material instead of memorizing what they need to know for a test only to have to relearn it the following year. Will it work that way? Time will tell. But I can assure you that right now, I see students every day who promptly forget what they’ve learned the minute they move on to the next unit. It would be nice to have these concepts stick with a child because they’ve really mastered them and not just memorized what they need to know to pass a test.

Don’t argue with your child and tell them they’re doing it wrong. Most likely, they’re doing it the way they were taught, which just happens to be very different from the way you were taught. Remember, different isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just different.

7.  Research parent resources to better understand the curriculum.

I have found that most math books aren’t really great at explaining the problems. And if you get a problem that differs even slightly from the example, it’s difficult to figure it out.

How to do this: Find out what curriculum your child’s school is using and see if there are parent resources available. For example, we use a program called Math 180 at my school for kids struggling with math. There’s a parent portal with additional information and ways to help your child on their website. Also, Khan Academy has great videos to help you and child understand concepts from basic adding and subtracting to trigonometry and calculus. If your child is struggling and you cannot understand the material to help them, call their teacher. Set up a conference. Urge your school to hold a “math night” for parents to come in and learn how their kids are being taught.

8.  Help take the pressure off of test results.

Although I believe that good data can be gathered from standardized tests, I think there is WAY too much testing that goes on with our kids. Here in Florida, our kids lose weeks in instructional time throughout the year because of all the benchmark tests that are administered. Whether you agree with the testing or not, your kids will be assessed on these new standards this coming school year.

How to do this: Your child’s teacher works hard all year in preparing him to pass the test. I think, as a parent, we can best help our kids by taking it down a notch. Let your kids know that the test is not that big a deal. Encourage them to do their best and then relax! Some kids get so stressed out over tests and I think that’s really sad. Some students are just not good test takers. For example, my daughter recently took the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (P.E.R.T.) for placement in her college courses. The first time she took the math test she did so poorly, she was told she’d have to take intermediate math her freshman year in college. She calmed down, took the test again and received a near-perfect score, missing only one question. My point is that you should know the outcomes of these assessments, in and of themselves, do not determine your child’s worth or their future success.

I’ve heard of parents pulling their kids out of school and refusing to let them take the state assessment. Please be aware that although this may sound like a viable option, you need to check with your school on the consequences. For instance, if a child doesn’t take the state assessment at my school (and therefore doesn’t have a passing score), the student will automatically be placed in a reading class and a math strategies class for additional assistance. Also, a passing score is required in order to graduate high school. Just keep that in mind before opting out of testing.

In the end, you may not agree with the Common Core State Standards and that’s okay. But I encourage you to learn how your child’s school is shifting toward the new standards. Keep a positive attitude around your child. If your child senses that you don’t like the new standards and think they’re stupid, why should they care or try their best? Honestly, if you live in a state that had high standards to begin with, you might even find there’s not a big difference in how your child is learning at all.

Finally, here are some additional resources I found helpful:

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects (K-5 and 6-12)

Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (K-5 and 6-12)

A Simplified Explanation of the CCSS: The Aspen Institute Introduction for Families

A List of How YOUR State is Implementing the CCSS: National PTA’s List of State Education Agencies

The National PTA Parents’ Guide to Student Success

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