I went to a Parent-Teacher Conference this week for my first grader. She has the same teacher my eldest son had in first grade for comparison, and everything this year is noticeably different. Both the subject matter and the order of study is completely changed thanks to the new Common Core Standards.
So far this year the class is focusing heavily on mathematics at an intense pace. My daughter is grasping the actual math part pretty well and is even scoring above average in several areas in math, but is scoring average or even slightly below in reading. The teachers are following the Common Core Curriculum put forth by the state, and they have not focused much, if at all, on reading or writing this year. (Apparently that’s coming later in the year). She brings home 2-3 pages of homework home a night, but has yet to bring home any writing or reading exercises, nor has she brought home any worksheets that have been completed in class for reading or writing. The teacher said they haven’t worked on that yet, and it was clear she really did not have any true grasp on my child’s individual reading abilities. The kids are encouraged to read anything of their choosing with parents at home for at least 15 minutes a night and record it on a daily reading log.
When my son was in the classroom only two years ago, they had a curriculum that focused on reading first, which is a clear foundation to everything else. Writing, math, social studies, science, etc. all require a base of proficient reading skills. Keep in mind that according to the state tests administered last year, only 5% of our district (Rochester City School District) was deemed proficient in English Language Arts (ELA). Prior to the Common Core Tests, I was told only 43% of the students in our particular elementary school were able to read at grade level. This is an area that undoubtedly needs attention, yet they have chosen not to focus or give precedence to it OR use reading passages on tests that are written at an age appropriate level thus far.
Even though she is too young for the big tests in the spring, they still continually administer tests in the classroom that the teachers do not aid the children with, meaning they don’t read them out loud to the students. They are handed out and taken solely by the kids. I was able to see some of the “tests” the children were given in math already. There was one test that was 2 or 3 pages of problems. Probably 4-5 in-depth problems to a page, each requiring several steps. (I’m going from memory of a test I was shown at the P/T conference). The first page was a mix of word instructions, picture instructions and fill in the box type problems, while the second page was text only instructions with blank spaces for the children to solve the problems. No pictures, no boxes, etc. Each instruction passage was 3 sentences at least, including large words like “unknown number,” “addends,” and “doubles.” I find the high expectations of required reading and in particular hefty vocabulary rather troubling due to the fact that my daughter can barely read. This is first grade, remember. She can read very basic words like See Spot Run, but not much beyond that. (Remember they haven’t worked on reading yet this year, so she’s still running on kindergarten skills, minus the amount she’s probably regressed for lack of working on it thus far). They do have a “read to self” time set aside in class, but she tells me she looks at the pictures of the books for 20 minutes. Because again, she can’t really even read. My daughter marked high on the first page of the test because she is good at drawing answers from visual cues, while the second page was left completely blank. Obviously. Because there was nothing on the page except for words. Questions that appeared to be almost an entire paragraph. Paragraph length questions are inappropriate, above level and too daunting for a child that is used to reading material that is comprised of mostly pictures and short rhyming words like dog and log and cat and bat.
My daughter often comes home with homework that requires me having to read the instructions on the top of the page for her; it is definitely not material she could get through on her own. Sometimes I will read her the instructions, and because of her five year old desire to be independent, she wants to try to figure it out on her own. She wants to do it how she does it in class, which is looking at the pictures and mostly guesswork.
It boggles my mind that the writers of the curriculum are giving kids work that is above their reading level, and not allowing time in the classrooms to make sure kids can actually read at that level, and if they can’t read, then there is no allowance for the teacher to recognize that fact and work on reading first. And the sad part is, the teacher’s hands are tied, they aren’t supposed to diverge from the state mandated curriculum. The teacher told me that first graders at this point should read about 7 words a minute. I don’t understand with those types of benchmarks that they think 3-4 sentence instructions are reasonable. Four sentences for example may take up to 8 minutes for an “on track” child to get through a reading passage (even double that number for a child that is below reading level) and by that time, say 16 minutes of reading for just one problem, I doubt they would have comprehended the beginning of the passage to even figure out what to do.
This new curriculum is not ideal, nor is it efficient in the order it is set up. It would make SO much more sense to work on reading first, then math skills second. And to make sure that instructions and questions on tests are age appropriate and realistic. That is clear to me as a parent, only by the small taste I have of what the kids are learning. There have been calls to change the current curriculum by educators and parents across the state. That is fine and good, but my child is only 5 once. I don’t like the fact that my child is a basically a guinea pig in a failing system. Even if they change the curriculum for future classes, my daughter’s very foundation for the rest of her life is at stake right here, right now. Her desire to want to learn is forming now. The way she writes her letters is being imprinted now. The way she learns to take tests and read books and do homework is happening now. Even her inclination to develop a love for books is happening today; I don’t have a year to wait for the state to make the material appropriate, and I’m angry that teachers who feel like they are teaching the students the wrong things don’t have the ability to make the judgment calls to change the curriculum. I feel like no one is able to accommodate to our specific needs. I also feel like a failure as her mother as the one in the position to make sure her needs are being met. I should be picking up the slack here and be able to teach her the skills that the school isn’t able to do, but often after 3 pages of homework at night, she is done- way done with academics. Oftentimes when she is merely half way done being drilled with math facts at night, she is tired and losing focus. Then when I do sit down to read with her at night, she’s too overwhelmed and overworked by the rigorous requirements during and after school to want to learn even more, and focus on working on reading with me. My daughter finds pleasure and comfort in cuddling with me after a long day and I reading books to her before bed. She often doesn’t have the energy at night to struggle through words like “unknown” or “doubles.”
I actually think some elements of the Common Core do have merit. I like the fact that they are being taught some expanded vocabulary and that my children aren’t being given a sub-par education just because they attend a school in an impoverished district. Children can comprehend some of these new concepts being taught, as their verbal comprehension level is higher than their reading level, (and continues to surpass it until about 8th grade). These are concepts though that should be told to a first grade child, but not be forced to try to read these words. So when a teacher tells the kids what a muscular system is and shown pictures, they can soak it up. Or if they are taught that the definition of the word “unknown” is a number that belongs in the blank box, they will probably understand what this word means by hearing it verbally and comparing the pictures on the sides. But to expect children to even attempt to straight up read these types of words is asinine and developmentally inappropriate. I like the fact that the state is trying to set standards and make sure our children are being challenged. But when the academic expectations go beyond a reasonable age appropriate challenge, it becomes damaging and counterproductive.
I am told not to worry about it, and that she’s right on track, at least compared to everyone else.. Because a majority of the class wasn’t able to do that last page of equations either. Since 95% of our district is considered a failure, she’s average, right?! But I do take the fact that she’s being presented with material that she has no chances of grasping quite seriously. I don’t understand the rush to make kids feel like they are failures in their school work. This not only affects their grades in the current year, but undoes the “scaffolding” the curriculum is supposed to create, as well as gives children the expectation that getting the answers right is completely unattainable. That failure is the new status quo.