Urban Students’ Perceptions and the Transition to the Common Core

As an urban teacher in the lowest performing district of New York’s ‘Big Five’ cities, I have heard criticism of the Common Core Standards and Curriculum Modules. Based on the state exam scores in my school last year (1% at level 3 or higher for grades 3-8), some may think that these new, more rigorous standards are too challenging and perhaps even detrimental to our students’ performance. However, my fourth graders see it differently.

Following a detailed analysis of our school’s key challenges, we received a key grant from Expeditionary Learning in 2011. Our school has now been implementing the curriculum modules through this opportunity for the last two full years. Students and teachers have been learning and adjusting to the new standards and curriculum. While I have certainly noticed a change in the way I’m teaching, it’s perhaps even more important to understand what my students think about the way they’ve been learning. So I asked them…

“What’s different about school since you entered third grade?” (The wonderful thing about fourth graders is their infallibly honest declarations—a fourth grader is never wrong.)

“We read a lot more nonfiction,” a student called out. “We used to read only stories, but now we read books and articles about real stuff.”

“We have to read closer,” another student replied. “We read stuff over and over now.”

“Why?” I asked, simply.

“Because we need to find evidence for our ideas, and check to make sure we understand it.”

“We have to write about what we read, too. We write paragraphs all the time!”

“Math is harder, too, because we need to think critically and solve things one step at a time.”

I have to admit, when we were first introduced to the curricular modules on EngageNY.org, many of us thought we were in over our heads. Many teachers believed that we were only being set up for failure by forcing low-performing students to tackle even more challenging reading and math standards. But the students have experienced the shift in our approach directly, and when we listen to them talk about it, we see how they have adjusted to the new expectations we have for them.  The students can articulate these changes, I believe in part, because the standards themselves require them to justify and support their ideas day in and day out.

While school is challenging, the students recognize how far they have come and how much more they can do now.  While in the past my classroom time was often spent trying to keep students on task, I now feel that I have done more teaching than I had in my previous 6 years.

The Common Core has allowed me to embrace higher expectations for my students. These kids who come from the most impoverished areas of the city, and who have often faced a track record of failure in school, are now coming in with more knowledge and confidence since they have been exposed to higher level work.

The quality of what we expect has also changed.  It is not 'just good enough' anymore.  I expect more and my students expect more of themselves.  We are not satisfied with mediocre.  I have witnessed a shift: a shift in the way I approach my teaching, and a shift in the way my students approach learning.

My biggest hope is that as each year passes, my students will continue to develop the skills required to meet the standards, and understand why we hold them to them. If we want to see changes in the way our students perform, we need to be both patient and persistent, and commit to the long-term shift in the way we prepare students for the future.

Joshua Cornue is a Fourth Grade teacher at Roberto Clemente School 8 in the Rochester City School District.

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