Letter to the Arizona Superintendent

[The Arizona Superintendent is going to be in town tonight doing a town-hall sort of event to hear feedback from the public on issues in education. Her office is also accepting feedback online during this time, so I decided to write in regarding the standards in Arizona, which I know she is against. I would also like to attend the event tonight, but I have no desire to speak up. I thought writing in was my best option to make my opinion known.]

[We adopted the Common Core Standards when they were rolled out, and then changed to the Arizona College and Career Readiness Standards, which are basically the CCSS with a different name and a 4th year of high school math standards added.]

I am a high school math teacher and I am writing in favor of the AZCCRS or Common Core State Standards. I have not been a teacher long, so I was completing my teacher certification courses when the standards were in the process of being accepted and implemented by states across the country. I attended a 3-day workshop being led by one of the people responsible for writing the math standards – a mathematics professor who used to be the head of the department at the University of Arizona. He emphasized that there are a few big advantages to a nationwide set of standards, with which I agree wholeheartedly.

First, for students who transfer between schools, a nationwide set of standards means that we can know more reliably what these students have learned in previous grade levels, even if they did not attend schools in the same state. As teachers, it was extremely difficult for us to work with students from other states, as we had to take into account some pretty significant differences between these learning expectations.

(I do realize that standards and curriculum are not the same thing, and I am not in favor of a nationwide curriculum. I want to maintain the freedom to make the best choices in my classroom for my students. I also want us to raise the bar for students in Arizona, which I believe these standards do.)

Second, a nationwide set of standards like this actually takes some of the power (and funding) away from the textbook companies. At my school, we are moving away from using textbooks altogether. We can do this because we can now network with people all across the country to get ideas and resources for lessons for every standard. The pool of people we can collaborate with is now so much wider than it was with individual state standards.

As far as the standards themselves go, I do not believe they are perfect. However, I do believe they are a significant improvement over what we had before, especially in the state of Arizona. The standards have been written in such a way that we need to re-define what mathematics education looks like at all schooling levels – a change that has been a long time coming. We can no longer teach kids “rules” and “tricks” at the elementary level and allow them to rely on those to get them through high school. We must now focus on teaching for understanding, not just memorization. The CCSSM were written with a focus on coherence – the idea that math is not a series of rules to be memorized, but a logical body of interconnected ideas. As we turn our attention away from memorization and toward a focus on true understanding of mathematical ideas, we are really teaching our students about the beauty of the entire discipline of mathematics. And this focus on understanding is what will allow our students to truly be successful in upper-level math courses.

If students do not understand math and just memorize it, eventually they will reach a point in their education where that memorization just can’t help them anymore. For many students, this happens in high school. For some, it happens in their early college courses. It is inevitable – if students do not understand the relationships between ideas in math, eventually they will reach a point where they cannot go further. The CCSSM have actually been written with attention to this coherence between ideas and grade levels so that teachers will have to teach differently, which in turn will help us enable our students to be more successful.

Furthermore, the CCSSM include the 8 Standards for Mathematical Practice, which are a complete game-changer for math teachers. We now have a specific list of habits of mind that allow students to be successful in mathematics. We know what to look for in our students, and we can speak specifically about what they can improve. These habits of mind are arguably more important than the content standards. In fact, the Mathematical Practices are not just math skills – they are life skills. Perseverance in problem-solving, defending your own reasoning and evaluating that of others, being precise in your communication, analyzing and using structures and patterns – these are things that people do every day in their adult lives, and they are valuable skills to teach our students.

Do I believe that the Common Core State Standards (or AZCCRS) are the silver bullet that will fix our educational system? Of course not. The troubles that plague our educational system in this country are legion and to assume a single thing will fix them is infantile at best.

Do I believe that keeping the AZCCRS is a step in the right direction? Yes. We need to raise our standards for our students in Arizona. We need to make sure we are working toward the goal that our students are on the same level as those in the top states. We need a set of standards that is written with an intentional focus on coherence and rigor.

Furthermore, after spending the last few years implementing the AZCCRS, which are based on the Common Core Standards, it would be incredibly frustrating for us as teachers to be told that we are changing the standards again, not to mention expensive for the state of Arizona. We are already burdened by low salaries, high student-teacher ratios, and increasing levels of frustration and burnout at all levels. Please do not subject us to another round of change so soon. Please respect our need for a framework in which we can do our jobs, and let us do them.

Please do not do away with the AZCCRS. Give us time to learn how to teach them effectively, give our students time to learn and understand math concepts in way they have never been asked to before, and evaluate the effectiveness of the standards a few years down the road. No change happens overnight, and certainly not when it comes to education. Please give us a chance.

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