I regularly tell my colleagues that teaching AP Calculus made me a much better pre-algebra teacher. Why? It’s not like 17-year-old calculus students and 17-year-old pre-algebra students have similar learning styles and needs. A calculus course takes pre-algebra skills for granted. So I can’t point to a great deal of content overlap.
The reason is simple: AP Calculus opened up a whole new world of teacher-collaborators to me. Like many AP teachers, I was the only one at my school. Luckily, there was an entire network of teachers in the same boat who were reaching out online in an effort to get better. This network was facilitated by the common goal and shared language associated with Advanced Placement tests. We were all looking at the same road map, the AP syllabus. The instructional methods and content knowledge gained from my remote collaborators were invaluable to me in both my calculus and pre-algebra classes.
So here’s my current question: Will the Common Core State Standards offer the same opportunities to the remainder of my math-teaching colleagues that I experienced with the AP course?
A simple analogy is the movement from a non-standard to a standard measurement system. Prior to the advent of the metric system, there were regional measurement systems that allowed for commerce within a province. For instance: in England, barley was used as a standard of weight; a widely used measure of length was the cubit, the length of a forearm from elbow to the tip of a middle finger; and my favorite is telling time by counting heartbeats (as the Tamil did)!
But such organic measuring systems––though efficient and convenient at first glance––offered too much variation to be counted on in the long run (“I’ll meet you back here in 500 heartbeats.” “Wait, mine or yours?”), ultimately creating a dampening effect on business, trade, and record keeping. How could a farmer know the factors that generate bigger yields if there is little consistency in measuring yield? How could manufacturers collaborate when there is little trust that parts would fit together? How could fishermen trust maps that were only accurate for those who wrote them?
Just like those English farmers struggling to accurately weigh produce, educators need a reliable set of standards. Teachers from across state boundaries are limited in sharing curricular resources and practices because their effectiveness cannot be measured in any objective method. Students whose parents move across state lines are commonly either bored, because they are being taught material they already know, or are lost, because they lack the prerequisite knowledge to complete their current tasks. How can a college compare a student who took 3 years of math in Louisiana to another who took 3 years of math in Rhode Island?
Common standards will not solve all of these issues, but they will allow student progress to be measured and compared across state lines. And, collaboration among teachers will be facilitated by a common curricular road map and shared language––just as it was for me when I taught Advanced Placement.
Can common standards have the same freeing effect that the metric system had on commerce? Will educators more freely share ideas and practices across wider geographic regions? Time will tell. But if the Common Core State Standards only accomplish opening and extending the lines of communication among teachers so that instructional practices can be bettered through wider collaboration, then this movement is well worth the effort and cost to implement.