Common Core | Feature

9 Ideas to Help Explain Common Core to Parents

CCTU for DummiesIf there’s one misconception that parents have about the Common Core State Standards that rankles Jared Myracle above all others, it’s that somehow teachers are now having their curriculum dictated to them by the federal government. “It just couldn't be farther from the truth,” he said. “We spend a lot of time clarifying that standards are just an expectation for what a student should be able to do at the end of the year and the curriculum is something [teachers] have developed by themselves or with a team of teachers across the school or district. Those are two totally different things. There's far less control over what is being taught than what opponents of Common Core would like to have you believe.”

Myracle (pronounced “my-rackle”), the supervisor of instruction at Gibson County Special School District (TN) is the author of the recently published book Common Core Standards for Parents for Dummies ($9.99, Wiley). In an interview, he insisted that nobody can point to a Common Core standard and say, “I have a problem with this. I don't want my kid to evaluate information from multiple sources. That's not something that people are getting fired up about.” But there’s no denying that opponents are getting fired up, among them many parents. Here, Myracle shares nine ideas for making sure that the parents in your district understand the Common Core, so that you can focus less on misdirected community protests and more on student learning.

1) Use Multiple Modes of Communication

There’s no right or wrong way to communicate about Common Core, said Myracle. “It's very much a potpourri of doing a little of this, a little of that.” For example, he writes editorials about the Common Core for one of the local newspapers. Updates are posted to the school websites and other social media. The schools hold evening events to walk parents through a simplified version of the implementation plan. Then the parents go off to their children’s classrooms with the teachers to work through basic exercises so they can learn what to expect. Attendance at these events varies, he noted. Whereas some schools attract half of their families, others get just 15 or 20 percent.

The point is “to keep adding more layers to that and add an extra coat of paint every year. Last year we did this, and now this year we're going to do this and this — because people prefer to communicate in different ways. Some parents would rather come to an event and some would rather read a letter.”

2) Develop a Message and Hammer It Home

Myracle's district always starts its communication from the same place: “What we've done in the past just isn't good enough.” The district offers proof by sharing a comparison of end-of-school assessments and ACT results. In the first, a large majority of students score as proficient in English; in the second, only a fraction of students meet the benchmark. “We know ACT is more aligned with college and career expectations. We don't know that about our state assessments. There's obviously a gap between what we're expecting on our state assessment and what we know they're going to need in college and career. [The use of the Common Core] is how we narrow that gap.”

Another concept that's been effective with both parents and teachers is the “umbrella” metaphor: “We have one umbrella in my district, and that umbrella is college and career readiness,” said Myracle. “If it doesn't fit under that umbrella, we're not going to spend much time on it. It's not important. Whether it's social skills, academic skills, things they learn in athletics or extracurricular activities, those things need to contribute to what that child wants to do when they graduate from high school. We try to frame the conversation around preparation for college or career. And Common Core happens to be the next thing that we're using to get their kids across that finish line.”

3) Keep Everybody on Message

It's important for teachers to be able to give at least an abbreviated version of the same message. As Myracle explained, it only takes one school or district employee giving “confusing verbiage on something” to get parents upset and turn the Common Core into an issue. For example, if a new teacher tells parents at an open house that Common Core is the “new curriculum for the class,” misunderstandings begin to take root.

So it's critical that everyone who talks to parents gets professional development dealing specifically with how to explain “very accurately and efficiently and in language that parents care about” why the Common Core is important and how it's being used. "If the parents can understand why you're doing it and they're on board with it,” Myracle said, “then they're going to be supportive by and large of what you're asking and expecting.”

4) Explain That The Common Core Doesn't Dictate Reading Texts

Appendix B of the standards, “Text Exemplars and Sample Performance Tasks,” includes lists of texts that would be appropriate for each grade level. “There are some people that think those are required,” sighed Myracle. “That's not true.” They're there, he explained, for teachers to use as examples for length and complexity upon which to base their own reading selections.

Some of the examples in the appendix have some parents up in arms. “They're saying, ‘You're telling me my kid has to read this book and there's stuff in there that I'm not comfortable with my child reading.’ Well, no, they don't have to read that. That's just there as a recommendation so as a teacher I can compare what I'm asking my kids to read to what the standards are recommending that they read, to make sure that I'm not out in left field.”

When Myracle has spoken publicly about this particular aspect of the standards, he uses a very clear example: “You know, one of my ninth grade English teachers likes to teach To Kill a Mockingbird. And guess what book they're going to teach next year using the Common Core Standards? To Kill a Mockingbird. They don't have to make wholesale changes to what they're teaching.”

5) Emphasize That "Online" Doesn't Mean "Unsecured"

One message parents seem to need to hear repeatedly is that the move to online assessments such as those being developed by Smarter Balanced and PARCC is not an “evil, sinister plot” by the federal government to gather data about their children. “When something moves away from paper and pencil, people automatically jump to this Big Brother mindset,” Myracle said. “Just because it's on a computer, now anybody can access their child's information!”

Myracle has plenty of experience in counting out test booklets and answer sheets and getting those boxed up to return to the publisher for scoring. “Our kids take tests; we send them off to Discovery Education; they get scored and sent back. All that's fine. But now because we're doing it for our end-of-year assessment and 16 or 17 states may be using the same test, all of a sudden, that's a problem?”

When somebody asks, “How can you ensure that my student's information is going to be secure in this online testing forum?” Myracle responds, “Well, what information do you think we sent to the testing vendors before? We sent them the same information; it was just on paper. Isn't this more secure than taping it up, [placing] it in a box and putting it on a UPS truck?” He then explains, “We're going to utilize all this technology we have sitting around for the purpose of assessment, and it's going to be more efficient and it's going to be something kids are going to be comfortable with.”

6) Debunk the Myth That State Standards Started With Obama

As a history major, Myracle goes a little crazy when people talk about how the Common Core originated with Barack Obama. “In fact, this has been an ongoing conversation for roughly 20 to 25 years around trying to develop a set of common standards,” he asserted. “And there have been multiple failed attempts — in Congress even — to try to do this. At the end of the day, 48 states came together and said, ‘This is what we want to do.’ Just because it's so many doesn't mean it originated from the federal government.”

He added that some people suggest that Race to the Top grants were a bribe by the feds to get states to adopt the Common Core. That's not true either. What RttT did require was that states adopt common college and career-ready standards in cooperation with other states. “It didn't say you had to do Common Core, and there were states that received that grant money without adopting the standards,” Myracle said. In fact, he pointed out, in the rubric by which RttT proposals were assessed, “The standards were a relatively small piece."

7) Show How the Standards Emphasize Literacy in Many Subjects

Most parents have already heard the message that English/language arts and math are part of the Common Core. What they may not realize is that literacy standards are part of it too, and those are part of every subject that students study.

Myracle said, “Now my social studies teachers, wellness teachers, art teachers, my [career and technical education] teachers — they're all going to be incorporating reading and writing into their classroom.” The overall effect, he said, is that, “Now we get to support literacy in every single classroom. I don't understand who could be against that.”

8) Clarify That Common Core Makes Student Assessments More Relevant

The goal of the new assessments being developed by the two consortia of states is to do a better job of evaluating what students are doing in class on a daily basis. As Myracle put it, “I've never shown up at work — and you probably haven't either — where my boss has asked me to answer multiple-choice questions all day long. That's not a realistic way to assess what students learn.”

Yet those new assessments are still using multiple-choice in many cases. What's changed? As he explained, students now have to justify their answers, possibly by answering another multiple-choice question. “At least there's an added layer,” Myracle said. “ ‘This is my answer and here's why this is my answer.’ That's a bit closer to real life than just moving through a sheet of 60 bubbles without any rhyme or reason.”

The tests also have writing components. “I spend half my day composing responses via e-mail or in meetings, putting thoughts together, pulling together multiple sources to do so,” Myracle said, so to his mind, the writing sections are “a lot closer to a college or job experience than bubbling in multiple-response questions.”

On the math side, students have to fill in blanks rather than selecting from choices. And in some cases, they have to show how they came up with that solution or set up a function to arrive at the answer. “It's a whole other level that is so much closer to what we ask them to do on a daily basis in classrooms,” Myracle said.

9) When the Talking is Over, Show Parents

By now, suggested Myracle, parents know that the standards exist and they've either “heard that message or ignored that message.” Sooner rather than later, districts should get beyond explaining what the Common Core is and show it to parents in the classroom. That means sharing an activity, for example, that might be done in a science class and pointing out the Common Core-aligned literacy expectation that works with that science content.

The Common Core standards, he explained, can seem like “a very gray sort of ill-defined thing,” until he goes into the classroom and watches teachers working with students. Then, he said, “It's crystal clear what it is and how it's impacting our students.”

As the teachers gain a better understanding of the standards, he concluded, “The assignments they're sending home are going to be much more on par with what students need to do.” From there, he said, “Parent communications will take care of themselves.”