The Common Core State Standards, a new math and English curriculum implemented into New York State’s public schools last year, is meeting resistance from many teachers and parents due to its more rigorous standards, tougher tests and quick pace of implementation. At George Washington Elementary School in Kingston, however, no one’s sweating it.
To reassure parents there was no need for panic, the school held a public meeting last Wednesday, October 16, in the cafeteria. The purpose was to show parents that the school’s Montessori teaching methods and curriculum already align with the Common Core.
“The Montessori method is the Common Core,” claimed school principal Valerie Hannum. “The same skills, concepts and college readiness begin in Montessori at age three. We are holding this meeting because we want our parents to know that we are instructing our children to the Common Core standards.”
Dissension against Common Core came to a head at a meeting at Spackenkill High School on the evening of October 10, when parents angrily confronted state education commissioner John King. King, who was shouted at and booed, subsequently canceled the four remaining dates of his school appearances, blaming special interests for the disruption, which he claimed in a statement “deprived parents of the opportunity to listen, ask questions and offer comments.”
The public meeting first-term state senator Cecilia Tkaczyk had scheduled for this Tuesday in Kingston to discuss the Common Core was abruptly canceled the day before it was to occur. Tkaczyk’s office has promised to reschedule it.
Melissa Potter, George Washington’s school psychologist, conceded that the new, more stringent tests are problematic. Only 30 percent of public school students passed the new English and math tests last spring. Under the old tests, 65 percent of the state’s students scored proficient in math and 55 percent tested proficient in English. Such a huge rate of failure risks “setting up students to fail,” said Potter.
But the Common Core’s emphasis on small-group learning and in-depth comprehension is consistent with the Montessori method, she noted.
The only changes under the Common Core that will affect the school’s teaching methods is the vocabulary used to describe certain concepts, Hannum said. She noted that the new math module was somewhat confusing. Binders are being distributed to teachers in lieu of textbooks for the math module, which many claim provides insufficient training for the new standards.
At the meeting, families gathered at long tables displaying the tools used to teach the children, along with written descriptions of the similarities and differences between the Montessori method and the Common Core. Montessori, which teaches children in small, multi-age groups and encourages children to develop at their own pace using specialized materials, puts “a strong emphasis on early literary and mathematical skills, social-emotional development, critical thinking, scientific discovery, and independent learning,” according to one handout.
The Common Core does not spell out how teachers should teach or the total content of what they should teach. Advanced work beyond the core and interventions for students performing below grade level are acceptable as long as the standards are met. The Common Core empowers students to demonstrate independence, build knowledge over a wide range of subject matter, develop critical thinking skills, and understand other perspectives and cultures — all consistent with the Montessori method’s goals.
Karen Pillsworth, one of five teachers at the Children’s House, the school’s program for four- and five-year-olds, explained that the stacks of bright red sandpaper letters in front of her taught young children the alphabet and the fundamentals of reading, thus meeting the Common Core standards for that age group. Erin Luby, another Children’s House teacher, explained that the spindles displayed farther down the table were used to teach children how to count and other basic math concepts. “We use concrete tools to teach the abstract,” she said. She said kids love the method, which empowers them to progress at their own pace.
Kids in the E-1 unit, equivalent to first, second and third grades, use wooden “golden beads,” which represent smaller numerical units, to learn place values and more complicated multiplication and division problems. Felt squares in different colors, each coded to a certain multiple of ten, enable them to do problems with larger numbers and to learn the concept of infinity. “The Montessori materials are so concrete and visual that I’ve seen kids fly, because they can visualize big numbers,” said teacher Felipa Gaudet.