The Common Core Conundrum

A MiddleWeb Blog


So many of my past posts focus around co-teaching with the Common Core in mind. In my most recent blog posts, I have shared how I am striving to align the Common Core in my inclusion classes.

► Check this link to read how I am balancing the mindset needed to juggle four inclusion classes.

► Check this link to read how one co-teacher and I are implementing the co-teaching models to maximize instruction.

► And this link will take you to some ideas I have about the necessity for collaborating with colleagues near and far in order to provide the best instruction.

While I am continuing on my mission to create a positive Common Core pathway for my students, this post will focus on my experiences with what I call the Common Core Conundrum.

I am a teacher who enthusiastically embraces high expectations for students. My students are capable, and I find that they achieve when they are supported to meet all of their academic, emotional, and physical needs. Yet here I am this week feeling disheartened.

Here’s the conundrum

Let me begin with my genuine appreciation that special education has come so far from the parallel educational program it once was. Today, so much of special ed is inclusive and filled with opportunities for all students to meet the challenges of our global economy and 21st century life in general.

The students I know and work with are so capable. When given the right supports, they make progress to demonstrate their personal best. These are exciting times. Yet there’s an essential link missing somewhere. It is the link that connects the ideals of the Common Core with the reality of day-to-day implementation. Hence, the Common Core Conundrum.

Last week we finished Module 1 in the math curriculum. Here’s what a few students had to say when asked how they feel about math so far this year.

I used to like math, but it’s just too hard for me this year. I don’t understand why I just can’t get good grades anymore. I get it when I come for extra help, but then I can’t do it on my own.

One student just sank down in his seat and said: I am just stupid.

So I can’t help but ask myself, how is the Common Core good for these students? Am I right to feel so energized about the possibilities that these high expectations have for my students?

I fall back on my belief that in time—it will be a very good thing. But right now, the complex steps, the pace, and the testing of the curriculum are out-distancing what these students are ready for right now.

It feels nearly impossible (and yet I am determined to hold on to the great possibilities) to scaffold the instruction to provide the students with the background knowledge they need to keep up and to be independent in today’s classrooms. The link between the ultimate value of the Common Core and the way that teachers have to surge ahead with the Common Core right this minute is just misaligned. There’s no breathing space. No time to build the sturdy scaffold. Really? The transition to higher performance must be instantaneous?


How do we bring the Common Core into the real world?

How can we strengthen this link between scaffolding the wonderful rigor of the Common Core with what the students are actually ready for right now? And how can we make sure that students with special needs are supported in meaningful ways to ensure the quality and outcomes that they deserve? So they don’t feel “stupid”?

In my inclusion math class, many students were beyond discouraged when they got back their grades from the unit test for Module 1. Many shared their hesitancy to go home and share their grades with their parents. When given the opportunity to complete test corrections, many expressed the desire to just forget about it.

The overall student perspective was not a positive response to the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. They were missing the joy of the learning process. Their focus was on the stress and the pressure they felt at the thought of going back to make corrections and explain their thinking. One student clearly spoke for the rest of the group when he said: “What’s the use, I didn’t know how to do it for the test, so how will I know how to do it now?”

 Added to this stress was their worry about going home and losing their phone privilege or getting grounded for yet another bad grade. This concerns me greatly.

How do we help stressed-out students?

How can we diminish the stress and pressure that students are feeling? How will we help students stay focused on what the Common Core should be all about? How will we keep these students focused on the learning process—on the awesome opportunity to learn from mistakes if they are just met with stress and pressure from their efforts?

As part of my ongoing communications with parents, I send them a weekly email to update them on the week ahead. Here’s what I added in hopes of creating a firm bridge between home and school, as well as a positive focus on the learning process for students.

The results of the Module 1 math test were bleak for so many students. As I told the students, they should allow some time to feel disappointed, of course. But they should not get discouraged for long. They worked very hard, and it is frustrating when grades do not reflect that.


We must hold on to the process of learning here, so that they move forward with a positive mindset to put forth their best efforts ahead. They need to redirect their energy into realizing what they can do from this point. We are giving the students a chance to make test corrections. This will help them to further internalize the concepts and to earn some points to their test grade. They will complete the retake in school throughout next week. On the bright side, Module 2 is off to a great start—there is hope that they will have an easier time keeping up with the concepts.

Where do we go from here?

We know some obvious solutions:

► We must make sure our IEP’s are aligned with the standards.

► We must make sure our students are provided the most appropriate accommodations and modifications as necessary.

What I want to know is how can we move toward some strategic solutions. How can we repair the bridge between the ideals of the Common Core and the reality of day-to-day implementation? How can we solve this Common Core Conundrum?

Please comment below. Our students need us to have this necessary conversation. Together, let’s find the solutions.

Elizabeth Stein

Elizabeth Stein has more than 20 years teaching experience spanning grades K-8, specializing in universal design for learning and special education. She’s currently a special education/UDL instructional coach and new-teacher mentor in Long Island NY’s Smithtown Central School District. Elizabeth is National Board Certified in Literacy, and a contributor to Education Week and other publications. Her books include Comprehension Lessons for RTI (Grades 3-5) (Scholastic, 2013), Elevating Co-Teaching Through UDL (CAST, 2016) and Two Teachers in the Room: Strategies for Co-Teaching Success (Routledge, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @elizabethlstein and #coteachat

15 Responses

  1. There are many wonderful teachers like yourself that go above and beyond for the true focus of successful students. True achievement. I have no doubt that many of you will eventually find a way to solve this conundrum.

    There are teachers that believe that uninvolved parents are the road block to student achievement. Even involved parents are now unable to assist their children with their homework because they have never received any instruction into the new common core methods. They are even more confused than their children.

    The legal contract entered into by the state departments of education with the private corporations do not allow any real local initiatives for improvement. That would be in violation of the contract. Hands are tied and students are suffering as is described above.

    About 40 years ago local control was responsible for America being # 1 in the world in education. Since then centralized control has produced one new solution to education after another that has not allowed American exceptionalism to continue leading the world in education. Common Core is the most radical central control yet. The frustrations of students, teachers, and parents may be a red flag.

  2. Casey Morton says:

    First and foremost, THANK YOU for bringing light to this topic. I have taught in separate setting classrooms in two different districts at the secondary level. My goal is to increase student engagement and success within the Common Core curriculum. Regardless that my position on the topic is somewhat different than yours (separate setting versus inclusion), I find it increasingly difficult to maintain the rigor and pace of the Common Core curriculum without an extensive amount of scaffolding and adaptation.

    With current trends and popularity of the inclusion model, I agree with you full-heartedly that strategic solutions must be developed in order to adapt the Common Core curriculum to best meet the needs of our students and ensure their success. I am interested in hearing what other educators around the country may be doing, and would also be interested in sharing strategies that have worked for me in a separate setting classroom.

    Thank you again for bringing this topic to attention. I look forward to reading others’ ideas in the near future.

    Good LUCK!

  3. K.festa says:

    I cannot agree more about this entry. As a grade 4 special Ed teacher I share the same struggles and frustrations as you do. I’m finding as testing and assessments are becoming rigorous, as are the opportunities to achieve. I sympathize with my students who have language needs because so much of common core relies on language in order to synthesize, analyze, and conceptualize new information then be required to share their deeper thinking in a clear manner. I know what they are thinking even though they can’t put it into “common core language”. I worry as the pace becomes quicker and the expectations become higher, my students will become discouraged. I will never give up on them!

  4. Elizabeth Stein says:

    Stephen, Thanks for your comment–you bring up many truths that can lead to solutions as long as teachers stand strong. Teachers must not lose focus on what is right for students. Although, as you say, hands are tied, teachers must facilitate a positive learning environment that goes on in their classrooms. My math co-teacher and I are always discussing the ways that we can tweak the process of the lessons that are given to us. We are both in favor of the ideals that the Common Core brings about–but we realize that when implementing the lessons to real students (beyond what it looks like on the pages of the teacher’s manual) we must create a process that makes it meaningful for our students. Although hands are tied, teachers must do everything they can to control the learning environment in the classroom.
    I agree with you–so many teachers will find a way to solve this conundrum! Many thanks!

  5. Elizabeth Stein says:

    Casey and K.festa, thanks for adding your voice to this conversation!

    Coming together like this provides such meaningful support for teachers as we all strive to guide our students to achieve. But in order for this to happen, we, as teachers, must achieve our goal, as Casey mentions, to increase student engagement and success with the CCSS.

    Casey, I am so excited to hear some strategies that have worked for you in your separate setting classroom–please share! Let’s keep this conversation going….

    So, what has been working for you? Thanks for sharing your connections!

    Here’s a strategy that I use with my students. I have heard some folks call it the CUPS strategy. It guides students to sift through the language that K.festa mentions.

    CUPS is a four-step process:

    1. C= Closely read the math word problem (this aligns beautifully with the English CCSS
    as well!).
    2. U= Underline key information
    3. P= Plan it out: students organize the key information and begin to organize the
    procedures and mathematical operations they will need to use.
    S= Solve it using the plan devised in step 3.

    I have found this to be a systematic way of guiding students through the language process that is required, so we can then focus on the math knowledge that is needed.
    I hope others will chime in and share! This is the way to finding strategic solutions!

    What thoughts, connections, or strategic solutions can you add to this conversation?

  6. Jill Brown says:

    Hi Elizabeth,

    Thank you for bringing this issue to the forefront. I have 2 children with ADHD and anxiety so I understand the “stressed out child”. My degree and experience is in business so I consider the complicated issues and roadblocks as an important piece when addressing solutions to problems! I spent 15 years volunteering in youth ministry so I know teens inside and out. (Editor’s note: visit Jill’s website to learn more about her work with character education.)

  7. Elizabeth Stein says:

    Hi, Jill,
    Thank you for adding a meaningful layer to this conversation. I found your website (and the work you do) very interesting. You reminded me about the ripple effect that may be caused when students do not have the proper channels to release their stress.
    Parents and educators must be consistently diligent in guiding students to find the appropriate venue for effectively re-channeling their stress. In some cases, without guidance, students may release their stress from one area (namely academic stress) into undesirable social experiences (such as bullying). Parents and educators must work together to guide the proper channels of communication for children.
    I would love to hear more about your experiences finding solutions! I also hope other readers will join this necessary conversation! Our students need us to collaborate…let’s keep this conversation going…many thanks!

  8. Stacey Hoffman says:

    As a ELA middle school resource teacher, I am very overwhelmed with Common Core curriculum and how to implement the individual skills (from the IEP). Any help would be VERY much appreciated as well!!!
    Stacey Hoffman

  9. Elizabeth Stein says:

    Stacey, I make a spreadsheet/checklist to align my Students’ IEP goals with the Common Core standards. I use this “at a glance” resource as I plan my lessons. This resource that I create makes it is easier to see how naturally the general education curriculum blend together. And it’s a quick connection and focal point as I plan my lessons.

    I am also working on getting a group of colleagues together–to share and to collaborate. It’s not easy when no one has common planning time, but we must stay persistent and seek out all possible opportunities. We also have to remember to start small…it is way too easy to get overwhelmed as we try to do it all at once. Choose one thing to zoom in on and expand as appropriate.

    Does any of this help? You speak for so many educators. Thanks for keeping this important conversation going–it’s the only way we will find solutions!

    What supports are currently in place for you? What opportunities can you create?

    OK, folks, what ideas can you add?

    Our students need us to have these discussions…many thanks!

  10. walker481 says:

    Mrs. Stein (Elizabeth),

    I’m sorry I haven’t seen this until now but you’ve raised questions that must be addressed if we are to better meet the needs of our students at all levels. I’ll have more to say in a follow-up but it’s clear from the insightful responses here that the answers lie in the collaborative of professionals and the input of other stakeholders including parents.

    You’re right, Elizabeth, that time is precious and there is so little time to jointly develop an action strategy to implement common core in a pro-active, reasoned manner. Let’s not forget the teachings of Piaget who states that learning is sequential and systematic for the majority of children and should develop from the concrete to the abstract.

    If I agree with Mrs. Stein (which I do) that there is worth in common core standards, then it cannot be implemented in a top down manner to students who have not been grounded in the pre-requisites necessary to ensure greater success and the accomplishment of higher learning outcomes. It is a challenging but necessary task if we are to do our best to educate this nation’s students.

    • Elizabeth Stein says:

      Walker481, thanks for participating in this discussion! I am so thrilled you not only came across this blog, but that you shared some of your thoughts to keep the conversation going! You are so right, we are working so hard to create a balance here, but as I’ve heard so many times before– we are being forced to fly a plane, while it is still being built–just crazy. And yet, here we are doing all we can to make it work!
      I hope you come back and share more of your ideas in a follow-up! Many thanks!

      All the best!

      • Lou Brill says:

        Thank you for your insightful response to my comments. I agree 100% with your response, however, as we fly the proverbial airplane, the pilots (educators) must never forget to bring the passengers (students) along. Regards, Lou

        • Elizabeth Stein says:

          Lou! Great point…yes, yes…and might I add…we, the pilots, not only need to bring the students along, but we must bring them along without allowing them to get motion sickness!

          We have to enjoy the learning process–and create environments that inspire students to catch that wave! We must hold on tightly to the fact that true learning is not just about the end destination, but the process–the glorious process!

          It’s a fine balance. But as more and more educators truly collaborate, we can make this happen.
          You made my day by adding your voice–thank you! I happen to know readers will learn so much from your insights! I am looking forward to continuing these discussions!

    • Erin says:

      As a special educator myself, I can not agree more! Written very clearly at the beginning of the module it states that students will build on what they learned in 6th grade. Being that Common Core was just rolled out to us, the vast majority of students (anyone who didn’t pilot this last year for our county) don’t have the the skills to build on. It really scares me as a high school teacher because we have a limited amount of time left with students before we send them out into the world. I wish I had answers for this dilemma.

      Thank you, Elizabeth, for starting this blog. I look forward to following the discussion and hopefully some creative solutions can be thought up!

      • Elizabeth Stein says:

        Hi, Erin,

        Thank you for your thoughtful comment! Reaching out and responding to this post is a great step toward finding an answer. We must collaborate with colleagues in and out of our own classrooms! I think we all must find individualized solutions that are personal to our group of students. And then we must share and embrace our positive steps, so we can all find patterns in our actions that can lead to more universal solutions.

        Are there any steps that you have taken or have seen that help you and your students stay afloat?
        I, too, am looking forward to following all discussions that arise on this and other posts of my blog.
        We must be on this mission together to make some real change!
        I appreciate and connect to your passion to do all we can for our students.

        All the best!

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