Common Core: Bringing Calm to Classroom Chaos ~ Jemelleh Coes


Jemelleh Coes is the 2014 Georgia Teacher of the Year. She is currently taking a sabbatical from teacher to focus on her duties as Teacher of the Year, which includes traveling the state and participating at national programs. She is a special education teacher and is pursuing her doctorate in Education Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia.
One of the biggest questions teachers face is how to ensure that every student who comes through their classrooms receives an equal education, regardless of previous academic experiences. This was brought home to me in stark relief when I started teaching in Langston schools, which have large populations of students from migrant farm-worker families. It’s not unusual for these students to transfer among schools throughout the year, depending on where their family moves.

Every new student who came into my class brought with him or her new stories, new perspectives and new experiences to share with us. But those students also brought new challenges because it was a toss-up where they would be academically.

The Common Core State Standards are based on a simple premise that every single student regardless of where they live, where they come from, whatever the advantages or disadvantages they’ve experience in life deserves the best education we can provide.

Common Core takes students out of their comfort zone, but that’s what learning is: it forces us out of the comfortable spaces so that we expand our thoughts, broaden our expectations, and increase our intellectual abilities. The Common Core does not teach to the lowest common denominator – it expects that all students can – and should – reach higher academic heights.

Five years ago, more than 40 states, including Georgia, adopted the Common Core standards. This was the first time an effort was being made to have academic standards consistent across states. The standards were written by educators and, despite what opponents would have people believe, were not forced onto states by the federal government. Each state voluntarily adopted the standards, and afterwards, school leaders and teachers worked hard to develop the professional training necessary for educators to implement the standards in the classroom.

The vast majority of states that adopted the Common Core have stuck with it, despite sometimes vocal opposition.

Five years after Kentucky became the first state to fully embrace the Common Core, new evidence shows that student achievement there is increasing in most subjects at every grade level. Kentucky’s experience proves that the longer students are exposed to the Common Core, the more likely they are to graduate high school prepared for the rigors of either college-level classes or for jumping right into a career.

Move across the map to Arizona and take a look at the Osborn School District. There, fully 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches. Before Common Core, that’s all you would need to hear about a district to know that its test scores were going to be among the lowest in the state. That’s a hard statement, I know, but it’s one that rings true with too many educators who strive day-after-day to do the best for students in underserved schools. This year, the Osborn district was the only Phoenix-area elementary district where all of the schools scored As and Bs. The superintendent commended the Common Core’s approach to mathematics and nonfiction readings in addition to educators’ commitment to student as critical to their success.

As a new way of teaching, the Common Core has certainly challenged teachers – both young and veteran – to rethink how we approach the materials students need to master. To be clear, Common Core does not mandate we teach a certain way. In fact, I and my colleagues were surprised to find that we had more freedom to construct lessons under the Core.

I saw first-hand how the disruptions caused by near-constant moving affected my students at Langston Chapel created chaos in their academic progress. The Common Core calms that chaos by establishing clear guidelines regarding what students are not only to learn but master at each grade level. I know what it’s like to watch a student come into a classroom and realize that they are so far behind their peers that catching up seems impossible. It can be heartbreaking. Education should never be disappointing or filled with anxiety for children. It should free their minds to soar to the highest heights. It should challenge them to work harder and work smarter, which is exactly what Common Core does.

I am disappointed that the opposition voices are drowning out the voices from the classroom – the teachers who everyday take the Common Core standards and turn them into teaching lessons. Talk of repeal creates confusion and chaos that inhibits students’ academic progress and ultimate success. I implore our legislators to follow the lead of states like Kentucky, New York and Tennessee, and stay the course with Common Core for the betterment of all of our students.