Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core, new national learning standards for public schools that promise to focus on conceptual understanding of math and English. The new standards have set off rigorous policy debates that have blurred typical left-right political divides. But how do they change what students do in class? Kojo talks with two local educators to explain the changes coming to area schools.


  • Stu Wulsin Math and Science Mentor Teacher, Chavez Prep
  • Carlie John Chief Academic Officer, Scholar Academies


  • 12:35:15

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Quick, subtract 356 from 537. One, two -- okay. While I'm waiting, I'll make a bold prediction. Most of us would set it up the way we learned in school, one number on the top, one on the bottom, borrow if necessary, then you've got your answer. Not so fast. Under the new Common Core curriculum, teachers are asking students to think about these and other problems differently. Using a variety of tools, like drawings, physical models and partial sums to find and explain their answers.

  • 12:35:46

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBy the way, the answer -- if you haven't gotten to it yet -- is 181. Teachers in D.C. schools have already been implementing the new learning standards for English and Math for the last three years, focusing on concepts and understanding over procedures. But what do these standards actually look like in the classroom? And how are they affecting students and parents on a day-to-day basis?

  • 12:36:07

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us now to discuss this is Carlie John, chief academic officer at Scholar Academies, which is a charter network. She's a former English teacher in public schools. Carlie John, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:36:19

    MS. CARLIE JOHNThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:36:20

    NNAMDIAlso with us in studio, Stu Wulsin. He is a math and science mentor teacher, which means he professionally develops teachers at the Chavez Prep Public Charter School. Stu Wulsin, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:36:31

    MR. STU WULSINThanks for having me.

  • 12:36:33

    NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation with your questions or comments. Call us at 800-433-8850. What will your child be doing differently in school this year? Call us with your questions about the new Common Core curriculum. You can also send email to Carlie John, there's been plenty of talk in the media about the politics of Common Core, how it will be implemented, what the government's role will be.

  • 12:36:57

    NNAMDIBut D.C. schools have already been teaching these new standards for the last three years, in terms of the classroom, the kinds of lessons students see on a day-to-day basis. What are the biggest changes with the shift to Common Core?

  • 12:37:10

    JOHNWell, I think the biggest shifts -- and we're still in the middle of that shift. And I imagine we will be engaged in shifts in our teaching and learning practices for really the next, you know, three to five years, as we unpack the standards and what it means for teachers. But I think the biggest shifts are we are moving towards more student-centered classrooms, really putting the cognitive load or the work back on kids, beginning in kindergarten. And pushing them to think critically, reason, discuss, debate, write in this way that we haven't asked them in the past.

  • 12:37:48

    NNAMDIYou've spent time as an English teacher in D.C. public schools when students were preparing for the D.C. CAS Test, which students took for the last time this year. Can you give us, well, an example of how you would teach a concept in English now versus before Common Core?

  • 12:38:04

    JOHNYes. So when I was a middle school teacher in a D.C. public school 10 years ago, I spent a lot of time preparing students to get ready to read. We did a lot of pre-reading activities and talking about the kinds of prior knowledge that they had about a subject before reading. Maybe doing a graphic organizer or talking to your partner about what you knew about the setting or the possible plot. And we would spend 10 or 15 or 20 minutes getting ready to read.

  • 12:38:41

    JOHNAnd then we would spend seven minutes reading. And that is not atypical from what I see still in lots of classrooms. We're so eager to help students access the text as teachers that we often spend too much time helping them get ready, rather than doing the actual reading. So now you would really -- you should see students spending a lot more time grappling with the text and reading.

  • 12:39:10

    NNAMDIJust starting out reading and…

  • 12:39:13

    JOHNJust read the book. Open it up and start reading.

  • 12:39:17

    NNAMDIStu, the Common Core math standards promised to focus also more on conceptual understanding than procedural knowledge. What does that mean?

  • 12:39:27

    WULSINWell, one way to think about it is procedural knowledge is how to solve a problem in math or how to answer a question. And a conceptual understanding is why does it work. Why can you solve an equation by using inverse operations? Why can you solve proportions in a given way? And when students understand the why behind the things that they're learning, or even better if they can discover it on their own, they actually remember it. And they can actually apply it.

  • 12:39:27

    WULSINAnd they can use that understanding in school and out of the school. When the focus is on the how and they are just learning a technique or a set of steps that they use over and over again, they can usually do it pretty well on the quiz or the test. But a year later, they've usually forgotten just about everything.

  • 12:40:24

    NNAMDIYou taught math in D.C. before the Common Core was implemented. Same question to you, what examples can you give us about how math instruction has changed?

  • 12:40:35

    WULSINThe main sort of pedagogical approach that I followed when I was teaching before the Common Core was I do, we do, you do. So I would put a problem on the board and walk the class through and the students will copy down the steps as I solved it. Then we would do one together. I put a new problem up and I'd call on students, and we'd go through each step. Then I would have the students do it on their own and practice for 10 or 15 minutes.

  • 12:41:01

    WULSINNow, we try much more to put the students' thinking -- have that come first, so that -- I might still start by putting a problem on the board. But instead of walking the students through it myself, I'll ask them to start to work on it, to talk to each other about what they already know, to ask them questions about what they see and make some predictions. And through that process, we can them uncover the same steps I would have taught them in the first place, but they would have done the thinking to get there.

  • 12:41:33

    NNAMDII'd like to hear from our listeners about this. To what extent do you think we should prioritize conceptual understanding over procedural knowledge as you just heard both described? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website, and ask a question or make a comment there. We're talking with Carlie John, chief academic officer of Scholar Academies, that's a charter network. She's a former DCPS English teacher.

  • 12:42:05

    NNAMDIAnd Stu Wulsin, he's a math and science mentor teacher, which means he professionally develops teachers at Chavez Prep Public Charter School. Carlie, there has been some concern about the rigor of Common Core reading. Teachers are asked to give students complex tests, assigning readings on or above grade level, even if students are far behind in reading. How does giving students books or passages that they might be struggling to read help them anyway?

  • 12:42:33

    JOHNSo, there is a place to build student's reading knowledge even if they are far behind. The Common Core does not say that there is no place to focus on fluency or decoding or the basic building blocks of reading. I think what they are saying, though, is that that cannot trump the rich discussion and the need for all students regardless of how far behind or ahead they may be to engage with good discussions and good readings on the kinds of texts that kids deserve to read.

  • 12:43:09

    JOHNIf I'm a student in third grade and I am reading on a kindergarten level, does that mean I shouldn't have the opportunity to access and discuss "Charlotte's Web"? No, I don't think so. Every third grader should get to experience "Charlotte's Web." And every third grader, regardless of their ability to read the word arachnid should be allowed to talk about friendship and loyalty and the life cycle.

  • 12:43:34

    JOHNAnd every student can contribute to that discussion if they're given the proper, like, scaffolds and access to the text. And that's the hard work that comes with teaching the Common Core standards.

  • 12:43:45

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones, please don your headphones so you can hear our callers. We will start with Patrick in Annapolis, MD. Patrick, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 12:43:56

    PATRICKHi, Kojo. Just calling to ask a question about creativity and lesson plan. I'm a pre-K teacher in northwest D.C. at an independent school. And my school uses the emergent curriculum model to formulate lesson plans that depend really on what the students want to learn. And I find that I get a lot of satisfaction out of being very creative in my lesson plans and working toward goals at the same as I am able to pique the children's interest by pursuing what they want to learn about.

  • 12:44:33

    PATRICKHow do -- how do your guests feel about the ability of public school teachers to be creative with their lesson plans, in the classroom and to differentiate instruction under the Common Core standards? And I'll take my -- I'll take the answer off the air. Thank you.

  • 12:44:55

    NNAMDIStu Wulsin?

  • 12:44:57

    WULSINSo I think that the issue is -- applies to Common Core as much as it applies to any set of standards. And we had math and English and science and art standards even before the Common Core that told teachers what they need to teach each year. And the -- personally, I think it's good that we have those standards so that we have some clarity around what our students will learn and what we should hold ourselves accountable for as teachers.

  • 12:45:26

    WULSINI have found that in moving to the Common Core, I've been much more creative in my lesson planning than I was before because the Common Core explicitly lists out a set of mathematical practice standards, like modeling with mathematics, like reasoning abstractly or analyzing arguments. Because I'm required to teach those things, because they're listed there in the standards, I spend more time thinking through how can I do those things.

  • 12:45:58

    WULSINAnd that's where a lot of the creativity comes in, for what kind of problem would get students to really have to engage with each other and discuss different points of view. I think there's a lot of room for that in the Common Core.

  • 12:46:15

    NNAMDICarlie John, same question to you.

  • 12:46:16

    JOHNI totally agree. I think the Common Core actually really demands teacher creativity and innovation. One, because the Common Core, as we shared earlier, just three years old in D.C., there aren't tons of prescribed resources and strategies that are, you know, truly Common Core aligned. We're trying to catch up and curriculum companies are trying to catch up and get there. And so, just by a matter of kind of where we are right now, we need teachers to be the innovators in the classroom and help us figure out really what works best to reach students.

  • 12:46:54

    JOHNThen on the flipside, though, I mean, Common Core was designed with the intention of making sure that we provide a clear road map of what milestones students seem to hit. But where the teacher judgment and expertise was really elevated. And so, that was a critical sort of pillar of the development of the standards. So, yes, creativity and innovation up with the Common Core and that's great.

  • 12:47:19

    NNAMDIOn now to Raj (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Raj, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 12:47:25

    RAJYeah, hi, thank you. I grew up in India and focus was on how you go about solving a problem while, to some extent, we understood the obstacles and the concepts, but the focus was not completely on conceptual understanding why you are doing -- what you are doing. And I'm kind of curious to know whether the (unintelligible) got a chance to focus on how it is in Germany or in South Korea or China, because from a standpoint I rather understand why you're trying to solve a problem instead of memorizing a bunch of techniques and formulas and simply solving them, not knowing, you know, how you're going to use them in real world.

  • 12:48:05

    NNAMDISo you're saying that the focus on procedure, you think, works for you more effectively than the focus on conceptualizing?

  • 12:48:15

    RAJNo, it's the other way around. I'd rather have more focus on conceptual understanding and why you are solving a problem instead of simply knowing the procedure and memorizing formulas and techniques. And I don't see a big -- I mean, I understand the need for that, but I'd rather understand why we are trying to solve a problem and how we go about solving it on our own instead of doing the procedure and simply memorizing and applying it.

  • 12:48:45

    NNAMDIWhich is kind of the way I learned. But that's -- he is explaining, it would appear, precisely what Common Core is intended to do. Carlie?

  • 12:48:52

    JOHNYeah, I think, Raj, you're right. If you -- yes that we -- the Common Core places a heavy emphasis on the conceptual understanding particularly in math. And the Common Core writers, team, did spend quite a bit of time actually looking at the best practices internationally. And when we -- and so, I don't know specifically if, you know, how much research went into the standards and instructional practices in, say, India versus Germany versus Korea.

  • 12:49:23

    JOHNBut they did look at the standards internationally and wanted to make sure that our students were competitive not just for U.S. colleges but also across, you know, international standards.

  • 12:49:34

    NNAMDIStu, there has been a lot of criticism of Common Core math problems. A number of confusing or overly complex questions have gone viral. For example, instead adding vertically, the way we all learned in school, students are asked to break numbers up at the individual parts and then add them all together. The criticism, of course, is that we might be making math unnecessarily complicated. Are we?

  • 12:49:56

    WULSINSo, I think that when that becomes out concern, we're in a pretty good place. Teachers have spent way too much time trying to make math too simple. I'm guilty as much as anyone of trying to give my students problems where I know they'll be successful and they end up not doing any thinking. The problems that I've seen going around on Facebook and elsewhere online, some of them are just badly written problems.

  • 12:50:24

    WULSINAnd there have been badly written problems as long as there have been math teachers. And, you know, that's going to happen. In terms of requiring students to use a different approach, something other than adding vertically, what I've seen in these examples online is that the students are being asked to use a strategy that's a really good strategy with a problem for which it doesn't really apply.

  • 12:50:53

    WULSINAnd so, when, you know, when it's easy to add something vertically, you should add it vertically. But when we're doing all sorts of problems in our heads, we don't always do it that way. And there are all sorts of mental tricks that we use and we want our students to learn those also.

  • 12:51:10

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Is more challenging work appropriate when many students are still far below grade level? What kind of learning do you want your kids to be doing at school? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to Stu, this next school year will be the first one where students take the new PARCC assessment. The Common Core-aligned test is supposed to be much more challenging than the tests students have been taking for years. On top of that, you now have to take it on a computer. How concerned are you about a big drop in test scores?

  • 12:51:44

    WULSINSo, I think the -- we will learn a lot more once we see it. The way in which PARCC gets scored is sort of to be determined and we don't really know how our students' performance on DC CAS will translate into performance on PARCC. It could go up, it could go down and it depends a lot more on just sort of what scale they're using than it does on our students' understanding. Hopefully because PARCC is requiring more conceptual understanding because it's requiring students to make a lot more connections.

  • 12:52:17

    WULSINIt will help motivate teachers to prepare their students in that way, which, you know, which all the research shows actually help students understand better.

  • 12:52:29

    NNAMDICarlie, many teachers in the area, with the exception of those in Virginia, have been implementing the Common Core for years. What challenges have there been so far with the rollout?

  • 12:52:40

    JOHNI think there have been a lot of challenges with the rollout. But I think they can be boiled down to really two, hopefully, two factors. One is time. The Common Core itself is laid out, particularly in reading, with the understanding that developing these skills takes years of student time and also is not the work of just a single fourth grade teacher or a single seventh grade teacher.

  • 12:53:10

    JOHNBecause the standards are spiraled really from second grade up to 12th grade, it is the work of every teacher in the building from second grade to 12 grade to build students' skills. And so, they're just -- they need time. Students need time in class to learn the standards and to build on them. And then teachers need time to unpack the standards to practice -- to use them in classrooms to see what works and what doesn't work.

  • 12:53:38

    JOHNAnd that's going to take more than three years. Great teachers need time with their colleagues and with their administrators and with, you know, professional learning communities to really look at the student work and responses and determine does this meet the bar. What strategy do I use to get students to meet that bar? How do I go back to the drawing board and adjust? And so, again, it's time.

  • 12:54:01

    JOHNAnd then the second piece is just creating that space for those kinds of dialogues and conversations in professional growth to deepen teacher content knowledge. It takes a lot of content knowledge to understand how you can teach fractions, for example. Sorry, I know Stu is the math guy. But to teach fractions, for example, for beyond just a single week, right? The Common Core asks us to go deep with the standard and teach it over many weeks and in many ways. And if you were not a math major in college, then you need your own time to understand how to do that.

  • 12:54:32

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Jose in Gainesville, VA. Jose, you're turn.

  • 12:54:38

    JOSEHi, Kojo. I think it's unfair for you just to have one side of the Common Core people. You know, it's all one-sided and it's just -- it looks like this propaganda for Common Core thing. If you get the other side of the coin, then we, your listeners, will have a better picture of the whole situation.

  • 12:55:01

    NNAMDIWell, we're discussing this because Common Core is the standard. And so, to discuss the other side at this point, we would be discussing something that is non-existent in our schools or soon-to-be non-existent. But I'm glad you raised that issue because a lot of these methods that you're now teaching students -- partial sums, modeling, close reading -- are things that their parents never learned in school. What would you say to parents, maybe like Jose, who are frustrated that they don't understand their child's homework, Stu?

  • 12:55:33

    WULSINWell, I think that parents are having a lot of issues that teachers have as well. We tend to teach the way we were taught. And so, some of the struggles that we're having is that, you know, this is new for the teachers as well as the students as well as the parents. I think that the important thing for parents to really keep in mind is that the more their children are struggling, the more they're learning.

  • 12:55:58

    WULSINThat it's a good thing for students to spend time really grappling with problems and maybe not even come to an answer. And it's that perseverance and sticking with those problems even when it doesn't -- they don't get an answer right away that is much more beneficial to the student in the long run. And so, the more the parents can really help encourage their students not to give up and to keep trying and to be okay if it's not easy, the more their kids will learn.

  • 12:56:30

    NNAMDILet's hear it from a former teacher's perspective. Here is Nadia (sp?) in Bethesda, MD. Nadia, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 12:56:39

    NADIAHi, Kojo, and thanks for taking a call. When I trained to become a teacher as a second career, the very first thing I did was take a course in multisensory mathematics. And everything in it back in 2006 was concept over process. And the instructor used to complain about what she called calculational calisthenics. And I think calculational calisthenics is how most of the kids have been taught in middle school and high school.

  • 12:57:06

    NADIAI now tutor and I tutor mostly special needs. And if you can remember -- if you can understand the concept, like your guest was saying, you don't have to worry about memorizing the process because then they get mixed up. Do I flip this one, do I multiply this one? So it's very, very important to do that. And for that, the Common Core and some of the textbooks are very, very good. On the other hand...

  • 12:57:29

    NNAMDIWe only got about a minute left.

  • 12:57:31

    NADIAOn the other hand, about rigor, we start too early. Kindergarten and first grade, you can have lots of rich discussions without reading a thing. My daughter attended a German school, they didn't read a word in kindergarten (unintelligible).

  • 12:57:42

    NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to raise that question in the 40 seconds we have left. Starting too early, Carlie. Are we starting too early on the Common Core?

  • 12:57:51

    JOHNI don't think so. I mean, I think that the Common Core in reading, again, it really pushes independence, response to varying demands and being able to provide evidence. I think students at every age can and should do that with content that's appropriate and enjoyable and fun for them.

  • 12:58:09

    NNAMDICarlie John is chief academic officer with Scholar Academies, which is a charter network. She's a former DCPS English teacher. Stu Wulsin is a math and science mentor teacher. He professionally develops teachers at Chavez Prep Public Charter School. Thank you both for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.


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