The Common Core standards were supposed to get students to understand math more deeply. For some California high school students, it didn’t work out that way.

“I like working in the old books, because they actually explain it to me,” one said. “Do you want me to learn it? Or do you want me to stare at the problem?”

That’s one response from a survey of students who experienced the shift to the new standards in their math and English classes. The study is quite limited, emerging from interviews from just 54 high-achieving seniors. But it gets at something often overlooked in the political controversy that would eventually surround the standards, which most states adopted in 2010: what it felt like for students to see their classrooms change.

Some of the student’s responses, published last month in a peer-reviewed academic journal, may be surprising. Many blamed the Common Core for encouraging more group work — something they almost universally disliked. In some schools, though, the students appreciated what they perceived as a move away from teacher-led instruction.

In others, students complained that this open-ended approach bred confusion that never transitioned into mastery. And in several schools, it wasn’t clear whether anything changed at all.

Together, the students’ responses offer one glimpse into the experience of those whom Common Core was designed to help — and highlight specific ways in which the goals of the standards proved difficult to realize quickly.

At the same time, author Suneal Kolluri of the University of Southern California writes, “If schools can improve their execution of the higher-order thinking and collaboration skills they are just now beginning to incorporate into their classrooms, the Common Core reform may be a small step in the right direction for improving college readiness.”

Students say they need more guidance

Many of the students, who were interviewed in the middle of the 2015-16 school year, agreed that teachers were pushing them toward “higher-order thinking” thanks to the Common Core, which the state had introduced the year before.

“Students mentioned projects, discussions, group work, deep analysis of complex texts, and other classroom activities that involved complex thinking,” Kolluri reports.

"I feel like math should just be math."

But, students said, teachers didn’t always seem comfortable with what they were asking students to do.

“My Algebra 2 class, we had workbooks called ‘Common Core’ and I’m sorry, I hated it so bad,” said one of the students. “I understand they’re trying to do life scenarios. I feel like math should just be math … Our teacher as well was much more confused [than] us.”

Many also took issue with a new emphasis on working in groups of other students, which they thought came from the Common Core.

“You’re put into a group and you guys are supposed to try to solve a problem that you’ve never been taught before,” said another. “How are you supposed to do that? None of your group members know what they’re doing, and you don’t either.”

Some students said that it was unfair to tie their grades to the performance of others, and others complained that it led to more off-task behavior.

“Most students do not have as big of a passion for math as I do. They tend to not understand math as well as I do,” said another student. “They would understand it better if the teacher would be able to use examples and instruct the student.”

In this case and throughout the survey, it’s not clear whether students were accurately perceiving whether certain changes were a result of the Common Core switch and not, say, a separate push for group instruction.

But it’s clear that the high-achieving students in this study appreciated a more direct teaching approach, something research has linked to higher levels of learning.

What’s Common Core again?

Then there were schools where it wasn’t clear to students if new standards were introduced at all.

At four of the nine schools the students attended, no interviewees noticed any significant changes. When asked about the standards, some students responded with, “What’s that?” or “I’ve never heard of it.”

"The work is taught in a way where we are able to understand it and complete it and not just being able to guess our way through answers."

In other schools, implementation was inconsistent. “One student noticed that his teacher who was also the department head was the only teacher who implemented the standards because, as department head, ‘If you don’t, it’s becoming a bit hypocritical,” Kolluri wrote. At another school, “One student told of a teacher who refused to alter his instructional practices. ‘He says that it’s dumb, he says it’s stupid.’”

There were bright spots, particularly in two schools where students appreciated efforts to make them explain their thinking.

“I know with math, they require you to write out the explanation for your answers and then, I believe in English we had to argue a point,” said one student. “I think it’s more about making sure that people integrate their previous knowledge and also putting it on paper and explaining it in detail.”

“The work is taught in a way where we are able to understand it and complete it and not just being able to guess our way through answers,” said another student.

Diverse texts versus the same old

Another gap between theory and implementation: students’ access to literature by a diverse set of writers.

“The Common Core State Standards Initiative certainly suggests plenty of texts by Latina/o authors, but the students’ comments suggest that few have been incorporated into the curriculum during the transition to the Common Core,” Kolluri wrote.

"Students need to have a classroom where the curriculum is more relatable."

But students largely reported reading high school staples like “The Great Gatsby,” Homer’s “Odyssey,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “1984,” and “The Catcher in the Rye.”

“While the classic literature got mixed reviews, most appreciated the opportunity to access the same material that students from wealthier schools were accessing,” the study says.

Some students could also point to an “enterprising teacher who created meaningful opportunities to engage with issues important to the low-income communities of color in which their schools were situated,” like teaching an ethnic studies class. A recent study found that high school students exposed to an ethnic studies course in San Francisco saw improvements in their attendance and grades as a result.

“If these teachers are teaching in a community that is low income … students need to have a classroom where the curriculum is more relatable to what the students are experiencing,” said one student. “If the teacher excludes that … they feel that their problems are being left out and they’re being left out.”