Friday, December 13, 2013

Common Core State Standards: Keys for Implementation Success #3

(Originally posted at

The anxiety (and sometimes hysteria) generated by the Common Core State Standards has been very depressing for those of us who believe in the usefulness of the standards and their potential for improving teaching and learning across the country. For every blog post or article describing a good teaching strategy or sharing a video of classroom practice, there seem to be twenty posts screaming about how the standards are dumbing-down our schools—or asking too much of our students. Cognitive dissonance is everywhere. The standards are a liberal plot to centralize and federalize public education. The standards are a conservative plot to erode and destroy public education and push children into private schools.  The standards are anti-religious. The standards are anti-science. The standards are anti-American.
All this over a handful of lists that document the skills students should master at different grade levels. Who knew percents and pronouns had so much power over the dreams and fears of the republic?

Are the standards perfect? Of course not. The expectations are going to be too ambitious for some students at some grade levels and not ambitious enough for others. Students are unique individuals, and every nine-year old can’t fit neatly into one box, no matter how cleverly we design that box. That shouldn’t stop us from setting goals, though. We just need to be realistic. We can’t move from a completely decentralized system to a partially centralized one without some headaches. This is a big, diverse country. That’s why the states that adopted the standards had the freedom to make adaptations to them, to suit their particular, local needs.
Overall, there have definitely been things about this implementation that have not made sense and reflect a lack of understanding of Actual Real Kids. We should have implemented in the early grades first, and then folded in later grades as kids grew up. Imposing brand new, rigorous standards on high-schoolers who didn’t grow up within that system is just unfair.
And local implementation has been fraught with problems, as well. Some school districts waited too long to begin working the standards into their schools, and are now panicking in the face of the new assessments. Some districts implemented the standards without providing adequate training. Some districts put implementation in the hands of people who didn’t really understand the standards, or are simply waiting for new textbooks to arrive. There are problems aplenty. But the standards aren’t wrong—or evil—just because they’re being rolled out ineffectively in some places.

So how can we do better? How can we help? I’ve written in recent months about some things I consider to be “keys” to implementation success for the new standards. I talked about how to use information and tools from the Common Core to set real and actionable standards for rigor in schools, and why it’s important to create a culture of dialogue and inquiry to support the deeper meaning and intent of the standards. Today I want to talk about a third key: making everyone a stakeholder in success.

Reaching Out Beyond English and Math

 As I said in my earlier posts, Common Core is about much more than changing pacing calendars and textbooks. Yes, there are specific skills and concepts required at specific grade levels, and yes, there will be challenges involved in moving some things up or down. But in both English and mathematics, the standards speak of providing broader and deeper ways for students to learn, understand, and apply their knowledge. And these are the more meaningful and important challenges facing us.
Let’s talk about breadth. Applying skills more widely means extending the reach of the curriculum beyond the traditional boundaries of a subject area. In English language arts, the standards speak specifically about “disciplinary literacy,” the special reading and writing skills required when dealing with scientific, technical, or historical texts. Literacy can’t simply be the English teacher’s job, anymore. And numbers can’t be the exclusive province of the math teacher. The push for more real-world problem-solving and critical thinking within mathematics makes it necessary for teachers to reach outside of their textbooks and their traditional problem-sets to help students see math in everyday life, and use math knowledge to pose and solve actual problems—problems that may involve science, sports, history, politics, or even literature.
This is going to matter when states start adopting new assessments. Reading tests will draw from historical and scientific texts. Math tests will involve real-world, multi-step problem solving. English and math teachers will need to push beyond their traditional boundaries, but science, social studies, art, and other teachers will also need to reach in to English and math. They will need to understand what these new standards are asking for, and find ways to connect their own curricular objectives to math and English practices and habits of mind, if not particular content. This is what Catapult’s Disciplinary Literacy professional development program is all about.

Reaching Out to Non-Academic Staff

 We also need to reach out beyond academics, and involve the whole staff in our efforts to bring increased rigor, inquiry, and depth of understanding to our schools. I once attended a leadership workshop led by a superintendent who talked about how a principal had to “own” the entire school building. Whatever rules the principal laid down, those rules had to apply everywhere: the gym, the boy’s bathroom, even the parking lot. There was no inch of the building that should not be “school.”  The statement led to a lot of eye-rolling, especially among principals from large, urban schools, but the participants’ cynicism didn’t mean the presenter was wrong.

We’ve gotten far too used to treating our classrooms like shops at a mall—each with its own rules, its own wares, its own ways of doing things—with the spaces between classrooms left as some kind of no-man’s-land. But all that does for children is make school feel random, disconnected, and arbitrary.  Our schools should be more of a unified, cohesive, and coherent experience for children. And if we want our students to think more analytically and creatively, transferring their learning beyond the limits of a textbook and using it to pose, ponder on, and solve problems of all sorts, then we have to model and support these ways of thinking everywhere. Even in the lunchroom. Even in the gym. This is precisely why I said it was crucial to create a culture of inquiry school-wide. The standards may set explicit, academic goals within certain subject areas, but the thinking skills we care about touch everything.
For some nice examples of how staff across a school can support rigorous thinking and high-level academics within their activities, take a look at this video from Edutopia.

Reaching Out to Parents

Parental outreach is hardly a new idea. Many schools have found wonderful, creative ways to involve families in the work and life of the classroom. For our purposes, we need to focus on ways in which schools can involve families in the challenges of increased classroom rigor and raised academic expectations.  And it makes perfect sense to connect the work of the classroom to the life of the home, since these new standards are meant to prepare students not only for college, but also for the world of the workplace. The authors of the Common Core did not assume that all students were university-bound—but neither did they assume that the world hadn’t changed since they, themselves, had graduated from high school. The world has changed—and it continues to change. Students entering the workforce in the next ten or twenty years will be expected to communicate quickly, efficiently, and cleanly in a number of different modes, and will have to use, manipulate, and explain all kinds of data that come to them in all kinds of formats. These are not college-skills; they’re essential life-skills.
Parents can support academic expectations in a number of ways, from involving students in solving everyday household problems that require mathematics to encouraging students to watch or listen to the news at home and participate in family conversations about current events. Parents can support more general ideas about rigor and excellence, as well, by setting high standards for whatever kids do at home, from homework to sports to household chores. Sloppy, incorrect, or incomplete performance should never be called “good enough,” no matter what kind of work the child is doing. We need to encourage our young people to push a little harder and reach for excellence in everything they do.

Perhaps more importantly than anything else, parents need to talk with their children about real and important things (things that are important to parents and things that are important to children), and engage children in real dialogue—asking questions, listening with interest, and demanding answers. Responses of “I dunno,” or “whatever,” aren’t good enough. Supporting answers with evidence is an essential part of the standards in both math and English. So…Justin Beiber is awesome? Fine—what do you mean by “awesome?” In what ways, exactly, is he awesome? Give me an example.  What would you say if I disagreed? How would you compare him with Miley Cyrus? Or Elvis? Or, if you really want to push it, Mozart?
Are these kinds of questions annoying? Sure. But they’re important. I’ve been in workshops where teachers have been asked where they learned how to think, and none of them said “in school.” Most of them said they learned how to think—critically and analytically—from a lifetime of discussions at the dinner table.

Reaching Out to the Community

If we are asking children to do more complex math, it’s not because we’re sadists; it’s because we need adults in the 21st century to have better number sense and better problem-solving abilities. If we are asking children to analyze, discuss, and write about more complex informational text, it’s not because we hate fiction; it’s because analysis, discussion, and writing about informational text is what so many of us have to do in our work-lives. These things matter far beyond the walls of our schools…so there is no reason not to involve the world in what we’re doing.  We can help students understand the kinds of jobs that are done in their towns, and the kinds of skills needed to do those jobs. We can help students understand the ways in which adults make their livings and their lives, and how the reading, writing, calculating, problem-solving, and thinking skills they’re practicing at school connect and relate to those lives. We can have adults outside of school model for our children what open and respectful dialogue, discussion, and inquiry look like—and demand those things of children when they shop in our stores or speak to us in our offices.

This is about more than making sure shopkeepers know when big test-dates are, and offering encouragement. It’s about not isolating our children, making them feel like part of the adult community—understanding the world around them and understanding their role as future inheritors and citizens of that world.

Light One Candle

The standards aren’t perfect. But if we undermine and destroy them, what will we replace them with? Another set of 50 state standards that create chaos and incoherence for us as a nation? School-by-school or state-by-state expectations? No standards at all: just trust each teacher to do the right thing…and know how to define what the right thing is?

Better to light a candle than curse the darkness, as they say. And the darkness people are complaining about isn’t all that dark. It really isn’t. We have a tremendous opportunity in front of us—maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—and it won’t come without pain. All change and growth is painful. But the world keeps turning. We can’t afford to stand still. And we don’t have to. There is so much we can do.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Second Key to CCSS Success: Creating a Culture of Inquiry

(Originally published at

In the world of logic, people talk about necessary and sufficient conditions. A necessary condition is anything that has to happen for an effect to take place.  You cannot walk without certain muscles being contracted. Those muscle actions are necessary conditions. But those muscles will not, by themselves, make walking happen. When all of the things that have to happen, do happen, then we have what we call sufficiency. When you have a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole puzzle, you can say the conditions are necessary but not sufficient: I have what I need, but not all that I need.

We’ve had academic standards before. They didn’t change much. What do we need to do to make sure that the Common Core State Standards bring about the changes we know we need? If we want our 18 year olds to be college and career ready, what are the necessary and sufficient causes? We’ll get where we want to go if and only if….what?

Recently, I wrote about how certain elements of the standards could help us set a larger, more holistic standard for rigor in our schools—a yardstick against which we can measure how we as a school community are teaching academic content, and how our students are using and applying what they learn.  Fleshing out the standards to paint a coherent picture of rigor is definitely necessary. But is rigor, alone, sufficient?  Obviously, since my post is entitled, “The Second Key,” I’m going to say: No.

Setting clear and coherent goals is vitally important, but we also need to create conditions that make it possible for our goals to be achieved. This is where I think school culture comes into play.  A school culture that focuses more on procedures and compliance than on dialogue and discovery (for adults and for children) is a culture that is bound, at some point, to contradict or undermine the kinds of problem solving, critical thinking, and analysis expected of students. We don’t want to pay lip service to the instructional shifts. We need them to come alive in our schools. We don’t simply want students to respond; we want them to think. So…how can the idea of inquiry as a larger culture help us to move in that direction?

Some of my colleagues have suggested that questioning lies at the heart of the Common Core State Standards, and that success in implementation will depend overwhelmingly on the kinds of questions we ask and the way we ask them. I agree. In fact, I wrote about this topic a number of months ago.

A culture of inquiry would make questioning vitally important in every aspect of teaching. Instead of creating lesson plans that stated, “students will learn X, Y, and Z,” on days 1, 2, and 3, we could, instead, provide a series of questions to be posed to students: unit or semester-level questions that worked on a macro level (e.g., “What is the correct use of power?”); and daily or weekly questions that helped to shape instruction and define learning objectives (e.g., “How did Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech help define postwar policy for America?”).  

Some may feel that translating objectives into questions is simply a matter of semantics: But semantics matter. The way we word things affects the way we think about those things.  A learning objective can feel like a dictate or a mandate coming from above. We tell students that the thinking has been done for them; they simply have to receive and accept it. When we ask them a question, there is an assumption that some work must be done by the person answering. There is a suggestion of a journey, a discovery…and, perhaps, a variety of correct answers.

Inquiry doesn’t simply mean asking more questions. It also requires attention to the kinds of questions we ask. In too many places, ”class discussion” involves a series of one-on-one transactions between a teacher and an individual student, controlled by the teacher, with the aim of uncovering whether a student knows fact X or can answer question Z. There is no room for argument or dialogue in this model. The student has little chance to reveal or share anything beyond what the teacher has framed as important. What this kind of questioning leaves out is argumentation and open dialogue. Both are crucial if we want to encourage genuine inquiry and higher-level thinking.

Argumentation is an area of particular focus in the Common Core writing standards. Researchers have identified the idea of “argument literacy” (Gerald Graff, 2003) as fundamental to being considered an educated person.  David Conley (2010) sees the ability to explain and defend a position as the single most important determinant of success in college-level work across disciplines. But in a recent study (Perie, Grigg, Donahue, 2005), only 3% of 8th graders and 6% of 12 graders were able to make informed, critical judgments based on text. Clearly, responding to direct, fact-based questions is not sufficient preparation for college-level thinking, or career-level problem-solving. We need to create a classroom culture in which student-to-student discussion has a role, and in which debate, both formal and informal, takes place fairly often. We need to ask more than “what’s the answer?” We need to ask, “what do you think?” and “why do you think it?”

Facilitating argument or debate in the classroom can help us move in the direction of inquiry, but argument alone can be limited in its scope. True inquiry requires a much more open and less directive kind of discourse, in which there is no fixed agenda, no clear answer (or set of answers), and students are able to work their way, through posing and responding to questions (from the teacher and from each other) towards a solution. This is true whether the subject at hand is the meaning of a poem, the efficacy of a political policy, or a challenging, ambiguous math problem. We need to teach students not only how to answer questions, but also how to pose them—how to look at a situation, find a question worth answering, and then structure a line of inquiry that will help them reach a solution.

The greatest challenge in supporting inquiry and dialogue may not come from what we do in the classroom, but from what we do in the teacher’s lounge. If we truly believe that inquiry and dialogue matter, we need to make sure that we model those things as adults. It means we need to engage in respectful discourse with our students, both inside and outside the classroom. It means we need to engage in respectful discourse with each other, as professionals—even when the children aren’t listening. And it means we need to make sure that our school and district leaders treat their staff in exactly the same we want our teachers to treat our students. It means that all of us, as a school community, believe in working collaboratively to analyze, discuss, and solve problems—that all of us have a voice, and all of us are equal participants in creating understanding.

Perhaps you think I’m overeating. Perhaps you think it’s possible to meet the challenges of the Common Core State Standards without transforming the culture of our schools, or even changing the way we talk to students (and listen to them) in the classroom. Perhaps it is possible. But it will be monumentally difficult. The standards in their totality—the grade level content standards, the math practice standards, the instructional shifts, the exemplars, and the sample assessment items—do so much more than identify content to be addressed at different grade levels. They paint a picture of teaching and learning that requires much more than a new textbook can ever hope to provide. Our students will certainly do better if we pay attention to the new content demands of the standards. But I firmly believe that we will reach the goal of 21st century college and career readiness only if we think critically and openly about the way we teach and the way we talk to our students…and each other.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Myths and Misunderstandings about the Common Core

(originally published at
“Certain things, they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”
― J.D. Salinger,
The Catcher in the Rye
All of us feel like Holden Caulfield at one time or another. We’re exhausted by change. We’re tired of This Year’s Important Reform. Change can be frightening. Change can be threatening. And change can sometimes be downright wrong-headed. Can’t we just leave well-enough alone?
Quoting from Salinger is especially apropos when discussing the Common Core State Standards, because one of the laments I hear from high school teachers is that they will no longer be allowed to teach literature like The Catcher in the Rye.  Statements like this are worrisome, because they demonstrate a lack of understanding of what the Common Core State Standards are all about.
There is a tremendous amount of misinformation about these standards and what they require of us as parents and educators. The confusion and fear-mongering are creating real problems for school administrators trying to implement these standards and raise student achievement.
So here, in no particular order, are some of the “common myths” I’ve been hearing about the Common Core, with what I hope are some helpful explanations of what’s really going.
1. The Common Core State Standards have created a federally mandated, federally controlled curriculum.
The impetus to create rigorous, new learning standards at a national level came from state government and the business community, not the federal government. The National Governors’ Association, working with the Council of Chief State School Officers, undertook the mission, in part as a response to complaints from employers that entry-level workers didn’t have the math, reading, and writing skills necessary to perform their jobs effectively. The federal Department of Education did not manage the writing of the standards, nor do they control them. The standards were adopted voluntarily by the states, and each participating state has been allowed to make additions or alterations to the standards, as long as those alterations remain under 15% of the whole. Once adopted by a state, the standards become the “property” of that state, managed and overseen by its department of education, just as its previous set of learning standards were.
However, the federal Department of Education has definitely lent its support to these standards, and has tied significant amounts of money to adoption of “college and career readiness standards” like the Common Core. And we know that federal money can be hard to resist. But enticing as that money may be, it falls short of being a “mandate.”
The standards also fall short of being a curriculum. The standards are grade-level goals, and they are aggressive. But they are not a curriculum, a textbook, a pacing guide, or anything else that limits, shapes, or controls how a teacher teaches or what a teacher should teach from day to day. If a teacher wants to deliver her math instruction entirely through the use of hand-puppets, nothing in the Common Core is stopping her. In fact, these national standards may give us a real opportunity to compare teaching practices on a grand scale and find out what works best.
2. The literacy standards are hostile to fiction, poetry, and drama.
There has been a lot of confusion about the relative importance of literary and informational texts in the Common Core. The standards definitely do ask for teachers to include more primary and secondary source texts in their curriculum—in English language arts, certainly, but also in the areas of social studies, science, and the technical arts. In fact, from sixth grade on, teachers of those subjects have a separate set of literacy standards just for their disciplines.
Does that mean that high school English teachers have to give up The Catcher in the Rye? Not at all. The standards do ask us to increase the amount of informational text our students read, so that by the end of high school, those texts account for 70% of what they are reading. But that 70% is meant to represent the sum total of what they read across their entire school day. The goal isn’t to remove literature; it’s to add other kinds of texts within Language Arts, as well as in World History, Civics, Geography, Physics, Biology, and so on.
3. The math standards focus too early on critical thinking and don’t put an emphasis on calculation and memorization.
Not true. In fact, the standards have done an admirable job of trying to end the “math wars” and find a middle ground that includes both fact fluency and concept comprehension. The “instructional shifts” that authors have identified as being a major part of the standards include both fluency and deep understanding, and the structure of the standards supports this two-pronged approach, providing teachers with grade-level content standards and a set of overarching “practice standards” that speaks to certain ways of thinking, habits of mind that proficient mathematicians display. The challenge for teachers is learning how to incorporate both sets of standards in their instruction—to make sure students learn their math facts and become fluent in computation, but also that they learn to “think in math,” rather than blindly executing procedures they don’t truly understand.
4. The standards have a liberal, left-wing, political agenda.
If anything, I find the standards rather conservative and old-fashioned. The literacy standards emphasize things like obtaining real knowledge about the world through reading (rather than simply practicing how to read), the inclusion of primary source documents in all subject areas, and text-based questions, like “What is the author doing here?” over text-to-self questions, like, “How does it make you feel?” The math standards emphasize real knowledge and fluency, rather than saying things like, “they can just use a calculator.” In fact, I find nothing in the standards that would contradict what Thomas Jefferson laid out as the goals of public education for Americans as early as 1818.
However, that doesn’t mean that the textbooks, workbooks, and other materials being designed by publishers and sold to schools are free from bias. A textbook could easily be “aligned to the Common Core Standards” and betray a political bias that has nothing to do with those standards. Some published materials have a clear bias and point of view. Others can fall victim to unwitting bias that results from editorial decisions—what to leave in, what to take out, what to emphasize, what to ignore—that may be deliberate or quite unconscious. It is extremely important that schools and parents review and analyze new text materials to ensure they are well-designed, well-aligned, and acceptable to the community.
5. The standards mandate collecting and sharing detailed and unnecessary data on students.
The standards are simply learning goals. The fact of having national standards, however, has definitely led many people to seek new ways to collect and analyze data on student performance, to provide the best possible education to each student and to study which states, districts, and schools are performing well—not to punish those that fall behind, but to learn what really works for students and share the knowledge more widely.
This is not limited to our K-12 schools. It is exactly the same discussion that is happening in our health care system. It is exactly the same discussion we are having about businesses mining data from social networking systems to target advertising to people more effectively. It is a real challenge facing us in pretty much every facet of our 21st century lives. In each case, we need to weigh the potential benefits in service with the potential risks in losing privacy, and make decisions about what we find acceptable. I think people are absolutely right not to place blind trust in school administrators or academic publishers, and simply have faith that data being collected will not be abused. A healthy skepticism will help us all in the long run. But a healthy skepticism is not the same thing as panic or conspiracy-mongering.
Change may be challenging and frightening, but that, alone, doesn’t make it wrong. Holden Caulfield wanted to stop the world from turning. We sympathize with his feelings. We’ve all shared them at some point in our lives. But we also know what happened to Holden, and it wasn’t pretty. The world turns whether we want it to or not. The times change, and the needs of the times change.
Weighing the benefits of change against the risks is something we all have to do, and we cannot do it—not for education, not for healthcare, not anywhere—without having objective facts at our disposal and knowing how to analyze and assess those facts. It’s a skill that is absolutely necessary for the continued health and strength of our democracy. And it’s a skill, by the way, that the Common Core is working hard to build in our students.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Implementing the Common Core: Three Keys for Success (1)

Part I: Setting a Standard for Rigor

 Standards. We all have them. We set personal standards for cleanliness around the house. We have workplace standards for what constitutes average or above-average performance. We have ethical standards governing how we behave as a society. We don’t always live up to our own standards, and we don’t always share standards with the people around us, but we definitely have them.

In K-12 education, we’ve had state-level academic standards since at least the mid-1990s, and now we have national standards for mathematics and literacy. We’re in the midst of implementing those standards right now, and feelings about them are…what shall we say? Mixed? Contradictory? Occasionally passionate and occasionally ambivalent?

Passionate ambivalence shouldn’t be all that surprising. As I said, we all have our own sets of standards governing different aspects of our lives, and sometimes we find that our standards aren’t the same as other people’s. Whether it’s the state department of education or the authors of the Common Core, we don’t like it when someone comes into our classroom and says, “You don’t tell me what’s good; I tell you.” 

One problem with implementing new learning standards is that so many of the things calling themselves “standards” aren’t standards at all; they’re just To-Do lists. Teach this to your 3rd graders. Make sure 4th graders do that. This is curriculum mapping, not a set of standards against which we can measure and understand student learning.

We are told that the Common Core is “upping the rigor” on our teachers and on our students, but the standards alone can’t get us to that Promised Land, because the standards alone don’t tell us what rigor looks like. We need to decide that. It’s teachers and principals, working at the school level, who have to use the standards to define what constitutes rigorous work, and then create a culture that advocates and enables that kind of work across all subject areas.

What do we talk about when we talk about standards?

When we talk about standards, we are talking about two different things: what a person is doing, and how the person is doing it. We talk about content (the What) and we talk about form. But as it turns out, form has two components to it. Bound up in form are process (the How) and performance, or extent (the How Much).

As Grant Wiggins has pointed out in multiple blog posts, and as Paul Bambrick-Santoyo has demonstrated in his excellent book, Driven by Data, our learning standards do a good job of telling us what students are supposed to do (the content), but they rarely define either piece of the “form” puzzle: how they’re supposed to do it (the process) or the extent to which they need to do it to prove proficiency (the performance).

Wiggins, as usual, uses sports to create an interesting and insightful analogy. If I was judging an Olympics trial for high jumpers, I would have in my mind a description of what a proficient high-jumper does. I would compare each athlete against this mental standard. Did he execute the right steps? Did he do them correctly, and in the right order? That’s the content. Did he execute these steps with proper, accepted form? With beauty and grace? That may feel a little qualitative and mushy to you, but we’ve seen a lot of athletes in our time. We know what a high jump looks like when it’s done well. We know what a beautiful dive looks like. Our TV announcers freeze the video frame and show it to us again and again. Look—she sliced through the water without creating so much as a splash. Perfect form. Nobody disagrees. So there is clearly a standard in place.

Next, we have to deal with performance level or extent. If you can execute a perfect and beautiful high jump when the bar is set at nine feet, and I can execute an equally beautiful jump, but only at three feet, then you are clearly and indisputably the better jumper. At some point, we set a standard for what height a professional, top-rated high-jumper should be able to clear.

Do our learning standards set this kind of standard for process and performance? You decide. Here’s a sixth grade mathematics standard from the Common Core:

Find a percent of a quantity as a rate per 100 (e.g., 30% of a quantity means 30/100 times the quantity); solve problems involving finding the whole, given a part and the percent.

CCSS Math Content Standard 6.RP.A.3c


Now, borrowing an example straight from Bambrick-Santoyo’s book, let’s look at some questions “aligned” to this standard. Which question(s) would help us determine if a student was able to “meet the standard?”

1. Identify 50% of 20

2.  Identify 67% of 81

 3. Shawn got 7 correct answers out of 10 possible answers on his science test.   What percent of questions did he get correct?

4. J.J. Redick was on pace to set an NCAA record in career free-throw percentage. Leading into the NCAA tournament in 2004, he made 97 of 104 free-throw attempts. In the first tournament game, Redick missed his first five free throws. How far did his percentage drop from before the tournament game to right after missing those free throws?

The answer is: we don’t know! The content standard doesn’t make clear to what extent a student needs to be able to apply his knowledge, as a sixth grader, or even what form (simple equation vs. complex word problem) we’re looking for. This is because, as it clearly states, it is just a content standard. Aligning textbooks and curriculum maps to these standards alone is no guarantee that anyone in your school is working at the same level of rigor, much less the desired or required level.

How can we set performance standards?

If we want to define more clearly what standards for performance the Common Core is looking for, or the world of college and careers require, we need to work together. If every teacher in the school sets her own standard for excellence, for rigor, for “CCSS-ness,” there is no standard at all.  One teacher may be aiming for Question 1 from the example above, while another teacher aims for Question 4. We need commonly understood and accepted exemplars or anchors that tie performance to content.

Fortunately, we are not working in a vacuum. There is a lot of useful material surrounding the Common Core State Standards. We just need to make sure we’re aware of it, and know how to use it.


The authors of the literacy standards have provided a lot of exemplar material to help us understand proficiency at different grade levels. Appendix B to the standards provides text exemplars by grade band, listing appropriate literary and informational texts, and also providing excerpts that teachers can use in class to practice close, analytical reading. The exemplars even distinguish texts that are appropriate at the independent reading level from texts that should be read aloud. Personally, I find these exemplar texts far more useful than the three-part equation for calculating text complexity. When I look at the excerpts, I get a real, visceral feeling for what rigorous means—and I can go out to hunt for other texts that measure up.

Appendix B also includes sample “performance tasks” at different grade levels. We know that the complexity of a particular text depends, in part, on what you ask students to do with that text. Here, the authors give us some rich examples of what textual analysis should look like at different grade levels.

Finally, Appendix C provides us with exemplars of student writing at different grade levels, with explanatory annotations to show us what makes the sample a true exemplar of good work.

The exemplars, tasks, and writing samples give us a real standard of performance against which we can measure not only our students’ work, but also our own work, as educators. Are we assigning similarly rich and rigorous texts? Are we asking students to work at high levels of complexity with these texts, performing tasks of analysis, evaluation, and synthesis? When we ask students to write, are we seeing work similar to what we see in Appendix C? Are we asking for and looking for these same kinds of things that the annotations are pointing out? If we are teachers, these are questions we should be asking in our PLC or department meetings. If we are school leaders, these are things we should be looking for during observations and walkthroughs. Not to punish each other, but to help each other as we define a new standard of work and find ways, as a team, to reach the standard we have set.


The Common Core mathematics standards do not include tasks, exemplars, or other performance-related anchors, which is a problem, as we saw above. However, there are two places where we can learn about form—not just the steps of the high-jump, but what it should look like, and how high it should reach.

First, there are the Standards for Mathematical Practice—the eight standards that define how math should be used, regardless of grade level or specific content. These standards speak to things like abstract reasoning, constructing and defending arguments, working with precision, and making use of structure. In broad terms, the eight statements set a standard against which we can measure current practice and current materials. For example, it’s pretty clear that Question 1 from the Bambrick-Santoyo example above does not ask students to do any abstract reasoning or complex problem-solving. Even Question 2 is fairly basic, asking for nothing beyond computation. But which of the other two questions—the two word problems—is set at the right level of rigor for sixth grade? That, we can’t really determine from the practice standards.

However, there is another place we can look for examples. The two major testing consortia have worked hard to define grade-level performance and show us what it looks like. You can find sample test items from PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, here, and items from the SMARTER Balanced consortium here. Both sets of sample items make issues of form (process and performance) pretty concrete, and both sets do a nice job of depicting, in a visceral and inescapable way, what the combination of math content and math practice looks like. They can be enormously helpful when having discussions at department or PLC meetings about rigor and the Common Core. Are we asking students to use their math in the ways these test items are doing? If not, what’s the difference? What aren’t we doing? Is the difference simply in content difficulty, or is there something in the application that we’re missing? Perhaps we’re providing too much explanation and scaffolding. Perhaps we’re relying too much on classic equations and aren’t asking students to find problems themselves.

Whatever your subject area, and wherever you look for examples and exemplars, it’s clear that we cannot be efficient and effective at moving students towards higher levels of rigor unless we work together to set clear standards for what rigorous work looks like—standards that everyone can see, understand, and use to measure student performance. If anyone watching TV can know enough to judge high jump or a high dive, why can’t anyone in our school know enough to judge the quality of student work hanging on a bulletin board?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Building Performance Character (Part V)

(originally published at

This will be my final installment on “performance character values,” the behaviors and traits that seem to have significant influences on student success in school and in life. Over the past few months, we’ve discussed things like persistence, precision, questioning, and collaboration. Each one is important, and working together, they can be incredibly powerful. But I think the final piece of the puzzle may be the most important…and the hardest to accomplish. Today I want to talk about making connections, or what the serious scholars call “transfer of learning.”

Teaching for Transfer

One of the greatest challenges we face as educators is helping students connect what they learn in the classroom to what they need to do in the world, whether it be taking a standardized test, filling out a tax return, making sense of a lease, or writing a report on the job. Transfer of skills and knowledge can be tricky, because when the context changes from the controlled environment of the classroom to the unpredictable and un-categorized world around us, it is often difficult to know which skills to call upon in a given situation. This is why so many teachers tear their hair out and say things like, “They understood this stuff in class. What happened?”

There are stories (apocryphal or not, I don’t know) about students missing what should have been easy questions on tests for just this reason. There is a story about high school students missing a question on the Pythagorean Theorem, simply because they couldn’t see the right triangle in the diagram. All through school, they had been given questions with formal, literal triangle shapes with little squares inside to indicate that the figures were right triangles. On this test, however, they were given a picture of a soda glass with a straw leaning inside of it. The straw, the side of the glass, and the base of the glass formed a triangle…but the students never saw it.

There’s another story about a high school reading test in which students were asked to read a humorous essay and answer some multiple-choice questions. Many students who successfully tackled higher-level inference questions failed to identify the genre of the piece, which should have been one of the easiest questions. It turned out that thousands of students across the state misidentified the piece as fiction, simply because it was funny. Essays weren’t funny. Not in their experience. The piece was also longer than five paragraphs—and, as everyone knows, essays are five-paragraphs long.

In both cases, students had been taught in such a limited and narrow context that they could not make actual use of their knowledge anywhere else. It reminds me a little of the old folk tale about the five blind men and the elephant. Each man has experience with a different aspect of the elephant, but none has experience with the entire animal. As a result, each man reaches a faulty conclusion about what it is he’s encountered.

To understand a concept or build a skill deeply enough to be able to make use of it in the world, we need to experience the whole elephant. We need to walk all the way around an idea, experience it from a variety of angles, and be able to identify all the different, seemingly separate aspects of it as, in fact, part of a coherent whole.

This means we need to think very differently about things like homework and practice sets for our students. Practice and repetition can be vitally important, but perhaps the way we’ve constructed and managed practice has been limiting and ineffective, especially when we’re dealing with more complex concepts. It’s not enough for students to “do” and then do again; they need to do it differently each time, come at a thing from a different angle, make use of a thing in a different way, or a different purpose...and then have time to compare, contrast, and discuss what changes, what remains the same, and what it all means.

Grant Wiggins was the first author I read who talked about transfer, and he returns to it again and again as the ultimate goal of our teaching. In a recent blog post, he shared this story:

My greatest learning as a teacher came on the soccer field. We had been working for a few weeks on the same key ‘moves’ on the field related to creating ‘space.’ After a few practices, the team looked good in the drills – they’ve got it! Next two games? Nothing: like we never learned it. Finally, in exasperation I yelled at my co-captain, Liz, one of the prime offenders in not using the moves practiced: USE what we worked on!! I yelled. Liz yelled back from the field: We would, Mr. Wiggins, but the other team isn’t lining up the way we did the drills!!

Interestingly, while the players may have failed to transfer their learning from the drills to the game, Grant succeeded in transferring his learning from the soccer field to the classroom. He saw the connections.

How Experts Are Formed

As John Bransford and his co-authors discovered, in How People Learn, experts in a field are able to see and use connections between seemingly different ideas or facts because their brains work differently from amateurs. As they amass knowledge, they build schema, or organizing structures, based on the patterns within the material they are learning. They see the particular through the lens of the general, because they come to think more abstractly. This makes it easier for them to access and recall information when they need it, and it makes it easier for them to make connections to prior knowledge when new facts arise.

This means that, to some extent, the ability to make connections simply requires time. We can’t expect sixth graders to manipulate science knowledge the way actual scientists do. They simply don’t know enough. But this also means that “knowing things” is crucial. The idea that factual knowledge isn’t important anymore—that we can simply look things up on the Internet when we need information—is false. Teaching “critical thinking” strategies without building up a foundation of factual knowledge will not help our students. To put it bluntly, you can’t think about stuff unless you know something about the stuff you’re supposed to be thinking about.

However, we can’t dump facts on our students and expect them to learn how to make connections among them. We have to organize our teaching in ways that help students see the underlying structure of the material and identify the important patterns and principles. This is what Wiggins, McTighe, Erickson, and others talk about when they use terms like, “understanding by design” or “concept-based curriculum.”  You don’t ignore the trunk and the tusks; you teach those things with the whole elephant as your goal.

The Challenge of Deep Structure

One thing that makes this kind of teaching challenging is the fact that some patterns and structures matter more than others. Cognitive scientist and author, Daniel Willingham, in Why Students Don’t Like School, talks about how students (and adults) may see surface-level  connections between details and draw conclusions that aren’t important or even merited…while missing vital connections between things that look dissimilar on the surface, but have important and meaningful connections at a deeper level. This is why even the best medical student or intern may make a bad decision that the more experienced resident will not; a wealth of experience has let the resident understand the underlying patterns and structures of illness, and not become distracted by surface-level facts.

Here’s a famous example of how all of this can work:

Two groups of college students…were given a passage about a general who captures a fortress by dividing his army into groups that converge on the fortress simultaneously. The same students were then asked to solve the problem of how to destroy a malignant tumor with rays that cannot be used at very high or very low intensities. More than 90 percent of the students could solve the problem when they were told to use the information about the general and the fortress to solve the problem, but few students could solve the problem when not prompted to use the analogous connection between the two problems.

 On the surface, the two stories had nothing to do with each other. It was what the two anecdotes had in common structurally that allowed students to take ideas and principles from one situation and apply them to the other.

Metaphors Be With You

So, while discrete, factual information is important—students need to know what X is—its value may remain limited until we use analogies and metaphors to help students see what that information is like. The more different ways in which we can show students how X is like Y, the more three-dimensional and flexible their understanding of both X and Y can become. Some analogies will work on a surface level; some will work on a deeper level. But you have to start somewhere.

I learned this the hard way. I was teaching a Ray Bradbury story to a 9th grade English class in New York City, many years ago. The story was about two knights preparing to fight a dragon that had been terrorizing a village. The dragon has skin like iron; a single, unblinking, yellow eye; breath of fire; and a mighty roar. As the dragon approaches, the knights put on their armor and set out to attack it. They are both killed. Suddenly, we hear two new voices:

"Did you see it?" cried a voice. "Just like I told you!"

"The same! The same! A knight in armor, by the Lord Harry! We hit him!"

"You goin' to stop?"

"Did once; found nothing. Don't like to stop on this moor. I get the willies."

The two new voices belong to train conductors. It’s a science fiction story. Time is slipping. The dragon is a train; the train is a dragon. One thing can be two different things, depending on your perspective. I loved the story. But when my students read it, they didn’t understand it. At all. They simply didn’t get it.

So I read it aloud to them.


So I had them create a chart, listing qualities of the dragon on one side and qualities of the train on the other.

“Oh,” they said. “Okay.”  They got it now, but they didn’t enjoy it. There was no “aha” moment, no fun in the thing. And I found that to be the case over and over again, that year. X was just X was just X was just X, and Y was just Y was just Y was just Y. Every single thing was just itself. Nothing resonated. Nothing vibrated. Nothing set off associations. I blamed them, of course, being young and foolish. But it was my fault. It was our fault, as a school. We weren’t teaching for the resonance. They learned exactly what we taught them: X was just X was just X was just X.

Do we really wonder why some students have trouble understanding the relevance of their school work?

 “The Dragon” is obviously not an example of “deep structure” comparison. It’s just a fun little story, with no particularly meaning or importance. But appreciating patterns and resonances, understanding metaphor and simile—these are things that take many years to develop. If we strip poetry, metaphor, allusion, and wit from the texts we ask our littlest readers to tackle, and then lead them from garbage-y picture books into bland textbooks, where facts are presented as simply and basically as possible, then when, exactly, do we think they’re going to learn how to think richly and associatively?

I challenge you to think of any great idea, discovery, or advancement that was not based, at least in part, on association. Newton’s apple, Einstein’s “though experiments,” the invention of the computer “desktop,” airplanes with turned-up wingtips—again and again, we find answers to our newest and strangest questions by looking elsewhere and making connections. We are deeply enmeshed in our history, our culture, and the natural world around us, and the more we understand how those connections work, the wiser we can be.

The world feels fragmented and arbitrary enough to our children—a universe of random dots that they didn’t create or ask for, a universe they struggle to make sense of, day by day. Isn’t it our job to help them connect the dots?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Building Performance Character (Part IV)

(originally published by Catapult Learning, LLC, at


For the past few months, I've been talking about the performance-related character values that significantly influence student success in school and in life. I’ve discussed the importance of persistence, precision, and questioning in detail. Today, I’d like to talk about collaboration and ownership of learning—what I’ve learned from the research, and what I learned last night, watching my children perform in a band camp concert. It wasn’t exactly a peer-reviewed journal study, but sometimes you need to sit still and enjoy a show for the thoughts in your head to coalesce and teach you something. More on that in a bit.

Working with Others

Collaboration is nothing new in our schools. “Group work” has always been part of our classroom practice, though its value has co-existed a little nervously and uncertainly with the idea of “doing your own work.” We are taught from a very young age that we are going to be assessed and judged on our ability to do things independently. From nursery school reports that say things like, “runs with scissors,” right up through our doctoral dissertations, it is our individual skills, applied independently, which are watched, assessed, rated, and communicated out to the world. We may, in our early years, be told that we “work well with others,” but the focus is still on each, individual one of us, not on what the group we work with has actually done, or how our effort has contributed to the success of the team.

In recent years, the ability of students to work effectively in groups or teams has received increased attention. The rise of STEM education has shined a new light on inquiry-based and project-based learning. Extracurricular organizations like Odyssey of the Mind and First Lego League  give students opportunities to work together on complex, long-term projects to solve real-world problems in creative and exciting ways. And The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, which has driven so much of the debate about the changing workforce and how best to prepare for it, has identified collaboration as one of the most important things we need to teach our children.

The fact is, in the world beyond school, almost none of us work in isolation or are judged purely by the work we perform alone. Even the neurosurgeon possessing rarified skills has to work as part of a surgical team, and can undermine her effectiveness if she can’t work well as part of that team. In virtually every workplace, there are critical issues of communication, leadership, follower-ship, and the ability to assess the wisdom and importance of what other people say, issues that can make or break an organization. Lord knows, I’ve worked in plenty of organizations where managers have been expected to know what group leadership means, without ever having been given training in those skills. Follower-ship can just as important...and can receive just as little training. And in today’s workplace, with flattened hierarchical structures and distributed leadership, the lines between leader and led can be blurred and confusing; everyone is expected to participate in leading; everyone must spend some time pitching in and being led. But who is teaching us how to make it work?

Athletic coaches know how to bring individuals together into a team. The military knows how important unit cohesion and unified action can be. But in academics, it’s still every child for himself. When we place students in pairs or groups, do we know why we are doing it?  Is it just a way to vary our daily routine, or does collaboration really matter? If it does matter, in what ways does it matter? We have learning goals tied to the content of what we ask students to work on, but perhaps we should have objectives aligned to the way in which we ask students to work, as well. What collaboration skills are we trying to teach with a particular activity? What’s the best way to teach those skills? Do we have a picture in our heads of what “good” looks like—what it entails—at different grade levels?

Monitoring Progress and Embracing Learning

When we talk about “owning your own learning,” we have in mind a picture of active learning, intrinsic motivation, personal goal-setting…in short, a picture of someone becoming an independent, life-long learner. But it can be difficult to figure out how to make that picture become reality.

Unfortunately, it’s very easy for students to feel that school is something that happens to them, rather than something they do. After all, they don’t choose to attend school; they have to attend. They rarely get to select classes, topics, or even assignments. And far too often, they feel that grades and scores are arbitrary—gifts or punishments meted out by the teacher for inscrutable reasons.

Robert Marzano, in The Art and Science of Teaching, writes of the importance of using rubrics  or scales for major assignments to help students understand what is expected of them and to allow them to compare their work with exemplars. He makes it clear that such scales should be student tools as well as teacher tools. In fact, in Marzano’s teacher effectiveness framework, it’s clear that proficiency in “setting objectives and learning goals” requires students to see, know, and understand not only the daily or weekly objectives, but also the criteria by which they are going to be assessed. Those of us who have made a practice of sharing and discussing scoring rubrics with students at the start of a project know that it makes conversations much more interesting at the end of a project, when a student inevitably comes up and says, “Why’d you give me a C?”  “I didn’t give you anything,” the teacher is able to say. “You gave yourself a C.  Here’s how…”

Marzano also recommends creating progress reports that students can own and fill out from time to time, to evaluate and keep track of their progress towards longer-term goals.  A student who uses such a tool stops thinking of the semester as one-thing-after-another, and starts seeing the larger arc, shape, and purpose of the course. Of course, in order to accomplish this, the teacher needs to ensure that there is an arc, shape, and purpose to the course.

Another aspect of self-monitoring and self-correcting is the ability to hear and act on critical feedback. Far too many students receive numerical or letter grades with little or no feedback (positive or negative) on their work. Even when it’s based on a detailed scale or rubric, the only thing a single grade can do is reinforce or challenge a student’s preconceptions. To encourage the kind of growth mindset we’ve spoken of in the past few months, teachers must provide specific, timely, and understandable feedback on student work at regular intervals—feedback that can help students analyze their work in progress and make improvements along the way.

What I Learned at Band Camp

So, what does all of this have to do with watching my 9 and 13 year old boys play in their end-of-band-camp concert? Quite a lot, as it turns out.  To start with, watch this video from the 1955 movie, The Dam Busters, and look for the little epiphany at 1:22.  That was me, last night.

The Vienna Band Camp program in Northern Virginia is in its 35th year, and it’s a fantastic program. Children from early elementary school through high school spend four hours a day in the program, five days a week, for a whole month. They take a variety of classes and rehearse every day as part of an ensemble. Watching the beginning band perform at the end of the program is always shocking. Many of the students start the program as complete novices, never having touched a musical instrument before. At the end, four weeks later, they are playing music. Not random, horrible noise; music. They’re not experts, by any means, but they know their instruments. They know how to read their music. They know how to keep time with each other. They are a team. Watching the beginning band at the end of the summer, you really start to understand what things like “deep practice,” and “10 years or 10,000 hours” really means. You see growth, right before your eyes.

As I sat there and watched the concert, so much of what I’d been thinking about in terms of “performance character” came together in my mind, just as the converging spotlights bring the strands of a problem together in Wing Commander Gibson’s mind, in The Dam Busters.

Obviously, a band is a collaborative effort. But think about what the camp needs to do to form a band. Students spend time each morning simply working on their instruments—building their individual skills and honing their technique. They work with a particular teacher who is an expert on that instrument, and they meet in groups composed only of the players of that instrument—players who are all more or less at the same level of proficiency. This model of instruction should sound familiar—it’s the way most of us teach our students in traditional classrooms.

However, later in the day, students meet in very different configurations. They meet with their ability-level band mates—a combination of all the instruments—and they work with a different teacher. This teacher is not a specialist in violin, or oboe, or trumpet; she is a conductor, and her specialty is…well…project work. Interdisciplinary teamwork. Her job is to teach students how to use their instruments along with other instruments: how to play together at tempo; how to listen to each other and adjust; how to watch the leader for instructions; how to work as a team toward a common goal. Those are clearly collaboration skills. But the conductor also works with students on other “performance character” skills. There’s precision—the understanding that there is a right way and a wrong way to play a note or a phrase. There’s perseverance—the understanding that each student has a responsibility (to himself and to the group) to work and work and work until he gets it right. Built into that one, as we discussed earlier, is resilience—the ability to take criticism and manage stress and frustration. There’s questioning—the understanding that you, the student, have a responsibility to stop things and ask for help or clarification where necessary, and not just keep your head down and hope nobody notices. Finally, there’s the owning of your own learning—monitoring your progress, caring about your growth, and seeing what you’re doing as part of a life-long love of music and enrichment of life. It’s all in there.

If you needed an argument for why the arts must be supported and paid for in our schools, why they are not luxuries or frills, look no further. If we include team athletics in our schools because we value what they teach about sportsmanship, competition, perseverance, and teamwork, then team musicianship should be valued no less. There are values and skills we want every single child to learn, practice, and make part of their lives, and if we truly believe that children are different, we need to provide different ways for them to learn those things. Neither of my children took to team sports. (Big surprise.) Both of them have flourished and grown doing team music.

Finally, what can band camp teach us about how we conduct our classrooms and our schools? The comparison is interesting. We are obviously “techniques” teachers; we develop the core skills. But look what’s missing.  Who brings students together to learn how to “play” with those skills?  Who even defines or communicates what it means to play with the skills we’re teaching them? I’m not talking about music, or sports, or studio art; I’m talking about academics. The stuff we teach in our “techniques” classes. Whose job is it to bring math, and science, and history, and language arts together, and teach students how people actually use those things, all mixed up together, to make “music” with each other in the real world? Who is the bandleader, selecting the pieces to play and leading students from the first, squeaky rehearsal to something worth sharing with parents and grandparents? Where is the opportunity for our students to perform what they know, academically, and to receive the applause they deserve?

If the answer to all of the above is “no one,” think about what that means. We aren’t simply depriving our children of a chance for Grandma to applaud and take pictures. It’s much bigger than that. Our students will eventually graduate. They will move off into higher education or the working world. They will take their seats in the symphony orchestra of adult life. Someone will step up to the podium and tap their baton on the music stand, expecting everyone to sit up straight, lift their instruments, and be ready. Something important is about to begin. Will the young people we taught be ready? Will they even know what they’re supposed to be ready for?