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.