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.

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