Friday, May 9, 2014

Why I Support the Common Core

I’ve been a supporter of the Common Core State Standards since I first saw them and worked to use them to guide the work I was doing to lead the improvement of an ELA department’s (grades 6-12) curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment work.  Just for some context, I was in downstate NY, and it was the 2009-2010 school year. I had done similar work years before with the Maine Learning Results, but that was a weaker document with a more limited scope, and because of a number of factors, I would find myself doing the same work in another suburban NY district and in a NYC public high school before moving, for family reasons, to Massachusetts in the summer of 2013.  

I have been in a lot of conversations about the Common Core and continue to believe in its potential to combine a lot of efforts in favor of enhanced student learning, but I haven’t yet written about it for my blog.  Since I was personally asked in a FaceBook post by Mass Parents Opt Out of PARCC Pilot Testing, though, I thought I’d give a go at laying out my position. These are mostly generalizations.  Sorry, but I’m not prepared to craft a written version of all that I feel and know about them.  I know it may be tough to do so, but you will have to realize that some of this We’ll start with my concessions:

Even though I support the standards, I know:

- That there are imperfections in them that ought to be clarified and revised over time.  Having these standards in the purview of our legislators makes this way tougher than it ought to be.  I don’t believe that this is any different, though, than the revision process for other versions of states’ standards that would be revised every five years or so.  

- Schools haven’t been given enough time to learn about the shifts and change their work to allow for success with them.  The specificity of expectations are actually much different than a lot of outcomes teachers may be used to using, so there is a lot of work to do when schools shift to the teaching and learning with the Common Core.

- The Common Core is part of a much bigger chunk of work that’s attached to Race to the Top.  Because of that, there is a hot mess of an assessment system coming into American schools that I think we have reason to be very cautious around.  NYs attempted rollout over the past few years stands as testament to that.  

- Even if these tests turn out to be perfect, which I hope all experienced educators know is true of no test(s),  tying the results of the tests to teacher evaluations and school report cards - whether it’s officially through a VAM system or otherwise - is another problem.  There are ways to use student achievement data as a piece of teacher evaluation, but turning the students’ scores into a grade for their teachers isn’t one of them. All this has done is to increase paranoia and decrease the collaborative, trusting spirit that’s needed across stakeholders.  Please read here and here for my suggestions.

- The bump in lexile levels for each grade-level’s reading is a sincere issue.  I’ve been an ELA teacher long enough to know that giving a student texts that are difficult to read isn’t going to make them into better readers.  While I think I had been able to fruitfully scaffold and contextualize the literature lessons, the literacy pieces need a lot more support and patience.  I could, for example, help my students understand what is going on (plot and themes) within The Scarlet Letter, but they would still struggle with reading it on their own.  I think Kelly Gallagher and others are doing amazing work with envisioning new methodologies for ELA classes, but this is a huge shift that will take more time than schools have.

- More money doesn’t always lead to better schools, but I can think think of so many helpful ways to leverage money towards this initiative, mostly involving professional development, collaborative work time, ensuring offerings such as art and music and engineering don’t lose their presence, building classroom libraries, redesigned school libraries and technology.   It’s frustrating to see schools trying to operate on ever-shrinking budgets while we are pouring so much money into the tests and politics of modern education.  

In light of all of this, though, the Common Core Standards themselves, as I’ve said, still represent tremendous opportunities to me and have been extremely helpful guides in the schools where I’ve worked.   Here’s why:

- Content literacy:  I know that a lot of people already include this in social studies and science classes, but far too many still don’t, and the existence of explicit documents that lay out the need for it and its interdisciplinary connections is the catalyst that our students need.  Gone, hopefully, are the days when a few insightful teachers stand by the side of a “literacy coordinator” to say that we are all responsible for our students’ capacity to read, write, and think.  

- Writing is to be done in all grade levels with a variety of audiences, purposes, and styles.  Hopefully, this will mean that the five-paragraph essay written for teachers to read as an assessment of students’ content knowledge - as functional as it can be - will lose its standing as the predominant form of writing that I’ve found it to be in so many districts.  

- Non-fiction reading should have always played a role in all classes, but it hasn’t.  Too many ELA teachers only taught fiction and too many other content area teachers didn’t teach writing at all.  As someone who has always used all sorts of current events and primary source documents to support my ELA classes’ reading, I can say that it works.  

- There’s a clear scope and sequence for teaching grammar and language skills.  I’ve seen versions of this within individual schools, but I’ve rarely heard of such work being effectively shared across schools or with other departments.  Now, all teachers, students, and parents can see what’s expected.  

- I love that it prompts us to help students understand how to find and use the most appropriate technology for whatever particular work they’re trying to do.
- The Standards for Mathematical Practice remind us that math curricula has to be about more than identifying and solving formulas.  Students should know how to think about the math and apply those thinking patterns to other areas of study.  

- I know that “readers response” has a valid place in world of literary criticism, but students don’t need classes and teachers to understand how to react to a text; readers do that naturally.  The reading standards mandate that schools teach students how to identify, deconstruct and analyze authors’ intentions.  This should mean that readers have a firm understanding of topics and ideas before they react to them and form their own opinions.  This skill of listening, considering, and understanding before offering one’s own perspective, is sorely missing from American culture.  

- To add to this, students now must have solid text-based support for the opinions they’re forming.  We are hopefully chipping away with the "I think this is right because I think this is right" mentality that's behind far too much of our culture.

- Have a complete set of standards like these moves all schools one giant step closer to what I feel will be the biggest and most valuable shift that now trending in American education, the use of standards to guide our teaching, learning, and assessments. If all goes well, we will - before too long - be able to know that students classroom assignments and grades are being based on their needs within a course's standards.

As always, I’m interested in any feedback, questions, additions and observations that are out there, so I welcome your comments.