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Carpe Data: In Defense of Common Standards

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For me, the epiphany came on a Tuesday in September two years ago. I was sitting around a small conference table with our assistant superintendent, principal, and English chair, as we tried to determine whether we should be concerned about the reading and writing capabilities of some of the students in our senior class. Before us, across paper and laptop screen, were various pieces of data—an SAT score here, some classroom grades there—intended to aid us in making this determination.

Only they weren’t. Instead, I grew increasingly perplexed as I realized that the four experienced educators sitting around that table were engaged in a comparison of apples and oranges that was proving, well, fruitless.

The pauses in the discussion grew frequent, as we struggled to find the best path forward. Broader questions emerged: At what level of performance in reading and writing do we ultimately want our seniors to be by the time they receive their diplomas? How will we know when they’ve reached it? And how should we be teaching them these skills?

Now the epiphany: In our latest effort to ensure that we were preparing our students for life beyond high school, I realized, we lacked not only the assessment data we needed to complete the task with the degree of accuracy it required, but also the universal guidelines necessary to determine if our curriculum was built for the high level of student performance to which we aspired.

As I returned to my classroom, I resisted the temptation to ask myself the question “Is it this way everywhere?”—because I already knew the answer.

In every school I visit, some variation of this scenario is playing out, reinforcing a stark reality: We, the educators of America, are not on the same page. Even broadly speaking, there is no consensus about what is expected of our students and how best to assess them—nor is there a basis for valid comparisons of their performance. Instead, we have a patchwork of curricula, and expectations that change from state to state, often school to school.

Add up all these apples and oranges, and the result is a surefire recipe for mediocrity.

None of us in education should be comfortable with the status quo; in fact, we should be anxious for systemic change. And at the heart of that change, particularly at the high school level, are two needs: universal expectations for student performance and innovative ways to assess that performance. Anything less is unfair to students and teachers alike.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative’s standards, whose final version was released to the public on June 2, represent a quantum leap forward in addressing the first need. Although not perfect, their very creation changes the tone and substance of the dialogue surrounding this genuinely complicated issue. And the dialogue is crucial. The contentious, long-standing nature of the debate over standards has led to an educational landscape dominated by parochial factions unmotivated to bridge divides. The new common-core standards signal that the time for entrenched thinking is over.

Since when is the development of strong writing skills in the children within a given state a proprietary endeavor? Can good ideas not cross borders?

Among those of us in the grades 9-12 English classroom, few, if any, would suggest that students’ reading and writing skills have not declined over the years. Up to this point, we’ve simply adapted as best we could to what we concede on some level has become—in this age of digital distraction—the “new normal.”

But that reasoning falls short. After all, students in foreign countries that outperform us also have cellphones and the Internet. Our challenge as teachers is to foster in our students the skills they need in the modern world, regardless. Doing so starts with agreeing on what those skills are—and the level of mastery necessary for students to be ready for college, career, and life.

There are essentially three components to determining the education that students receive: scope, sequence, and curriculum. While there are many valid reasons for the details of curriculum to be addressed at the local level, much of the genesis of the current crisis in American education can be traced to the misguided traditions that have kept scope and sequence local as well.

In the average high school, scope and sequence are often addressed implicitly during the process of curriculum development—usually, by a few teachers during the summer months. In English/language arts, for example, this means that the scope and sequence for reading are often determined by teachers like me, whose primary training is in literature and writing. And often there is little, if any, communication among elementary, middle, and high schools.

Recognizing the shortcomings of this approach, states now provide some framework for the content in core subject areas. And yet, inexplicably, these frameworks have been developed in state-centric vacuums, with details like writing rubrics often defended passionately and with an odd air of possessiveness.

Since when is the development of strong writing skills in the children within a given state a proprietary endeavor? Can good ideas not cross borders?

Fueling this attitude, of course, is usually a sense of pride born of the hard work by educators in each state who have invested their time and energy in crafting these documents. But the very fact that they have had to craft them—50 separate times—speaks to the heart of the problem in American education.

The common-core standards in English/language arts provide the very scope and sequence we teachers have been seeking for so long, whether we’ve realized it or not. Delivered clearly and succinctly, they do not impose a national curriculum; rather, they are intellectual skills, and they are connected to specific, complex activities at which students must work toward mastery.

For these reasons, what the standards do represent is the lifting of one significant burden and the refocusing of another. By providing the performance goals toward which every American student should be striving, they eliminate in any substantive way such discussions on a local level—and, in the process, reinforcing for us teachers what our primary task has always been: determining how best to guide our students toward those goals.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative represents a beginning, not an end. Everyone in the standards dialogue must now work to strengthen them, and all states must adopt them. Doing so will establish the common platform on which greater accountability and stronger curricula can be built. Colleges and universities must use them to guide the training of future teachers. And today’s teachers must be willing to embrace new approaches in their classrooms.

To be sure, the common standards meet only the first of the two most pressing needs we face in English/language arts. But the second cannot be achieved without the first. It is only when we have agreed on universal expectations for student performance that we can develop the innovative assessments necessary to provide those of us in schools and classrooms with the apples-to-apples data we need to drive our decisionmaking, whether that is for all students or just one.

Far more than the “latest trend” in a field full of them, the common-core state standards represent a powerful break from the status quo, a triumph of logic over tradition, and a harbinger of better days ahead for America’s students, teachers, and society.

Vol. 36, Issue 29

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