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Published in Print: October 20, 2010, as Moving Forward With the Common Core

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Moving Forward With the Common Core

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If there remains any doubt about the momentum of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, let it be abandoned once and for all. Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia, which collectively educate three-fourths of all school-age children in this country, have pledged to adopt the core. Intellectual gatekeepers have given the standards a resounding pass. Plans for implementation have begun. For better or worse, the boulder is on its way down the mountain, gathering strength and speed as it goes.

The argument over the standards, however, continues to rage. The common core, proponents claim, will ensure that all schools have a skills-rich and intellectually rigorous curriculum. It will increase the transparency and coherence of the public education system, enabling cross-state comparisons and collaborations. By way of rejoinder, opponents point to the homogeneity that the core imposes on schools. A shared curriculum, they argue, denies the opportunity for culturally responsive teaching and ignores the diversity of experiences, skills, and goals that students bring to their classrooms. As Providence, R.I.-based school reformer Dennis Littky asks, "Who wants a standardized kid, anyway?"

These collisions of vision and value have punctuated the debate over American public education since its inception, and they are unlikely to be resolved any time soon. For the moment, however, it is time to move forward. The common core is on its way to near-universal adoption, and there are some big decisions to be made—decisions that would benefit from the input of all stakeholders, including anti-standardization advocates like Littky.

What opponents of the core should realize is that although the standards—covering English/language arts and mathematics—have been finalized, they constitute nothing more than a set of pen-and-paper frameworks around which to design curriculum. How to make them live and breathe in classrooms across the country will be the work of many, and the process leaves ample room for interpretation.

For example, to support 10th grade English students in learning to "analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text," a teacher might choose to structure classes around discussions, workshops, or extended projects. If that teacher chooses, the process can be harnessed to goals around reflective thinking and collaborative inquiry. And unless her district prescribes content to be taught (an issue that long predates the common core), she retains the authority to choose texts that resonate with the particular community of students in her classes. In fact, goals around interpersonal skills are included in the core—for example, in the standard that students must "prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners."

"The barriers to great teaching seem to lie well beyond the influence of any particular set of learning goals or curricular priorities."

This is all to say that the requirement to teach literary analysis hardly precludes adventurous, morally pitched, or culturally responsive teaching. In fact, as a number of education theorists have pointed out, the barriers to great teaching seem to lie well beyond the influence of any particular set of learning goals or curricular priorities.

There is, though, one element of the core standards that could force teachers to narrow their instructional practices, and it is an area that remains as yet largely unexplored: assessment. As most teachers would quickly admit, a learning goal is only as good as the instructor’s ability to imagine what it would look like when it was being met. How might 9th grade students demonstrate understanding of thematic, or character, development throughout a text? By writing analytical essays? By participating in formal discussions? By composing original short stories? By developing and teaching lessons to younger students? If well executed, any one of these possibilities—and many more—could be a valid and rigorous way to assess student learning.

In the era of high-stakes standardized testing, however, what counts is what is most easily measurable. A standard like the one in question quickly gets reduced to a handful of multiple-choice questions on a six- or seven-hour test. Worse, "soft" standards like the one around collaboration, requiring more-holistic evaluation methods, do not appear on tests at all—and, as a result, teachers feel pressured to focus mainly on the narrow applications of the most "testable" skills. This dramatically narrows the possibilities for innovative classroom teaching, and, based on my observations, accounts for much of the antipathy that teachers and administrators feel toward standards initiatives such as the common core.

Of course, standardized tests are unavoidable. The developers of the common-core standards claim that they plan to “pool information and resources to develop a shared set of high-quality tests to better evaluate student progress,” and that “the goal is not to have more tests, but to have smarter and better tests.” One can only hope that designers of the standards-aligned tests will stay true to this mission. In considering test design, they would do well to look at internationally benchmarked assessments such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which does a much better job of measuring higher-order thinking than most existing state tests.

But this is not the end of the story when it comes to assessment. State tests may get the lion’s share of the attention, but they happen only once a year. Individualized, un-standardized gauges of learning happen in classrooms every day, and the disruption imposed by adopting new standards opens the space for everyone to think hard about what this might look like. How can students be given meaningful choices in the ways that they demonstrate their learning? How can teachers link performance tasks both to the standards and to the communities and questions most relevant to their particular students? How can administrators encourage this work, trusting that it will affect students’ abilities in ways that extend far beyond the scope of whatever tests come around each spring? These conversations are difficult but necessary, and "disruptive" school reformers like Dennis Littky and others have some important experiences that they can bring to bear.

What we need is to infuse the work around the common core with an element of visionary thinking. The standards themselves do not confine teaching to the realm of the scripted or undemocratic, but without serious reflection and rethinking, they will. The balance depends on our collective ability to come to terms with the standards and to use them as an opportunity for reflection and growth. Let us hope that we can muster the courage and energy to do so.

Vol. 30, Issue 08, Pages 18-19

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