Published Online: May 1, 2013

First Person

The 'Monster' at the End of the Common Core

I'm a progressive. A dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore constructivist. I believe that most decisions about education should be made by the people closest to the classrooms—by the teachers, parents, and leaders who are best positioned to know and love the kids. I believe that students know more and can do more than we realize. I believe in John Dewey, Ted Sizer, Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch (at least her later works), Jonathan Kozol, and Alfie Kohn. I've been to Fall Forum and Edcamp and EduCon and I do school change (not "reform," as it's being used these days) for a living as part of one of the most progressive institutions of higher education in the country, founded by Horace Mann.

Since the Common Core State Standards emerged, people I respect have come out in opposition in a way that reminds me of a book from my childhood: The Monster at the End of This Book. In this classic, Sesame Street’s Grover begs us not to turn the pages, lest we unleash the monster at the end. He becomes increasingly agitated, building walls and threatening us as we get closer to the end. His panic sounds a lot like what I hear from some of my colleagues in the educational community.

They warn of standardization, the end of creativity and context and policies that throw whole communities under the "test is best" bus that is modern educational policy. They have some good points, but I don't think we can pin them all on the common standards. We can point to state policymakers who lead from fear and cynicism, sure. We can point to school leaders who hide behind a mysterious “they” when espousing bad pedagogy. We can acknowledge hostile context—the common core exists in a maelstrom of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top policies that lead state departments of education to adhere to overly-prescriptive curricula, revised (but still stifling) "common-core-aligned" textbooks and one long national nightmare of assessments used in ways even their designers don't suggest. Those problems certainly exist within our system.

But the common core isn’t the system—it's part of the system. We—the teachers, parents, students and leaders—are part of it too, and we have more power than we realize.

New Challenges

I get it. The common core is going to require already exhausted, demoralized teachers to revise their curricula and rethink their approaches to teaching and learning. It's going to force us to look again at the unequal expectations that exist for too many kids, based on economics, race, and geography.

But we've had the chance to set our own standards at the state and local levels and the result has been too many kids for whom unequal expectations create a nightmare of unequal opportunities. The common core at least represents an equalizing of the basic expectations for all kids—something I hope we all aspire to as part of our commitment to students.

I think that, if we're as smart and committed as we say we are, we can use the common core as a stepping stone to better outcomes for all of our kids. And by "outcomes" I don't mean just "test scores." I mean, you know, learning. Engagement. Success.

I know it's possible because I see public school teachers doing it already. The teachers I coach in our "Critical Skills Program" are creating problem-based learning experiences for students that combine not only the kinds of content knowledge that educators agree kids should learn, but also the skills and dispositions that kids need to succeed in life, like communication, collaboration, curiosity, organization, and problem solving. These teachers are exploring ways to use technology to deepen problem solving and facilitate communication by and with students. More than that, they're discovering (or rediscovering) their best professional selves—the teachers they dreamed of being when they decided to enter the profession.

On her blog, Tales of a 6th Grade Classroom, teacher Lindsey Fuller writes, "Research, deep critical thinking, writing, and presentations are all critical components of the new standards. Instead of the more traditional short-term assignments and paper and pen assessments, it will be expected that students participate in projects that produce something tangible to showcase their learning experience."

I see teachers designing problem-based "challenges" that make research, deep critical thinking, writing, and presentations the norm in the classroom. They require that students "make sense of problems and persevere in solving them," as the math standards state. These challenges become the primary (but not sole) methodology in use, so it's not a matter of constantly coming up with new systems and pedagogies. Challenges are meaningful, problem-based units in which students must read carefully, discuss, examine different points of view, problem-solve, and present their findings in writing and through a presentation.

For instance, a class might take on the task of designing the garden for a school courtyard, measuring the area and perimeter for fencing and soil, researching habitats and plant species native to the region in order to calculate the number of plants needed to fill the space appropriately. Another group of students might approach local businesses for funding, writing grant applications, letters, and press releases. While not all challenges are real-world problems to solve, all require that teachers teach and assess both content (i.e., writing, measurement, research) and process (i.e., collaboration, evaluating resources, organizing materials).

Student-Centered

Over time, challenges become increasingly "messy" as they connect across disciplines and grade levels to become more complex—just the type of "intentionally and coherently structured" curriculum described as a powerful means for developing "rich content knowledge within and across grades," which the common core requires. The Standards for Speaking and Listening say that "students must have ample opportunities to take part in a variety of rich, structured conversations—as part of a whole class, in small groups, and with a partner." The Standards for Mathematical Practice require that students "construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others," and "attend to precision." The common standards require that students be able to discuss, collaborate, integrate, and evaluate perspectives, and present their own knowledge and ideas effectively—all of which require students to collaborate.

Every single one of these standards can live happily in a progressive classroom. When I drill down into the details at grade levels, I see only more of the same—concepts and connections that represent what we know to be good teaching. I fear, however, that so many of us have lived under the burden of prescriptive curricula and scripted textbooks that we've forgotten—or never realized—the power of student-centered, constructivist practice. What we should be celebrating as an opportunity, we're dreading. We've been buried under "teach to the test" and doing the heavy lifting in our classrooms for so many years that we’ve forgotten a basic premise of education: The learner does the learning.

If we're doing the work, then they're not doing the learning. The common core can be an opportunity to shift the work of learning from our own backs onto the shoulders of our students, where it belongs—and that’s the heart of progressive education.

When I sat down to read the standards, I did so with an overwhelming sense of dread. I was certain that something "very bad" was hiding in there as I turned page after page. I didn't find the monster. Just like Grover, at the end of the standards, I found only my best professional self.

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