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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Compliance and the Common Core

By Peter DeWitt — July 24, 2013 6 min read
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One of the issues that school leaders understand, is when they enforce rule after rule in their school building, compliance is all they will ever get.

Recently, at the Network Team Institute in Albany, NY State Education Commissioner John King gave an impassioned speech about educational reform. He spoke of Nelson Mandela, the ending of apartheid and what it took to get there. King really tried to focus on great leadership. You can watch the speech here.

King spoke about college and career readiness, the six shifts of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), opportunities by zip code, and the daily deeds. The daily deeds are the choices leaders make every day to get to college and career readiness. Those deeds are about having honest conversations with teachers after an evidence-based observation. Basically, the daily deeds means leaders must do their jobs.

In his speech Commissioner King said, “If APPR is just about a compliance exercise than we have lost a tremendous opportunity.” I completely agree with him. I once sat in a Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) Training and a teacher raised her hand and asked how many lessons she had to teach to meet the mandate of DASA. I walked away from the training feeling sad because the teacher focused on compliance and not the true essence of what DASA means.

The problem is that the mandates, some of which King joked about in his speech, mostly focus on accountability between schools and the state education system. The fractured relationship between the two parties creates a climate of compliance. Perhaps that will change, but it will take a long time to do so, and I’m not sure John King worries as much about the relationship-building as he does about compliance.

One of the issues that most school leaders understand, is when they enforce rule after rule in their school building, compliance is all they will ever get. There is a difference between getting educators on board and pummeling them into submission.

King went on to say that there is great distance between our values and our reality. In many cases that is true. He used that phrasing because he believes that schools are not teaching students what they need to know to be prepared for college or the workplace.

He’s right.

It’s true that there are schools that have deplorable graduation rates and there are a variety of reasons why that happens (i.e. lack of resources, poverty, high teacher turnover, bad leadership, etc.). However, there are schools that have high graduation rates and are being treated the same as those schools with poor graduation rates. It’s the one-size-fits-all mentality many of us have been talking about.

Will the Common Core Solve All of Our Issues?
The NY State Education Department recently updated their EngageNY website. I have poked fun at EngageNY in the past because I believed, and still believe, that professional development should not only come in the form of a website...especially where a huge initiative like the CCSS is concerned. A website should be a resource, and not the answer to all of our problems. Perhaps they never wanted that to be the case but “go to EngageNY” was often the answer to CCSS questions.

However, I will give credit where credit is due. EngageNY has been revamped and is now filled with comprehensive resources on the Common Core, which includes curriculum (not just standards). That goes against the argument that the Common Core are merely standards. EngageNY is now a great resource for the Common Core. For full-disclosure I do like the Six Shifts. Those alone could inspire some great creativity in the classroom. I imagine that teachers can create inquiry-based lessons that would completely engage students and inspire them to stretch their own thinking.

Unfortunately, the six shifts are only one part to the CCSS.

Opponents to the CCSS believe they are assessment-driven and not research-based. How could opponents think differently when new Common Core state assessments are given to students before teachers ever get real guidance on all things Common Core...and those assessments happen to be tied to teacher and administrator evaluation? Once again, when this happens it fosters a climate of compliance. As for research-based, they have never been field tested, so as we go through this implementation, it is impossible to say they are a silver bullet to educational inequities if they have never been used before. But heh...I’m an optimist.

As I went through some of the resources, I was amazed by everything that EngageNY offers for free. Schools aren’t used to free items. The issue is that the modules offered, although downloadable, are in excess of 140 pages a piece, which will be hugely problematic for schools. They are also in color, and a lot of schools lack color copiers, which means they will have to use printing companies to do the work. But...at least schools now have resources.

Stick to the Script
The biggest issue with the Common Core resources is that they are very scripted. They tell teachers what they should say to students, what they should teach to the whole group, and how they should extend learning for students. There are pacing guides and they tell teachers how many minutes per day, and how many days, they should spend on a topic. I guess the resources will inspire everyone to Teach Like a Champion!

I guess the overall concern since we are focusing on our values and our reality is how we should view these resources with an open-mind. When resources are sent out like that how do we not view those as something we should comply with when teaching? They seem to take the thinking out of teaching. Don’t get me wrong, some teachers who like the safety of a textbook to guide them, may very much like these resources. And like I said before, at least schools are being offered these resources.

In the reality where I lead, we do try to prepare students for college and the workplace. We infuse technology as a teaching tool, and we allow for student choice. Sure, it’s not the student choice you may find in a home school, unschool or Montessori environment, but we do offer choices. We work hard to build a community of learners and involve our parents.

I think the other reality for many of us is that we understand there are opportunities by zip code, and John King is right...opportunities by zip code is not ok. Jonthan Kozol has been teaching us that for decades. The reality for those schools, which Kozol has always focused on, is that they lack proper resources and many of the students lack the vocabulary of their more affluent peers. Sure, those schools may qualify for RTTT funds, but they don’t always have the personnel to apply for those funds and it’s hard for kids to focus on the Common Core when they have leaky roofs and very little technology.

Lastly, I firmly believe that educators are feeling a sense of loss. They watch sports on television and are subjected to the half-time show that is tied to a name brand. They go to see a concert (also tied to a name brand) at an arena that is named after a brand. Now they get to teach something that is very corporate driven and seems to be one-size-fits-all. The real challenge for schools in states where the CCSS are mandatory is to know when to throw out the pacing guide and go after teachable moments.

John King is right, it will take great leadership to find the balance between creativity and compliance. And the one thing that I learned from great leaders is that compliance hardly ever works.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.