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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

Opening the Common Core

By Peter DeWitt — April 29, 2012 7 min read
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“Sadly, these days our politicians think you can raise the bar and crack the whip. They believe that if you threaten teachers and principals with sanctions, learning will increase. That strategy will never work.” Carol Burris

Depending on what North American state you are in, you are being inundated with questions about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Whether you are a teacher or an administrator, the CCSS are somewhere near the forefront of your mind. Like any massive educational reform, there are educators who are looking forward to the change while there are others who do not see the need. Regardless of your thoughts, it’s here to stay.

I have been searching for reader-friendly resources about the CCSS for awhile. As much as some states are giving clear guidance...other states are not. Educators need resources that will help them move forward during this educational reform. The best resources will help administrators help their teachers and will help teachers better educate their students.

Fortunately for me, a friend and colleague that I respect greatly, Carol Burris has co-authored a book with Delia Garrity entitled Opening the Common Core. Burris and Garrity do an outstanding job explaining the Common Core and give numerous examples of how it can be implemented in schools. Their ultimate goal is to help get students properly prepared for college and the workplace.

Opening the Common Core with Burris and Garrity
PD: Why did you write about the Common Core?
CB: After the publication of Detracking for Excellence and Equity, we were contacted by readers who asked for more information on how we were able to give all students an enriched, honors level curriculum that makes every student college-ready. This book was designed to respond to that request.

As we were writing it, we realized that it was a perfect match for the Common Core Standards and so we integrated the standards not only into the text, but also into the model lessons. Helping students become college and career ready is not accomplished by over testing and so-called ‘data driven instruction’ followed by remediation. It is accomplished by creating structures, instructional practices and curricula that give ALL students access to the rich educational experiences designed for our most proficient learners.

Our greatest worry is that the CCS standards will devolve into ‘skill and drill’ in this high-stakes testing era. It is our hope that by reading this book, educators will develop a deep understanding of the complex practices that are required to truly bring all students to college and career readiness. We cannot allow college and career to become college OR career. It is so important that schools implement the Common Core Standards thoughtfully, always keeping equitable practices in mind

PD: In the book, you use the acronym ACES. Will you please explain what the acronym means?
DG: We believe that the four ACES, A - Acceleration, C - Critical Thinking, E - Equity and S - Support, are natural allies and when used together create a synergy that levels up instruction in a way that is designed to bring ALL students to college and career readiness. Our book devotes a chapter to each of these instructional principles with research, lessons and questions to stimulate professional conversations. Our last chapter includes an ACES chart for teachers or teams of teachers to analyze lessons.

Acceleration involves building structures and practices that speed up rather than slow down learning. It is not about racing through the curriculum but rather it is about making maximum use of instructional time, teaching curriculum in a meaningful way the first time, using ongoing assessment to adjust and differentiate instruction, and incorporating enrichment into units of study.

Too often schools will offer remediation and slower paced courses to struggling students resulting in a wider curriculum and achievement gap. Think of acceleration as inclusive. Think of acceleration rather than remediation. A different mindset but one that can transform a school district.

Critical thinking is essential for success in the 21st century workplace. Teachers must infuse higher-level thinking into what they teach and how they teach it. Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain, recently revised in 2001, provides the best tool for this. Teachers must consciously include activities that bring students from the lower levels of remembering and understanding to the higher levels of analysis and evaluation.
Equity demands that all students have access to high-level curriculum. We must ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn in a challenging and enriched environment with high expectations for all students.

Support is necessary for some students to be successful in an accelerated and enriched curriculum. Support must be both rigorous and relevant. It is not a skill based program. It is tied to the standards in the classroom curriculum. Support takes place within the regular classroom using, for example, scaffolding tools, graphic organizers and cooperative groups. Support may also occur outside the classroom in a small support group setting or in a special education resource room where teachers link lessons to the classroom curriculum by pre-teaching, re-teaching or reviewing a concept using instructional materials and strategies different from the regular classroom.

PD: What does spiraled curriculum mean and how should teachers teach it?
DG: Spiraling is an instructional strategy that teachers use when accelerating instruction to revisit and reinforce key concepts and skills. Teachers must teach a concept well the first time by taking time to link the new material to prior learning, using concrete and visual materials and continuously assessing student understanding. As an example in mathematics, a teacher introduces integer operations using both concrete and visual materials to develop a deep understanding of the meaning of the operations.

Based on these lessons, the teacher, along with the students, develop each algorithm. Every student may not initially master each operation with integers. Rather than spending more instructional time on this topic, the teacher includes integer operations in future homework assignments, problem of the day activities and assessments.

In this way the topic is continuously revisited and fresh in students minds when they need to apply the operations in solving equations, problem solving and graphing. The strong foundation from the initial lessons coupled with spiraling activities increases long-term retention and eliminates the need to reintroduce the topic when a new application occurs in the curriculum.

PD: You focus a great deal on equity. Why is equity so important when it comes to educating our students of various abilities?
CB: If we are to bring all students to college and career readiness, we must recognize that not all students come to school with the same resources, life experiences, cultural capital and talents. Our students with disabilities cannot be left behind. We must accommodate our students for whom English is a second language as well as our students who do not speak and write standard English with fluency. If we do not build pathways for all students into our instruction, we will never be able to bring all students to the Common Core Standards.

We must do everything we can to give students the support they need for success so that they can master a challenging curriculum. That is what true equity is all about. The solution cannot be watering-down the education for our highest achievers.
Our chapters on equity and support present specific strategies, ideas and lessons that show how this can be accomplished within the context of an enriched, high-level curriculum aligned with the CCS standards.

We know this can be accomplished because we have done this work ourselves in our district. Excellence without equity is hollow. We would argue that no school can claim to be excellent unless they engage in equitable practices that promote equitable outcomes.

Sadly, these days our politicians think you can raise the bar and crack the whip. They believe that if you threaten teachers and principals with sanctions, learning will increase. That strategy will never work. Teachers understand that learning happens in the engaged mind of the learner. Good schooling is about doing all that you can to increase the probability of that learning occurring. That is difficult, complex work that requires resources, dedication and creativity. We hope that our book can be a key resource for schools in that work (End of interview).

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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.