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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

Why the Common Core is Worth Our Positive Attention

By Peter DeWitt — December 02, 2012 4 min read
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If we truly want students to “meet us half way” than we must provide them with opportunities to question the world around them, which includes questioning what happens in the classroom.

There is great debate regarding the Common Core State Standards. To be perfectly honest, I’m lost in all the back and forth. Yes, switching over to new curriculum has been expensive and time consuming. The training, if districts were able to provide it, has only added to the expense. It was another unfunded mandate under the belts of school districts. Those issues have created a hardship for schools.

The CCSS come at a time when teachers and administrators are suffering under the weight of accountability, and that is unfortunate, because the 6 shifts of the CCSS have the potential to have a positive impact on schools and that should not get lost in the political debates. Those Six Shifts are:

• Informational Texts
• Knowledge in the Disciplines
• “Staircase of Complexity”
• Text Based Answers
• Writing from Sources
• Academic Vocabulary

Timothy Shanahan wrote (2012) “So far, no educators have claimed that the new standards have eaten their baby, but if someone claims that the new CCSS assessments have eaten someone’s 3rd grader, that story just might catch on” (p. 11. Educational Leadership).

Educators have frequently heard that the CCSS is the “What” and not the “How.” Most of us are big believers in academic freedom which is where the negative aspects of the Common Core enter the conversation because educators see them as dictating what they have to teach. I’m not a fan of accountability on steroids, but I do believe we can still use innovative practices to teach the Common Core, and it still offers us some academic freedom.

One of the other negative aspects many educators talk about is the endless push down in curriculum to the primary grades and the increase in difficulty of reading passages they are supposed to teach. There is a reason for the shift in difficulty. Shanahan (2012. p.14) says,

(Second) studies have shown that the challenge level of U.S. textbooks has declined in grades 3-12 and that the descent of textbook levels has been associated with declines in student achievement (Hayes, Wolfer, & Wolfe, 1996). Third and perhaps more important, the reading demands of the workplace and college are strikingly higher than those confronted in typical high school classes (Mikulecky & Drew, 1991).

The problem is when teachers and administrators hear this information and believe that they need to teach students from more difficult passages at a younger age. Shanahan (2012) goes on to say,

This important shift has misled some teachers to conclude that they should use challenging text even when it's inappropriate to do so. For example, the new standards don't raise text levels for kindergarten or 1st grade, but some educators think that 2nd graders won't meet the standards without an early boost. However, raising the beginning text levels is not a good idea because it's more likely to slow student progress in mastering decoding than to improve students' reading" (Educational Leadership. p.15. 2012).

Question What We Learn
Society has changed over the past decade (just as it has over every decade) and the way we view the world and read our news has changed tremendously. Although we all have numerous choices where to get our news, we also have the capability to streamline everything we read to the choices we want. With that power to control everything we read and listen to comes a great deal of responsibility because if we are not doing it correctly, we are merely seeing one view of the world around us and we should want more for our students and for ourselves.

As educators negotiate their way through the “what” they need to keep delving into the 6 shifts and focus on why they are important. For too long students sat back and listened to what the teacher taught. If you reflect on your own experiences as a student, which I often reflect upon mine, there was a time when most teachers did not allow debate. They did not allow diverse answers and divergent thinking. Instead of sparking imagination there were those who taught more of the same.

One of the issues with that approach to teaching is that students need to be accountable for their own learning. However, in order for them to be accountable, they must be inspired. They must be provided with classroom experiences that encourage risk taking not rule following. If we truly want students to “meet us half way” than we must provide them with opportunities to question the world around them which includes questioning what happens in the classroom. It’s a focus on active engagement and not passive learning.

If you step outside the political debate, the Six Shifts of the Common Core offer us an opportunity to teach students the necessary skills they need to survive in this world. Think about going on the internet and reading the news that appears on MSN or the links to news that friends share on Facebook. It is not all real. The problem is that we do not always dig down a little deeper to make sure the news we are reading is true and we believe some of those links to be real when they are not. We accept what we hear and go on our merry way to something else. Not enough people, including students, discriminate what they read or hear. The six shifts may help us help our students get a better grasp on reality.

The Element of Time
In a recent paper by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) it was stated that,

“At the time, these concerns were primarily focused on the restricted range of domains included in the initial launch of the Common Core, which focused exclusively on language arts and mathematics (though the potential for standards in other academic areas was also indicated).

In noting the limited range of attention, the statement issued by NAEYC and NAECS/ SDE “expressed concern...that effort on only two content domains could result in the unintended consequence of narrowing curriculum and instructional practice to the detriment of student learning.” Of particular concern was the absence of social and emotional development and approaches to learning, although the lack of attention to the whole child was generally noted.”

Imagine how overwhelmed teachers, and therefore their students, would have been if the Common Core resulted in changes to every subject they taught all at once? That would have been a horrific way to implement new curriculum. Anyone who enters the elementary classroom understands that the social and emotional health of students is the number one priority for teachers and it must accompany all of these changes and not get lost in them.

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Shanahan, Timothy (2012). The Common Core Ate My Baby and Other Urban Legends. Educational Leadership. ASCD. Vol. 70. No. 4. pp. 11-16.

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.