Monday, January 7, 2013

Are We “Hard Core” About the Common Core?

By Dr. Kim Ehrhardt, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment

It was some twenty years ago that educators first started debating the merits of having national standards.  Then, the educational community was divided about whether standards would lead to more challenging curriculum and great student achievement or would  simply offer students arbitrarily chosen topics that they would need to know to pass high-stakes tests. 
Several years later, the conversation shifted after experts developed ambitious subject-area standards.  Although some proponents found the voluntary subject-area standards to be nuanced, rich, and complex; critics pronounced them vague, ideological, or too numerous to cover.  Without a high-powered initiative backing their implementation and with little support, educators were largely on their own to guide students to reach these new standards.  
Today, a new set of standards—the Common Core Standards—is ushering in new debates, new opportunities, and a whole new set of challenges.  Not a curriculum, but more of a framework; the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) specify high-level capacities that describe what students should know and be able to do in the 21st Century.  With new high-stakes, high-tech tests that will measure students’ attainment of these standards still being developed, some educators are waiting to pass judgment on the merits of the initiative.  On the whole, however, most are optimistic, with 68 percent of K-12 teachers who are familiar with CCSS reporting they have a favorable impression of the core standards themselves (Achieve, 2012).  Currently we have standards published for English/Language Arts, Reading, and Math.  Next Generation Science Standards and Social Studies standards will be available later this school year.  We are looking at working drafts now. 
The next obvious question is, will the CCSS change everything?  We know that the Common Core State Standards challenge teachers to make transformations in their approaches to teaching students.  A focus on developing comprehension skills needs to take place alongside phonics in the teaching of reading in the early grades.  A greater emphasis on deeper reading of history and science texts and more emphasis with informational text in all grades levels must become commonplace.  Close reading and rereading should be part of every student’s daily practice.  We often make the claim—everyone is a teacher of reading.  Such shifts will require more professional development, new instructional materials, and active feedback and supervision of the change.  Further consideration about the role of the read aloud in the classroom,  as well as those practices that best support critical reading and powerful writing need to top the professional development agendas for the instructional staff. 
The School District of Janesville is an Evidenced-Based, Results-Oriented organization.   Therefore, we are very interested in how the CCSS will boost equity as well as student achievement. CCSS call for a greater focus on fewer topics and will reduce the variation in time (minutes) allocated to instruction.  The national literature tells us that currently students as young as 9 or 10 have their long-term academic futures determined for them because they are assigned to math classrooms that do not teach challenging content.  All of this will change if the vision of the standards is realized.  The State of Wisconsin has adopted the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework that recognizes the differences in student ability, interest,  and learning style.  This means that when high quality principles of differentiation are effectively applied in our classrooms, inclusion rather than exclusion can be the norm.  The greater the inclusion of students in rigorous and relevant math classes where mathematical reasoning would be the norm.  Once again the need for high quality professional development must precede the change,  as well as orienting our staff to the many quality resources that are available to support the transition is critical.  The U.D.L. web site is one such rich resource that is available to us. 
The final question poised in this discussion about embracing the new common core standards is, will they really make a difference?  Some advocates believe the new core will (or should) change everything—from teacher education, to instructional materials, to the organization of schools.  Others are concerned that CCSS will overreach and still not change what really matters—whether students learn more.  Just as in the past, the effective implementation of the standards will greatly depend on the understanding and commitment of our instructional staff toward the change.   The instructional leaders of our district are working hard to realize this challenge.  Our work with the new standards-based report card, the new rigorous 4-3-2-1 grading scale, RtI, PBIS, and Project Redesign are all focused on making the tenants of the new Common Core part of how we approach the mission of quality teaching and learning in the School District of Janesville. 

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